The Reluctant Fundamentalist deals with the rise in xenophobia in the United States after 9/11, particularly in regard to Muslims and Middle Easterners in general. The protagonist, Changez, goes from trying to assimilate to American culture while studying and working in the United States to embracing his former heritage once he deems American culture too shallow and prejudiced.
Changez finds himself condescended to a lot while abroad. The Americans assume all of his people are backward and violent, easy prey to fundamentalist terrorists. Without saying it openly, the Americans assume they are more civilized than the Middle Easterners. They only accept Changez so long as he adheres to American dress and manners, which he does for a long time, even though it makes him feel as though he is betraying his homeland and heritage.
The tension between the two cultures culminates in the scene where Changez sees coverage of the 9/11 attacks on the news. Much to his surprise, he smiles—not because he is a fundamentalist or because he approves of the murder of hundreds of innocents, but because for once, the Americans will know what it is to be vulnerable, much as his people and those in their neighboring countries often feel.
Soon, Changez feels the xenophobic sentiments burst into full bloom within the United States. He encounters prejudice at an airport and at work. Someone even refers to him as a "fucking Arab." In the end, he returns to Pakistan, but because of politically controversial statements he made regarding the United States, he feels like he lives with a target on his back. The novel even ends on an ambiguous note, with the reader left questioning whether or not Changez has been killed by an American assassin.