How do "My Son The Fanatic" by Hanif Kureishi and "The Prophet's Hair" by Salman Rushdie display the theme of returning to religious, cultural, and/or political conservatism?

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poetrymfa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hanif Kureishi's short story "My Son the Fanatic" examines the issues of Parvez, a taxi driver who has moved to England with his son, Ali, and who is now seeing gradual changes in the boy's behavior that worry him. In this story, Parvez seeks counsel from Bettina, a prostitute who is his confidante, regarding whether or not his son is on (or selling) drugs; he is too afraid to share his concerns with his friends, who might think that Ali has fallen from good graces.

Ali begins to grow a beard, prays five times a day, and critiques the fact that his father is "too implicated in Western civilization." He decides to give up his English education due to the fact that he believes that it promotes anti-religous values. After failed attempts to be more like his son physically by growing his beard and to have Bettina emotionally intervene on his behalf, Parvez ends up beating his son, who then simply asks him, "So who's the fanatic now?"

In Salman Rushdie's short story "The Prophet's Hair," Hashim, a moneylender, finds a single hair that belonged to the Prophet Muhammad. His obsession with this hair derails the happiness and wellbeing of his family. Prompted by these sudden changes, Hashim's son, Atta, steals the hair from his father's safe in order to return it to the Mosque, but then loses it. Hashim finds the hair, and the family is tossed back into chaos. Huma, Hashim's daughter, tries to hire a thief to steal the hair, but this, too, fails. In the end, Hashim accidentally murders his daughter, while the Prophet's hair miraculously cures the blind wife and four crippled sons of the hired thief... only after the pursuit of the hair causes the thief himself to be shot by police.

Both of these stories ultimately look critically at religious fanaticism and conservatism and what these two labels might mean. In "My Son the Fanatic," Ali is perceived to be a fanatic because he is growing more conservative in his religious and political beliefs. Ali's faith is deepening, and his moral values are narrowing in a way that critiques the liberal and more "modern" Western attitudes of the people and institutions around him, like the rules of school systems or the excessive drinking and socializing of his father (and his overall rejection of the tenets of the Koran). Ali is persistently punished for these changes, despite the fact that he is ultimately not the one behaving in a fanatical way. The interchangeability of these terms in Parvez's mind—and in the minds of his contemporary, non-religious friends and society as a whole—is the ultimate hypocrisy. Parvez taking fanatical action after the conservative shift in his son seems to reflect (or almost predict) our contemporary political atmosphere and the Western rejection of "radical" practices (particularly in Islam), practices which are often just a departure from Western ideals and a return to tradition. Those who make the decision to behave conservatively or to practice conservative values are often met with hatred, bigotry, and contempt.

Fanaticism takes a different form in "The Prophet's Hair" in that we see a man spin out of control in his worship of a religious relic. By moving from secularism to extreme orthodoxy over an object, Hashim profanes that object and its holy meaning. He navigates something that is meant to be sacred out of its safe space and renders it profane in the world outside the Mosque. This act of stealing is irreverent, and in moving it out of the context in which it belongs, Hashim renders it unbearably ordinary and almost comical in the hair's ability to change Hashim. We see this sudden shift to conservatism and Hashim's willingness to make his family miserable as hypocritical or absurdly ritualistic; there's nothing inherently honorable or holy about how he behaves or what rules he chooses to uphold in his household. To him, religious texts and practices have had no value until he is in possession of a religious item—an item which is fragmented and devoid of meaning without its proper place. Hashim's behavior, thus, also lacks context and authenticity. His newfound conservatism brings devastation upon his family and upon the other man who seeks to collect the object (the hired thief). It is only for those who are not obsessed with the hair—the hired thief's wife and children—that there is anything to be gained from its possession. Their faith is natural, spontaneous, and true; it is not derived from object worship, greed, or obsession. Conservatism for the wrong reasons is certainly suspect in this text.