The Reluctant Fundamentalist

by Mohsin Hamid

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What is the significance of the title "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"?

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The title The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a reference to the tormented, conflicted inner state of the protagonist Changez. Changez is a citizen of Pakistan, but he comes to the United States as a young man to study and engage in lucrative business opportunities.

For a while, Changez cultivates an American identity and image. He is athletic and obsessed with making money. He dates an American woman, even though her troubled past prevents her from ever truly giving much of emotional meaning to their relationship.

The events of September 11th help push Changez into his "reluctant fundamentalism." Americans begin to see him as a terrorist in waiting, even though he is not a militant Muslim in the slightest nor even terribly religious to begin with. His American girlfriend leaves him. His job leaves him empty and dissatisfied. So in the end, Changez decides to leave the United States and return to both his native land and a more traditional way of life.

While the reader is never told Changez is a terrorist (and it does not seem likely), but he no longer views the American Dream as viable and is strongly anti-American in regards to the country's foreign policy and treatment of anyone who does not fit the all-American mold.

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Perhaps to best understand the title of The Reluctant Fundamentalist it is useful to understand the author's definition of just what fundamentalism is. Mohsin Hamid sees a fundamentalist as anyone who views the world through a single and narrow point of view. Furthermore, fundamentalism is not limited to religious ideology. When he first began working at Underwood Samson, Changez is very much a fundamentalist concerning the might of America's financial institutions.

When looking at it this way, Hamid sees the people who work on Wall Street as economic fundamentalists who see the world only through the narrow perspective of gains and losses on the stock exchange. Changez eventually comes to reject this sort of fundamentalism.

Where Changez becomes a reluctant fundamentalist is from the way that westerners treat him and view the Muslim world. We see this already from the suspicious manner that the unnamed American initially treats him when they meet at the bazaar at the beginning of the story. We see it more in the way that others view him when he is in America. When in the United States, people often suspect him to be a religious fundamentalist even though he is not one.

This constant suspicion, combined with his disillusionment with the American Dream, gradually but ultimately causes Changez to change his outlook. He comes to realize that as a Muslim and a foreigner he will never have full access to the promises of America. Even more, the anti-Islamic attitudes of post-9/11 America grate on him constantly.

By the end of the story, Changez has abandoned the fundamentalism of Wall Street and adopted the fundamentalism of his religion. He never set out to do this. Rather, he has been pushed in that direction, quite reluctantly, by a society that refuses to understand the nuances of his position.

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Changez could be characterized as a reluctant fundamentalist because he does not choose to become a fundamentalist per se. Instead, he is pushed into a kind of fundamentalism as he develops his identity in contrast to what it seems to mean to be American.

Changez is irritated by Americans' condescension, by Americans' self-righteous anger in the wake of 9/11, by America's apparent lack of concern for those innocent individuals who happen to live in countries where terrorists also reside, and by America's involvement in "each of the major conflicts and standoffs that ringed [his] mother continent of Asia . . . " during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He leaves finance when he realizes that it is one of the major ways in which America asserts its control on the world's stage.

He doesn't make a conscious decision to embrace anti-American sentiment, but he does embrace it little by little through a series of eye-opening experiences. Such a title might help readers to understand how ethnocentric behavior can turn people who are not inclined toward fundamentalism into "reluctant fundamentalists."

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I think that it becomes clear that Changez is "the reluctant fundamentalist."  He is that character who embodies two worlds and one is not really certain which one, if there is one, he belongs.  It is clear that Changez is not happy with America and has several complaints about it.  Yet, I think there Hamid brings out complexity in Changez is in the way he constructs him to be a figure for which there is not a complete sense of certainty.  Given how Changez's character had always been to wrap himself within something and then recognize its futility, it can be reasoned that this is where he could wind up with his current embrace of fundamentalism.  The dream of American success, Erica, his work at Underwood Samson, the rejection of America, and not fundamentalism are all elements in which Changez embraces with complete immersion only to recognize a limitation within them, to which he blames it for not being absolutely perfectly aligned with his subjectivity.  Changez does not seem to have changed much by the end, and while his philosophy has changed, it seems that he is still the same individual, wrapping himself in a cause or in a dream only to be surprised by its limitations.  It is here where he can be seen as "the reluctant fundamentalist." Hamid's construction opens a dialogue about the nature of fundamentalism and terrorism, and how the best weapon to disarm both is to develop a greater understanding about both.

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