The commercial success and critical praise of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist – currently on the New York Times best-seller list — are an ill omen for those who support the ideals of liberal society, not only here but in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. As other writers notice its success, we can expect others to follow in its path of Islamic minstrelism, selling the Western audience what it expects to hear from angry Muslims. In this case, the merchant is a thoroughly Westernized, privileged beneficiary of American largesse.
On the Powells.com website, Hamid disingenuously muses, “People often ask me if I am the book’s Pakistani protagonist. I wonder why they never ask if I am his American listener. After all, a novel can often be a divided man’s conversation with himself.”
Theoretically true, but Hamid’s published opinion pieces are nearly continuous with the hateful characterizations of Americans and America expressed in the long monologue that the book’s narrator, Changez, delivers to an unnamed American in a Lahore café. As a novel, RF is tripe — anti-American agitprop clumsily masquerading as a work of art. People who are buying RF are sending their money to someone who is aggressively anti-American. (The publicity for RF emphasizes Hamid’s American university degrees but does not mention that he turned in his green card in 2006 and applied for British citizenship instead.)
Why are Americans buying this book? Part of the explanation must be their nearly boundless goodwill and naiveté, ever interested in finding out “why they hate us.” Changez, however, is not even one of “them”; he is not an Islamic fundamentalist, but a poorly constructed and implausible character whose anti-Americanism is more aesthetic and snobbish than ideological. It’s closer to a certain strain of European anti-Americanism than anything from the Muslim world.
The digs are predictable: Princeton’s Gothic-style buildings are younger than many of Lahore’s mosques but made to look older; an American character doesn’t give to beggars (there is no mention of the many in Pakistan who were deliberately maimed as children by their controllers); he is “well-traveled for an American,” but would not, of course, know Urdu (but how does Changez know, since the American never says anything?).
When Changez works briefly for an American firm in Manila, he learns to act like an American, which apparently means speaking rudely to older people and cutting to the front of lines. (Never mind that, almost anywhere in the third world, locals would rather work for Americans, who treat them well, than for their feudal-minded fellow countrymen. And I’ve also found that, whenever I’m in a crowd trying to get somewhere in the third world, it is the Americans and English who are left behind, while the locals charge forward ignoring the queue.)
Hamid — I mean, Changez — even manages to get upset over the fact that there are many more Americans than Pakistanis at Princeton. “Americans faced much less daunting odds in the selection process.” Perhaps there are reasons Pakistanis are generally not ready for Princeton — say, the country’s illiteracy rate (51.3 percent overall, 64.8 percent among women) and its per capita GDP of $2,600. The fault lies with Pakistan’s government, which might begin by offering free public education, not with Princeton’s admissions committee. Hamid fails to note these facts, however, which figures, since he avowedly voted for Musharraf in 2002 and thinks Pakistan, far from being a borderline failed state, is doing just fine. “The country’s image abroad remains far worse than the reality,” he proclaimed in Time in 2005, and this spring he reiterated his opinion in the New York Times.
The sneering tone of Changez’s remarks to his American interlocutor would offend many readers if it were applied, mutatis mutandis, to blacks or Jews or, for that matter, Muslim Americans. But what will offend more is the similarity between the narrator’s and the author’s views of September 11 and the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
The narrator’s oft-quoted statement that he was “remarkably pleased” on 9/11 meshes all too well with the author’s September 23, 2001, Time piece, which failed to mention the attacks and instead argues against the overthrow of the Taliban. “In Pakistan, my friends and family are frightened, as they should be when the most powerful military in the world is sent to do a task best accomplished by school teachers, police forces, persuasion, and time.” Ah yes, the school teachers that the Taliban was so keen on encouraging. They would have cleared up the human-rights problems. Persuasion? That would have been a great solution. The Taliban was famous for its dedication to freedom of speech.