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.
It is almost certain that Hamid agrees with what he has Changez say while watching the Afghan war on TV, lamenting the “mismatch” between “American bombers with their twenty-first century weaponry and the ill-equipped and ill-fed Afghan tribesmen below.” Never mind that there was a bit of a mismatch between the innocents working in the World Trade Center and the planes that hit them, or that many of the “Afghan tribesmen” were Pakistani jihadis brainwashed in the madrasas, or that no one was more glad to see them killed than the ethnic Tajjiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras they murdered, raped, and persecuted when they brutalized northern Afghanistan. Changez is unable to extend his compassion to the Afghans who were victims of the Taliban, and the same seems true of Hamid.
Potential purchasers of RF might want to consider these words from an interview with Hamid which the publisher of the book uses on its website as a promotion: “The political positions of both Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush are founded on failures of empathy, failures of compassion toward people who seem different.”
Apparently Hamid was dozing off in classes at Princeton and Harvard Law when his professors discussed drawing distinctions. We didn’t go to war in Afghanistan because Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts are different, but because they were responsible for murdering a large number of innocent people in the U.S.
Reasonable people can disagree about the motivation behind and the execution of President Bush’s foreign policy. But no one could say that he deliberately ordered the execution of thousands of civilians, or that the U.S. attacked Iraq under his leadership because Iraqis “seem different.” In fact, those who led us to war believed that Iraqis are fundamentally the same as Americans; that they are capable of governing themselves and deserve to live with the same human rights and dignity as Americans. That is why many of us who supported, and support, the war believe that we do so in the liberal tradition.
As is becoming so popular nowadays, Hamid terms any disagreement with his views censorship, even though he shows little interest in supporting freedom of speech for anyone else. Hamid writes about the “censorship” of his views when a paragraph about “Muslim rage” was edited out of an article he published in the New Statesman in October 2006, but he won’t praise America’s bringing at least a relative freedom of speech to Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s hard to figure out how Hamid considers himself among “secular, liberal Pakistanis” when he does not defend the values liberal societies share worldwide.
On a purely literary level, RF is a dreadful book. Its title is only the beginning of its fraudulence and cheap cynicism, in that the narrator, while anti-American, never refers to his religion. Not one hadith, not one quote from a sura, not a hint of the narrator’s religious affiliation makes its way into the text of RF. Perhaps Hamid simply doesn’t know much about his religion or has judged that Americans would not have the patience for it. But it would be odd to have a long chat with a Muslim of the narrator’s purported convictions in which there was no mention of any of the apparatus of Islam.
Changez would be more sympathetic if he believed in something. Real terrorists have convictions — that’s what makes them dangerous, and it’s why at least some of them can be argued with. Hamid gives his protagonist only resentment. “The entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.” (This would be in reference to the Afghan war, by the way.)
Nor would a real person of any background anywhere speak the way Changez does: “When you sit in that fashion, sir, with your arm curved around the back of the empty chair beside you, a bulge manifests itself through the lightweight fabric of your suit”; “A more serious challenge would come from Chuck’s good — and similarly monosyllabically monikered – friend Mike”; “Yes, quite so, not as difficult as the time of carnage itself- said, sir, like a true soldier.”
Hamid claims that he’s given Changez, “a voice born of the British colonial inflections taught in elite Pakistani schools and colored by an anachronistic, courtly menace that resonates well with popular western preconceptions of Islam”. I’d say he’s sold a secondhand Orientalism to readers he thinks are too poorly travelled and too provincial to recognize it for the crap that it is — or too polite to wonder why a Princeton and Harvard grad has such a tin ear.
The narrator’s name is just as clumsily chosen as his words. Changez is a Turkish name, and a pagan one. Genghis Khan is no culture hero in the non-Turkic Islamic east, where he was a destroyer of cities and libraries and a mass murderer on the scale of Stalin and Hitler. The majority of his victims were Chinese or Muslim Persians, not Westerners (as that term might have been applied in the 13th century). And since the Mongols were religiously tolerant animists, he would not be a good model for an anti-American Islamic fundamentalist.
The ersatz “Eastern” diction Hamid gives Changez — like his name, like his absence of religious identity — would be laughed at if an American writer tried to foist such a poorly drawn character on his readers. But given the right “authentic” apparatus, this clumsy Orientalism from an Oriental passes without remark. What’s sad about this is that Hamid’s first novel, Moth Smoke, was a far better book. It was obviously a first effort, laboriously constructed, and with contrived characters, but the dialogue was snappy and realistic and the mise en scene far more convincing. But Hamid has obviously seen that there is greater mileage in playing the “Muslim rage” card and donning the mantle of Islamic minstrelism than in becoming a fine novelist. If I had any sympathy for him, I’d mourn his lack of respect for himself. As it is, I’m appalled at his lack of respect for his audience, his narrator, his narrator’s American listener, his co-religionists who suffered under the Taliban and under Saddam, and for the victims of the World Trade Center attack.
Hamid’s hypocrisies are all of a piece. Unfortunately, he is laughing all the way to the bank.