Before Faisal Shahzad was indicted by a New York grand jury this week for his alleged attempt to car bomb Times Square—and even before the incident occurred— a novel entitled The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid eerily presaged the event. Hamid’s novel captures the swirl of personal and political circumstances that can push an otherwise well-adjusted American resident toward homegrown terrorism.
Mohsin Hamid’s novel centers on the life of a Pakistani immigrant named Changez who begins his time in America as a student at Princeton, and then goes on to court a beautiful, polished Manhattanite and pursue the American dream at the premier global valuation firm Underwood Samson & Company.
After the events of 9/11, Changez ponders how his attitudes and others’ attitudes toward him have changed:
“I wonder how it was that America was able to wreak such havoc in the world…with so few apparent consequences at home…I too had previously derived comfort from my firm’s exhortations to focus intensely on work, but now I saw that in this constant striving to realize a financial future, no thought was given to the critical personal and political issues that affect one’s emotional present. In other words, my blinders were coming off, and I was dazzled and rendered immobile by the sudden broadening of my arc of vision.”
Everyone experiences turning points in their lives, where the “blinders come off” and they glimpse behind the veil of reality something previously unknown to them. Changez experiences his when a failed romance, a posh consulting gig that loses its luster, and the events of 9/11 combine to point him toward a new “arc of vision.” As the shades of his transformations grow increasingly dark, Hamid’s novel illuminates the attraction of fundamentalism and the nether regions of extremist motivations.
The startling parallels between Faisal Shahzad’s real-life story as a Pakistani immigrant to America and Mohsin Hamid’s fictional story of the soured assimilation of a Pakistani man have led to some interesting conversations. In an interview with NPR, the author discussed some of the similarities. Hamid confessed to a “flash of recognition” as some of the details revealed about Shahzad mirrored those of his novel’s protagonist. He explains that the book is more of an emigration story than an immigration story—a tale of falling in love with America, and then falling out of love with America.
When asked about his initial reaction to Faisal Shahzad’s arrest, Hamid told NPR that he had heard about it after having just returned to New York from Pakistan with his family himself. He said, “And suddenly there was this rude shock, a reminder, that we live in one world and whether you’re sitting in Lahore or New York the same things can happen.” Like the author’s book, his words are unsettlingly true.
At the nexus of culture and personality, imperfections combine to produce explosive consequences. Whether in the context of domestic crime or international terrorism, when personal failure mixes with cultural disconnect in a cauldron of confusion, disaster follows closely behind. Christian literary giant G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Nothing is perfect unless it is personal.” The Reluctant Fundamentalist reveals how spectacularly personal our imperfections are too. Even more so is the way individuals respond to them.
Most people acknowledge that their culture and their personality remain flawed, despite their best efforts to shape them. How one chooses to respond to these flaws determines the shape of one’s future.
For more info: Mohsin Hamid’s Homepage; Amazon.com; NPR Interview