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The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Ayesha Alam

Based on Mohsin Hamid’s widely acclaimed novel, Ayesha Alam reviews the movie that has electrified the post-911 narrative by offering a compelling critique through the experience of a young Pakistani who finds his liberal-capitalist dreams unravel under the War on Terror.

In May 2013, the film adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s international bestseller The Reluctant Fundamentalist hit the silverscreen worldwide. Indian director Mira Nair, who has won international fame for hits such as Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala and The Namesake helmed the project. The Reluctant Fundamentalist stars British actor Riz Ahmed as Changez, a brilliant Pakistani student chasing the American Dream on the high-octane highway of Wall Street corporate success, and Liev Schreiber as Bobby Lincoln, the journalist turned CIA agent with whom Changez engages in a dialogue in a Lahore tea shop. The film also features a supporting cast of other Hollywood heavyweights, including Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland.

While Hamid’s novel has won widespread academic and popular success — for instance, it has become assigned reading in many US universities — the process of making critically reflective movies within US film culture is certainly more difficult. In one of her several interviews, Nair describes the difficulties she faced in securing financing for the project. When two American financiers pulled out of the project, leaving her with just the Doha Film Institute, her trademark grit and inventiveness helped her complete the project. In a media culture dominated by fetishization of war, it is expected that “an Indian director making a Pakistani film in America,” as she described it, will face an uphill battle.

The movie opens out on a meeting between Changez, an engaging instructor at a Lahore university and Bobby, a liberal journalist fluent in Urdu — both of whom have been profoundly influenced by 9/11. Bobby seeks to discover whether Changez belongs to a radical group responsible for the abduction of another Lahore-based American CIA agent. Changez agrees to an interview, but with the stipulation that Bobby listen to the whole story. Changez then proceeds to tell his tale — an extended flashback that visually sketches the cultural, intellectual and spiritual journey of a “reluctant fundamentalist.”

Changez is an exceptional student whose family belongs to Pakistan’s fading civil service aristocracy, which is giving way before the splashy new money of the business class. The son of a famous poet, he turns his back on his father’s wisdom for the greatest product marketed by Pakistan’s educational system — the American Dream, where the Pakistani hopes to excel in academics in order to access prosperity abroad. Changez wins a scholarship to Princeton, and from there, gets a job offer with a prestigious Wall Street consulting firm. Recognizing the young man’s brilliance, Changez’s boss Jim Cross (brilliantly played by Kiefer Sutherland) takes him under his wing.

Terror, capital, migration, and war are all global themes — and it is fitting that the film should begin with the multinational framework of Wall Street economic exploitation of the globe. Jim Cross teaches Changez the fine art of dismantling companies and enterprises across the world in the pursuit of “productivity” and “competitiveness.” No matter whether the costs of attrition are the livelihoods of underpaid laborers in a Philippines car manufacturing plant, or a Turkish publishing house that translates rare books and poetry into different languages. Meanwhile, Changez embarks on a relationship with Erica, the beautiful niece of his company’s CEO. Just as Changez is up for a promotion — he is poised to become the youngest associate director in the history of the firm — 9/11 occurs, a conflagration of an entire way of life for Muslims in the West.

Changez watches the World Trade Center towers collapse from a hotel room in Manila — “my first reaction was a smile,” he explains to Bobby in the teahouse, “that someone had the audacity, the daring to do something like this.” This smile of awe at the epic destruction is an involuntary reaction, a psychological chink in the complex inside-outside dynamics of the Pakistani migrant turned gung-ho American corporate raider. As Changez, Jim Cross, and the other associates travel back to the United States, the tentacles of surveillance, suspicion, and racial profiling have already invaded the young Pakistani man’s capitalist paradise.

Changez is separated from the rest of his team at JFK, and subjected to a strip search — stripped naked, forced to stand spread eagled in a security observation room, he is probed by hostile guards obsessed with a simple formula, namely that his skin color, religion and passport equates him as a terrorist. An invisible line begins to divide him at work — he is no longer “us,” as the bright coworker from the country whose name no one could pronounce, but potentially one of them. Even his relationship with Erica becomes strained, though she appears to try to love him despite her uncritical acceptance of official propaganda endorsed by US government (evil terrorists striking Camelot, the heart of peace and light in the world).

Confused by the shifting alliances and the media pressures rendering him into the “other,” Changez grows a beard in solidarity with the Pakistanis and Muslims being targeting in the War on Terror. Through cinematography and music, Nair creates the sense of disorientation, ambiguity, and rootlessness experienced by Muslims and minorities in the raw aftermath of 9/11. As New York City closes ranks against outsiders, Changez loses his sense of himself and his place in the world — even when he walks into a low-brow Pakistani diner for lunch, he is shunned by fellow Pakistanis who resent how his corporate affiliations protect him from the harassment that they experience daily.

The watershed moment occurs during a trip to Turkey — Jim Cross takes Changez to Istanbul in order to drive a Turkish publisher out of business. During a conversation with the elegant, courtly publisher Nazmi Kemal, played with aplomb by Haluk Bilginer, Changez discovers that Kemal has been translating and publishing his father’s poetry. Kemal takes the young man out to tea and in a rather memorable conversation, asks him if he knows about the Janissaries. When Changez replies “no,” Kemal proceeds to explain that they were young boys taken by the Ottoman military from foreign regions the Sultanate was at war with (often Eastern Europe) and reared for service of the empire. Their coming of age passage was often to lead a military expedition against their former villages.

Changez understands the veiled reference — trained as a corporate raider who ensures the United States’ military hegemony across the globe, he too is a janissary of sorts. Nair’s stunning cinematography of Istanbul as Changez travels the historic world capital, captures the troubled young man’s epiphany — that the American Dream sold to him is an illusion, a marketing product through which talented, unmoored young men are recruited from the hinterlands of US Empire, in order to serve its needs at the expense of their own countries. Changez refuses to destroy Kemal’s business, confronts an enraged Jim Cross, quits his job and moves back to Lahore.

As Changez narrates his story to Bobby in present-time, it is clear that he has landed on the CIA’s watch list for his insightful, fiery lectures on world economics, justice, and anti-imperialism before Pakistani students. Nair masterfully navigates suspense and political critique, using the narrative to ask the audience to reflect on what a “reluctant fundamentalist” might be. While Changez is against militia violence, he understands that it cannot be separated from the workings of US Empire — that “terrorism” fits within and is part and parcel of the global architecture of Pentagon Inc. and the violence of imperial hegemony.

Mira Nair has offered a truly “global film” that electrifies the post-9/11 narrative… [it] offers a compelling critique through the experience of a young Pakistani man who finds his liberal-capitalist dreams unravel under the War on Terror.

Mira Nair has offered a truly “global film” that electrifies the post-9/11 narrative. While most American novels and films never seem to escape the emotional and political confines of US exceptionalism — they tend to claustrophobically center on American grief, loss, and insecurity — this offers a compelling critique through the experience of a young Pakistani man who finds his liberal-capitalist dreams unravel under the War on Terror. The Reluctant Fundamentalist sheds a critical light on the post-9/11 war machine, and illustrates a generation’s search for identity and purpose within the ghostly vacuum left by the superpower culture it was educated to venerate. Much of the film’s success rests with Riz Ahmed, the British-Pakistani actor who vividly portrays Changez’s precocious intelligence, uncertainty and moral courage. Kiefer Sutherland, known for the television series 24 is also excellent in his role, as charismatic corporate boss who develops a close father-son relationship with Changez, but only to the point where the young man serves the interests of the corporation.

So, what is a reluctant fundamentalist? This question illustrates a flaw in the narrative, perhaps deriving from Mohsin Hamid’s novel. As one film reviewer pointed out, in Changez’s new identity as a lecturer and visionary in Lahore, he is limited to critiques of US empire — he is a bright adopted son of Pax Americana who slips to the underbelly of intellectual resistance to empire. The identity is a negative one, a form of deconstruction to liberal Pakistan’s Weststruckness. But the question is, what positive identity could emerge from the ashes of the Muslim’s intoxication for the West? What is the productive basis for imagining a new identity for a Pakistani returnee who wishes to follow the impulse to affiliate with the Muslim world? Perhaps the reluctance to explore the question indicates the limits of Pakistan’s spark for revolutionary change.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 5

Sha'ban 22, 14342013-07-01

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