Mohsin Hamid: ‘Islam is not a monolith’

There are more than a billion Muslims in the world, each with an individual view of life. So why are they viewed as a unified group, asks Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist? In 2007, the author was struck by the large number of interviewers and of audience members at Q&As who spoke of Islam as a monolithic thing, as if Islam referred to a self-contained and clearly defined world, a sort of Microsoft Windows, obviously different from, and considerably incompatible with, the Apple OS X-like operating system of “the west”. Six years on, a film inspired by the novel (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) is in the process of appearing on screens around the world, and I am pleased to report that those sorts of questions are a little rarer now than they were in 2007. This represents progress. But it is modest progress, for the sense of Islam as a monolith lingers, in places both expected and unexpected. Islam is not a race, yet Islamophobia partakes of racist characteristics. Most Muslims do not “choose” Islam in the way that they choose to become doctors or lawyers or even in the way that they choose to become fans of Coldplay or Radiohead. Most Muslims, like people of any faith, are born into their religion. They then evolve their own relationship with it, their own, individual, view of life, their own micro-religion, so to speak. There are more than a billion variations of lived belief among people who define themselves as Muslim – one for each human being, just as there are among those who describe themselves as Christian, or Buddhist, or Hindu. Islamophobia represents a refusal to acknowledge these variations, to acknowledge individual humanities, a desire to paint members of a perceived group with the same brush. In that sense, it is indeed like racism. It simultaneously credits Muslims with too much and too little agency: too much agency in choosing their religion, and too little in choosing what to make of it. The novel carefully separates the politics of self-identification from any underlying religious faith or spirituality. It sets out to show that the former can exist in the absence of the latter. Yet we tend to read the world otherwise, to imagine computer-software-like religious operating systems where perhaps none exist. And in so doing, it is we who create the monolith. If we look at religion as practised in the world outside, we see multiplicity. It is from inside us that the urge to unify arises.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Film Review

Its message might be flabby, but Mira Nair’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel is still a bold piece of global storytelling. Based on the 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid, this is an ambitious, heartfelt tale of divided loyalties in a world where complacent belief in the triumph of globalised capital was shattered by the Twin Towers attack. Ahmed is Changez, a firebrand Muslim professor in Pakistan, suspected by the CIA of anti-American jihadism. But Changez is to reveal that his ideological training camp was a Wall Street corporation: years before, as a bright immigrant to the US, he got an Ivy League scholarship and was fast-tracked into a high-flying Manhattan job, where he learned to be internationally strategic and ruthless. But 9/11 changes him, and as people of his skin colour and background come to be reviled in New York, Changez reconsiders his loyalties and life choices.

‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ movie review

There’s a double meaning to the title of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” filmmaker Mira Nair’s great, gripping and complex drama based on the 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid about the roots of extremism.

On a superficial level, “fundamentalist” refers to religious identity, one unfortunately most often associated with Islamic terrorism these days. And the story — about an ambitious, Pakistani-born Wall Street financial analyst who becomes disenchanted with the United States after 9/11 — certainly suggests that most obvious reading. In that interpretation, the reluctant fundamentalist is an assimilated Muslim forced into anti-American radicalism by America itself.

But the hero Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), whom we meet at the outset as an older and wiser professor of revolutionary studies at Lahore University, isn’t quite what he appears. The other meaning of “fundamentalist” refers to Changez’s prior life in the states, where, as a young man, he was paid big bucks to fix broken companies, coolly evaluating — and, if necessary, streamlining — a business’s “fundamentals.” That means he was often in the position of having to fire people, a job that might inspire reluctance in anyone with a heart. (The name Changez Khan is a variant of Genghis Khan.)

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a novel by Mohsin Hamid, published in 2007 in over 16 languages. The story takes place over the course of an evening in an outdoor Lahore cafe as Changez, a bearded Pakistani man, tells a nervous American stranger about his love affair with, and eventual abandonment of, America.

Mohsin Hamid grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and attended Princeton and Harvard. His first novel, Moth Smoke, was a Betty Trask Award winner, PEN/ Hemingway Award finalist, and New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has also appeared in Time, The New York Times, and other publications. He lives in London.

Full-text New York Times Magazine interview with the author available here.(Some news sites may require registration)