What Makes a Terrorist?


Fundamentalist Pic

Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and Mira Nair’s film adaptation (2012) offer some answers.

We may find it amusing when we read about 15 year old teenagers from Bolingbrook or London who attempt to take flights to Istanbul as an entry point into Syria where they will fight for ISIS (the Islamic State). More perplexing are the revelations about the backgrounds of the prominent Jihadi John. The news today reveals that British intelligence has established his identity. He’s a Kuwait national with a degree in computer science who has lived as a middle class citizen in London before finding his mission as a violent agent in the establishment of a longed-for caliphate. The prevalence of well-educated and affluent and superficially assimilated men from the Middle East who become extremist ideologues suggests that the solutions to global terror must go beyond poverty-eradication and education that provides purposeful employment, pat solutions advance by liberals in the West.

Hamid’s sensitive and well-constructed novel grapples with this thorny question of motivation. It presents as its case study Changez Khan (Rez Ahmed), the son of a prominent Pakistani poet whose family assets are eroding (there is no money in poetry anywhere in the world). The Khans send the precocious Changez off to Princeton where as a scholarship boy and varsity soccer player, he prepares himself for American-style success. He jumps for joy when he is selected to join a high-powered private equity company managed by a charismatic Master of the Universe (Keifer Sutherland). Changez advances rapidly through the ranks through his analytical skills and his insensitivity to the personal losses suffered by employees of companies reorganized and reshuffled by the agents of creative destruction. He thoroughly embraces global capitalism, American-style.

Not surprisingly, 9/11 is a game-changer. He’s on assignment in Manila when the Towers fall and upon return our suited and well-coiffed Ivy League grad is pulled out of line in an airport and ordered to go through a strip search. There are other indignities of this and other types that he must go through. He falls in love with an affluent young woman (Kate Hudson in the film) who happens to be the niece of the owner of the equity company. An aspiring photograph and avant-garde artist, she betrays their intimacy by turning his story into a museum installation.

His break from the company takes place when he sits down with a Turkish publisher who has published works by Changez’s father and who must confront being bought out by the equity fund that Changez represents. The Turk offers the implicit challenge to declare his allegiances.

The storytelling device that Hamid uses is employed artfully by director Mira Nair. Nair is a Bengali-born filmmaker who has been making movies for more than 25 years. Many of her movies – her adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and Mississippi Masala ­– are explorations of the lives of the sons and daughters of South Asian immigrants to America. She’s fascinated by individuals astride two worlds.

The story that we hear is the story that disaffected Changez tells to Bobby Lincoln, an American journalist (Liev Shreiber), after his return to Pakistan, his acceptance of a teaching position in a Lahore university, and his ingratiation with a student body looking for solutions to Pakistan’s troubles. The story moves smoothly between the years of his Americanization and increasing disillusionment and the cat- and-mouse game that he plays with the interviewer.

At the start of the interview which takes place inside a hostel, Changez tells Lincoln that appearances are deceiving. It’s a warning to the audience to keep its eyes on Lincoln. The pace of the narrative quickens and focuses on the present when a professor is kidnapped and the CIA, coordinating with the Pakistani military, mobilizes for his recovery. A character study has turned into a thriller. We are left wondering what role the reluctant fundamentalist has played in this escalation of protest against the West.

Though hardly the last word in terrorist motivation, the book and film do remind us that opposition to America and the desire to resist America’s global overreach is the result of a confluence of many different factors, many of which vie for attention inside the soul of this reflective Pakistani.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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