The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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American Imperialism Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Patriotism & Post-9/11 United States Theme Icon
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Racism & Fundamentalism Theme Icon
Human Connection Theme Icon
American Imperialism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
American Imperialism Theme Icon

Through Changez’s experience, The Reluctant Fundamentalist paints a picture of the enormous financial and military power that the United States wields over the rest of the world. The novel depicts how the United States’ power is so great because it is both “hard,” meaning that it has tremendous military force, and “soft,” meaning that it encourages foreigners to adopt American customs. Meanwhile, the American characters are often ignorant or naïve about their country’s power and the challenges and impact such power forces a foreigner in America to face.

One of the primary “soft power” tactics that the United States uses to maintain its power is to attract talented foreign students to its universities and then encourage them to work for American companies. Changez notes that he is the perfect example of this process, since he attends Princeton University on scholarship, is given a work visa, and then works for the prestigious valuation firm, Underwood Samson (whose initials, U.S., suggest its American allegiance). When Changez travels to South America to evaluate a publishing corporation that hires Underwood Samson, the corporation’s president, Juan-Batista, compares Changez to a janissary officer: a warrior kidnapped by the Ottoman Empire and forced to fight against his own culture. Changez reluctantly realizes that the analogy is accurate: America “kidnapped” him with offers of free education, convinced him to stay with a tempting offer of employment at Underwood Samson, and put him to work keeping America rich and powerful.

The United States also exerts enormous military power over the world. After the events of September 11, Changez witnesses America’s military interventions in Pakistan; these actions, which threaten his family’s safety, remind him how much of an outsider he is in his adopted country, and convince him to return to Pakistan on a visit. Ironically, during the visit, he is faced with the effects of American “soft power,” as his American experiences – particularly his romance with Erica – make him feel lonely and out of place in Pakistan, too. Changez, then, experiences American soft and hard power simultaneously, and in confusing ways: he loves the United States for its opportunities and aspects of its culture; he resents being treated as a foreigner by the citizens of the country he has come to love after 9/11; he fears the way that American hard power threatens his own family, which has done nothing to America. Ultimately, the resentments outweigh the love, and Changez returns to Pakistan to use his education to organize and educate anti-American demonstrators, to fight the American soft power that attracted him to Princeton in the first place.

Finally, the possibility that the Stranger might be a secret agent sent halfway around the world to assassinate Changez reinforces the constant presence of U.S. imperialism. At the same time, he could be a perfectly innocent tourist. It’s this uncertain interplay between menace and friendliness that Hamid associates with the United States throughout The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

American Imperialism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of American Imperialism appears in each chapter of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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American Imperialism Quotes in The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Below you will find the important quotes in The Reluctant Fundamentalist related to the theme of American Imperialism.
Chapter 2 Quotes

I … found myself wondering by what quirk of human history my companions — many of whom I would have regarded as upstarts in my own country, so devoid of refinement were they — were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker), Mike, Chuck
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

After getting a first-rate job at Underwood Samson, Changez goes off on a fancy trip to Greece with some of his friends from Princeton University. Changez has always been a little bothered by the level of entitlement he's seen among his classmates in college: they act like they own the world (and in a way, they do). But when Changez travels to Greece with his friends, their entitlement and privilege really makes an impact on him. Even in a foreign country, Changez's classmates act like wealthy, powerful "insiders"—they don't feel any of the discomfort or outsiderness one usually associates with travel.

Perhaps the key word in this quotation is "position." What is the "position," Changez wonders, that allows a group of 21-year-olds to behave like spoiled brats? Of course, Changez's question is mostly rhetorical: he knows perfectly well that America, as the wealthiest and most powerful country on the planet, has produced generations of wealthy, powerful families, and therefore, millions of spoiled children. But the fact that these spoiled children can feel like kings even in other countries attests to the strength of the American "myth" that they've been fed since birth. Changez's classmates are so used to the idea that America is the greatest country in the world that they've come to believe that they deserve the best treatment no matter where they go. As a student who's spent the last 4 years in America feeling like a shy outsider, Changez is understandably irritated with his peers.


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Chapter 3 Quotes

I was, in four and a half years, never an America; I was immediately a New Yorker.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

At this early point in the novel, Changez is still willing to believe that it's possible for a foreigner to totally fit in in the United States. One reason a foreigner can do so is that there are American cities where everyone is an outsider: in New York City, for example, there's so much activity and excitement that few people really feel at home. For Changez, New York is distinct from America and yet captures America at its very best. On one hand, the city is all about activity and ambition: there's simply no time for people like Changez's Princeton classmates to rest on their families' or their country's success. And yet New York is also quintessentially American: it's a city of immigrants and outsiders, a "New World" where the ambitious and the optimistic journey to start over again. In short, New York represents Changez's conflicted relationship with America: he hates the myth of American exceptionalism, and yet gravitates toward America's legacy of hope, brotherhood, and pluralism.

Four thousand years ago, we, the people of the Indus River basin, had cities that were laid out on grids and boasted underground sewers, while the ancestors of those who would invade and colonize America were illiterate barbarians. Now our cities were largely unplanned, unsanitary affairs, and America had universities with individual endowments greater than our national budget for education. To be reminded of this vast disparity was, for me, to be ashamed.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

In his new life in New York City, Changez is at once proud of his Pakistani heritage and yet deeply ashamed of it. Changez is conscious of being "different" from the people around him: his skin is darker, his accent is rare, etc. He feels inferior, since in the present, his country is fairly poor and underdeveloped—in America it's too-often considered a "barbaric" nation. The stereotypes about Pakistan and the Middle East are especially distressing for Changez, since in the past, the Middle East was the "civilized" part of the world, and the Western world was "barbaric."

That Changez is so upset by this suggests that he's been forced to think of himself as a representative and spokesperson for his culture (often the result for victims of racism and "othering"): he's a kind of ambassador for Pakistan, striving to succeed in New York City in order to prove that Pakistan isn't as backwards or barbaric as Americans want to believe it is. He's like the proverbial unloved child, trying desperately to please a distant parent that seems not to care much for him.

Chapter 5 Quotes

… I did something in Manila I had never done before: I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

During his early days working for Underwood Samson, Changez travels to Manila to work with a wealthy client. Changez's trip to Manila shows how far he's come since graduating college. While still in college, Changez was disgusted with his friends' entitlement and obliviousness to the dignity of other people. Now, as an employee of Underwood Samson, Changez seems to be trying to act equally oblivious to other people—to act like a confident, spoiled American.

In the simplest terms, Changez is "moving up" in the world. He finally feels that he has a home and a community in the United States: in New York City, he's surrounded by like-minded, ambitious young men and women. But the unpleasant side-effect of Changez's upward social mobility is that he's become the thing he hated. Changez knows that he's acting like an obnoxious, arrogant American, but he also wants to fit in and feel confident about his identity.

I stared as one — and then the other — of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapses. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

The collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 is a turning point in the novel (and, of course, in recent American history). There are so many ways to interpret Changez's reaction to the attack that it's worthwhile to list some of the most important:

1) Thus far, Changez has been repressing a lot of hatred for the United States. He's tried hard to fit in with his American peers, even imitating their obnoxious entitlement, but always secretly resenting them (and resenting himself for trying to be like them). With the collapse of the Twin Towers, Changez realizes—almost unconsciously—how much he's come to resent his adopted country, in all its arrogant, pompous superiority.

2) The 9/11 attack pleases Changez because it proves that the myth of American exceptionalism is just that—a myth. But even more importantly, 9/11 seems to balances out the atrocities that Changez believes the U.S. to have committed in other countries. As Changez will go on to explain, the U.S. regularly bombs foreign countries, often murdering women and children, always writing off casualties as "necessary evils." Changez doesn't enjoy seeing women and children die inside the Twin Towers, but he seems to recognize a certain poetic justice in the fact that global forces have now banded together to avenge America's war crimes. He also notes the irony that, while America has routinely murdered foreign civilians with little to no remorse, it's suddenly outraged that 3,000 of its own citizens have been murdered by a foreign power.

3) It's always important to remember that Changez is telling his story to the Stranger. As we've already seen, Changez often tries to manipulate his audience—i.e., make the Stranger as uncomfortable as possible. So Changez's description of 9/11 might be designed to shock and infuriate the Stranger—and, in the process, to confirm beyond any reasonable doubt that the Stranger is an American. (The quotation will probably shock and infuriate plenty of readers too—and for good reason.)

Chapter 8 Quotes

America, too, was descending into a dangerous nostalgia at that time. There was something undeniably retro about the flags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war rooms and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honor. I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

As America becomes involved in the War on Terror (and as Erica becomes more and more obsessed with Chris, her dead boyfriend), Changez notices that his adopted country is nostalgic for the past. Everywhere, he sees evidence of Americans celebrating their own heritage and history, rather than looking ahead into the future. (In the years following 9/11, cultural historians have noted, America became increasingly patriotic: going all-out for the 4th of July, giving stores and building patriotic names, etc.—this phenomenon seems to be what Changez is reacting to).

Prior to this quotation, Changez has admired Americans for their ambition and hopefulness, for their ability to look ahead to the future. In New York, for example, Changez believes he's finally found an American city where his drive and ambition make him "equal" to his peers. With a renewed focus on the past, however, it becomes increasingly obvious to Changez and his peers that Changez is not "equal"—he's from a foreign country, meaning that he can't really relate to his nostalgic, patriotic American friends.

Chapter 9 Quotes

I had changed; I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but that particular type of entitled and unsympathetic American who so annoyed me when I encountered him in the classrooms and workplaces of your country’s elite … I resolved to exorcise the unwelcome sensibility by which I had become possessed.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

Changez flies back to his childhood home in Lahore. There, he's shocked to find that he reflexively thinks of the city as run-down and ugly. In other words, Changez's time in the United States has trained him to think of the rest of the world like a "true American": he thinks of non-American cities and countries as inferior. In the quotation, Changez seems to remember the school trip he and his Princeton friends took to Greece years before, and he remembers how obnoxious he found his classmates when they looked down on Greece. Now, Changez is looking down on Pakistan in exactly the same snobbish, entitled way.

For a long time now, Changez has been aware that he's becoming an obnoxious American. But up until this point, Changez was willing to turn a blind eye to his own entitlement, because he was desperate to fit in with his new American peers. When he returns to his childhood home, Changez guiltily realizes how much he's changed. Confronted with his own family and home, Changez decides that he's not going to pretend to be American any longer.

Chapter 10 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Related Symbols: Underwood Samson
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

During his time working with Underwood Samson in South America, Changez comes to realize how "blind" he's been to the realities of his situation. Working for the firm, Changez is instructed to "focus on the fundamentals." As Changez has interpreted these words, he's supposed to focus on the dollars and cents of his assignments, rather than the human beings he's putting out of business in the process. In other words, "focus on the fundamentals" is a form of corporate propaganda, designed to repress employees' natural sympathy—which is, apparently, the enemy of good business. Furthermore, the emphasis on fundamentals parallels the way that Changez has tried to conceal his Pakistani heritage while in the United States. By concentrating on work and his career ambitions, Changez has hoped to move beyond his race and heritage and prove himself a "true American."

As Changez's blinders come off, he realizes how foolish and narrow-minded Underwood Samson—and the U.S.—can be. Instead of concealing his heritage and looking down on other people less fortunate than he, Changez decides to celebrate his Pakistani roots and express sympathy for the poor and suffering—in other words, he is reluctant to focus on the fundamentals (hence the title of the book). Changez's epiphany represents a key step in his coming of age: the moment when he stops obeying a master (Underwood Samson and U.S. culture) and begins to make his own choices.

There really could be no doubt; I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war. Of course I was struggling! Of course I felt torn!

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

Changez analogizes his situation to that of the janissaries. The janissaries were warriors, kidnapped from their Muslim homeland as children and trained to fight for Christian nations—sometimes fighting against the very countries where they were born. As Changez sees it, he's like a janissary: he was born in Pakistan, but now he's working for the U.S. to keep America's economy strong and the economy of countries like Pakistan weak.

The analogy Changez is making might seem melodramatic (Changez isn't literally a warrior, after all). And yet he has a point: one could argue that America's War on Terror was largely a financial decision, designed to increase America's hold on oil reserves and eliminate the foreign powers who'd attacked the World Trade Center, its very name a symbol of America's economic supremacy. In other words, by working for an American business, Changez is a warrior against Pakistan, in the same sense that a literal soldier would be.

The quotation shows Changez coming to terms with his place in America. By thinking of himself in such broad, historical terms, he arrives at some important truths about his career. Above all, he realizes that he doesn't belong in Pakistan or America: he's an outsider in both countries, "torn" between two cultures.

Chapter 11 Quotes

It seemed to me then — and to be honest, sir, seems to me still — that America was engaging only in posturing. As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority … Such an America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker), The Stranger
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Changez makes some important claims about America's War on Terror, and about what must be done to stop this war. Changez has already argued that America is foolish to believe in its own superiority so fervently—he's been aware of this tendency ever since he traveled to Greece with his Princeton friends. But Changez is reminded of the myth of American exceptionalism after the War on Terror begins. America invades and even bombs foreign countries, convinced that its moral superiority gives it the unshakeable right to do so.

The crucial part of this quotation is Changez's insistence that America "must be stopped." Previously, Changez has quietly resented America's delusions of moral superiority—now, however, he's actively trying to prevent American from enacting its delusions in Pakistan. Changez never explains what, exactly, he's doing to stop America. But it seems like a distinct possibility that Changez has decided to join or support terrorists, bombing and attacking American soldiers who, in his view, are destroying Pakistan. Changez's attitude toward the Stranger—referred to here as "sir"—suggests that he's still trying to provoke the Stranger, and may want to do the Stranger actual harm. Of course, it's also possible that Changez is using peaceful means to oppose American intervention in Pakistan—it's left up to us to decide.

Chapter 12 Quotes

But why are you reaching into your jacket, sir? I detect a glint of metal. Given that you and I are now bound by a certain shared intimacy, I trust it is from the holder of your business cards.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker), The Stranger
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final paragraph of the novel, Hamid forces readers to make assumptions about Changez and the Stranger—to judge and even stereotype them. Changez points out that the Stranger is reaching into his jacket, and pulling out what may or may not be a gun. At the same time, a large, dangerous-looking man is running toward the Stranger—someone who may or not be coming to kill the Stranger.

It's impossible to know to a certainty whether the Stranger is holding a gun, or whether Changez is plotting to kill the Stranger. Paradoxically, the carefree way that Changez is describing the situation makes him seem more, not less, sinister—he's so laid-back that he has to be hiding something. (And based on what we've seen of Changez so far, he's hardly a laid-back person ordinarily.) But the sinister undertones of Changez's speech don't necessarily mean that he's planning to hurt anyone: perhaps he's planning to sacrifice himself for the Pakistani cause, or perhaps he's just aiming to embarrass the Stranger.

In short, the end of Hamid's novel forces us to choose sides: to decide whether or not Changez and the Stranger can be trusted. By making such a choice, we're forced to come to terms with our own prejudices and expectations about Middle Easterners and Americans—and this is exactly what Hamid wants.