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
American Imperialism Quotes in The Reluctant Fundamentalist
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.
I was, in four and a half years, never an America; I was immediately a New Yorker.
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.
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.