The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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Racism & Fundamentalism 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.
Racism & Fundamentalism Theme Icon

Throughout The Reluctant Fundamentalist, beginning on the first page, Hamid, the author, shows how people judge one another based on their clothing, their skin color, and their mannerisms. These forms of racism shape Changez and his impressions of the United States. Although Changez’s friends at Princeton treat him respectfully, they’re aware that he is an outsider in the United States. When they travel to Greece together, Changez experiences various forms of “soft” racism. While not rude or disrespectful to him, his friends think of him as an exotic “pet”; even Erica is attracted to Changez because he is “different.” Changez accepts and in some ways encourages these feelings, partly because he wants Erica and his other friends to accept him and partly because he himself is unsure who he is.

After September 11, Changez encounters more overt and hostile forms of racism in America. He’s called an Arab, though he’s really Pakistani, and is detained at an airport and harassed by a bigoted security officer. Changez refuses to “cave in” during these confrontations, and, in defiance of what he sees as their profound unfairness and viciousness, deliberately changes his behavior and appearance to appear even more obviously foreign. Put another way: the novel shows how racism helps to create the very thing it fears. In Changez’s case, racism ultimately drives him from his adopted country of the United States back to Pakistan. The racism and prejudice stemming from the fear of fundamentalism leads him, a lover of America, to become at minimum more critical of the United States, and, possibly, a fundamentalist.

In The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s “frame narrative,” Changez and the Stranger judge each other based on their racist preconceptions. The Stranger is suspicious of Changez because of his beard and clothing, while Changez sizes up the Stranger as an American based on his bearing. In the end, Hamid doesn’t reveal if either Changez or the Stranger has judged accurately: Changez could be an anti-American terrorist, and the Stranger could be an American secret agent, or both, or neither. Readers are forced to decide whether the stereotypes of terrorist and spy are, in this case, accurate, and, if they are, whether Changez has been driven to terrorism by the racism he encountered as an outsider in the United States.

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Racism & Fundamentalism ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Reluctant Fundamentalist related to the theme of Racism & Fundamentalism.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard; I am a lover of America.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker), The Stranger
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

In the opening line of the novel, Hamid establishes the fine line between friendly and sinister. Changez is speaking very politely to the Stranger, offering to be "of assistance." And yet there's also something unmistakably sinister about the way Changez comments upon the Stranger's evident discomfort: the more Changez remarks upon it, we can imagine, the more uncomfortable the Stranger becomes. Changez seems to be toying with the Stranger, manipulating him for his own amusement.

Changez also shows an awareness of the Stranger's background: by claiming to be a lover of America, he's essentially identifying the Stranger as an American, too. But in doing so, Changez is suggesting that the Stranger is a paranoid, prejudicial person—the kind of person who would be afraid of a man with a beard. Again, Changez seems aware of the Stranger's potentially racist attitudes toward non-Americans, and yet the more he draws attention to the Stranger's attitude, the more dangerous Changez himself appears.

Of course, it's also possible that Changez really is trying to be of service to the Stranger: because our point of view is so confined (thienovel is written as a kind of dramatic monologue, directed at a second-person "Stranger"), we have a hard timing judging whether Changez is friendly or sinister. Hamid forces us to judge Changez—a judgement that exposes our own prejudices and sympathies.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

When my turn came, I said I hoped one day to be the dictator of an Islamic republic with nuclear capability; the other appeared shocked, and I was forced to explain that I had been joking. Erica alone smiled; she seemed to understand my sense of humor.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker), Erica, Mike, Chuck
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Changez and his peers are sitting around a table, talking about their ambitions for the future. One by one, Changez's friends make jokes about "world domination," and so on—then, when Changez's turn comes, he tries to joke about being a brutal dictator. Changez is trying to make fun of himself, alluding to the American stereotypes about Middle Eastern and Pakistani people (i.e., that they're terrorists, dangerous, etc.)

The fact that Changez's peers don't laugh suggests a couple things. Perhaps Changez's joke hits a little too close to home—they really do think of Middle Easterners in the stereotypical terms Changez is alluding to, and therefore find Changez's joke more frightening than funny. Changez is trapped between a rock and a hard place: he can't really fit in with his peers because of the stereotypes about people from his country, and yet when Changez tries to fit in with the group by making fun of his own heritage, he gets a radio silence.

The fact that Erica—a girl on whom Changez already has a crush—laughs at Changez's joke seems to suggest (in Changez's mind) that she "understands" him. But perhaps Erica is no more enlightened than any of her peers: as we'll see, she seems to view Changez through a lens of stereotypes and assumptions about foreigners, just as her other college friends do.

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.

I was aware of an advantage conferred upon me by my foreignness, and I tried to utilize it as much as I could.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker), Jim
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

As a Pakistani, Changez has plenty of disadvantages working in America: people tend to hold him at arm's length, thinking of him as alien and unfamiliar—in short, it's hard for him to build close relationships with his peers. And yet Changez knows that his outsider status gives him some distinct advantages: as an "exotic" creature, he's automatically more visible and interesting to his peers, meaning that people remember him more distinctly, so it's easier for him to make a good impression.

The myth of the "exotic" foreigner, while it seems to endow foreigners with positive qualities, is itself a form of prejudice, however: the "exotic other" and the "dangerous Muslim" are just two sides of the same racist coin. So the fact that Changez knowingly allows Americans to treat him as exotic suggests that he is, on some level, okay with his peers judging and stereotyping him: he's participating in his own othering. This shouldn't suggest that Changez is somehow to blame for the racism he receives: rather, it suggests that Changez has become so used to doing what his American friends and supervisors tell him to do that he's begun thinking of himself as an "other."

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 7 Quotes

“The economy’s an animal,” Jim continued. “It evolves. First it needed muscle. Now all the blood it could spare was rushing to its brain. That’s where I wanted to be. In finance. In the coordination business. And that’s where you are. You’re blood brought from some part of the body that the species doesn’t need anymore. The tailbone. Like me.”

Related Characters: Jim (speaker), Changez
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jim—Changez's self-appointed mentor and friend—tries to establish a firm relationship between himself and Changez. Jim uses an unusual analogy, painting a harsh, Darwinian portrait of the world's economy. As Jim sees it, he and Changez are crucial for America's continued success in the future, because they're different; their difference allows them to think creatively and cleverly, ensuring the success of their country's economy.

The way Jim treats Changez seems both condescending and ignorant, however. Jim knows next to nothing about Changez's family or heritage; he just assumes that he and Changez are "buddies" because they both come from somewhat uncommon backgrounds (Jim is from a working-class family; Changez is from Pakistan). Moreover, Jim seems to think of Changez as a mere "tool" in the economy; someone whose value lies in his difference itself, not in his personality or his character. In other words, Jim—no less than any of Changez's other American friends—judges Changez for his outsiderness (even if his judgements are all positive). Jim even suggests that Changez's culture is somehow obsolete or vestigial, in the same sense that the tailbone is a vestigial part of the human body: even if Changez himself is useful, his country and culture aren't.

“Are you missing Chris?” She nodded, and I saw tears begin to force themselves between her lashes. “Then pretend,” I said, “pretend I am him.” I do not know why I said it; I felt overcome and it seemed, suddenly, a possible way forward.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker), Erica, Chris
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Hamid offers us a striking metaphor for the way minorities try to adapt to their new homes. Changez—by this point in love with Erica—tries to understand Erica's obsessive love for her dead boyfriend, Chris. Erica grew up with Chris, and still thinks about him all the time. It's been suggested that Erica's love for Chris is meant as a metaphor for the Western world's love for its own vanished past: in other words, the decaying legacy of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman values (or AmErica's love for Christianity). By the same token, Changez's desire to "become" Chris suggests one of the coping mechanisms that minorities have adopted to survive in America: they've tried to become more American than Americans. (If this idea sounds weird, consider the fact that many of the classic "patriotic" American songs were written by first-generation immigrants.)

Changez is conscious of being an outsider in America: everybody thinks of him as dangerous and threatening because he's from Pakistan, a country where the U.S. is currently fighting a War on Terror. Frustrated with his tormentors, Changez tries to "hide" by becoming perfectly American: first by getting a great American job, then by dating an American, and finally by literally asking someone to imagine him as a white American man.

Chapter 8 Quotes

I sat on the airplane next to a man who removed his shoes — much to my dismay — and who said, after praying in the aisle, that nuclear annihilation would not be avoided if it was God’s will, but God’s will in this matter was as yet unknown. He offered me a kindly smile, and I suspected that his purpose in making this remark was to reassure me.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the novel, Changez still identifies as an American, in spite of his anxieties about the racism and brutality of the War on Terror. It's evident from the quotation that Changez feels he has more in common with his American peers than with many people from Pakistan. On a plane to Pakistan, for instance, Changez encounters an Islamic man who prays to God and claims that God, not man, controls nuclear war. Changez's encounter reminds us how thoroughly Western he's become: he lives in an American city, has an American job, seems not to practice Islam, and seems disturbed by those who do so publically.

But of course, Changez's discomfort with the ultra-religious Muslim passenger is only half the story. Changez doesn't seem to have much in common with the passenger, but he also feels like an outsider in New York City. In short, Changez is trapped in between two cultures—he's not fully "at home" in America or in Pakistan.

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.

I know only that I did not wish to blend in with the army of clean-shaven youngsters who were my coworkers, and that inside me, or multiple reasons, I was deeply angry.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Related Symbols: Underwood Samson
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

When Changez returns to New York from his trip to Pakistan, he decides to grow out his beard—making it crystal-clear that he's a foreigner, not an American. Moreover, Changez has begun to feel a deep, inexpressible anger with America and his American friends.

Changez lists "multiple reasons" for his anger. To begin with, he's angry with American culture for seducing him. During his time in Pakistan, Changez has come to realize how entitled and arrogant he's become: America has shaped him into the very thing he hates. Furthermore, the atmosphere of the United States after 9/11 has convinced Changez that he's still an outsider in America. In spite of his first-class education and excellent job, Changez is still viewed as a dangerous Middle Easterner. Changez has done everything he can to fit in with Americans, and yet he's still being punished for the color of his skin. Furious, Changez decides that he doesn't want to fit in anymore. Instead of trying to hide his outsiderness, Changez decides to celebrate his Pakistani heritage, to flaunt it in the face of a racist nation—hence his beard.