I am taking an English course this year called “Terrorism and Modern Culture.” From the title you can make accurate assumptions about what is discussed in that 75 minute bi-weekly class. Since we live in a post 9/11 world, terrorism is an important concept to define but difficult to understand.
In this course we read theories from historians, psychologists, and theorists, each approaching the study of terrorism from untouched angles. But this course is not American exceptionalist propaganda. Instead, it is attempting to expose a widely accepted ideology regarding terrorism in the West. To be more precise the course descriptions reads, “A primary presumption of the course is that popular American conceptions U.S. power, foreign policy, and foreign relations are dominated by an ideological system that makes it difficult for Americans to encounter foreign perspectives of their nation. This system consists partly of representations of U.S. power (from the popular to the scholarly); it consists also of a covert sphere of U.S. government that keeps U.S. foreign policy secret from the citizens who must assent to its deployment.” Furthermore, we discuss the use of fiction as a powerful tool that shapes popular conceptions of terror and anti-terrorism.
It was in this course that I read Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The novel is 184 pages. It’s a fast read. But the amount of time it took me to rifle through the pages does not equal the time it has still taken me to absorb all that I read. Hamid’s novel is set in a cafe at Lahore, Pakistan and it is a frame story. The main episode is a conversation between a Pakistani and uneasy American tourist. But the unique element to this story is how it is told. It is a conversation but the reader only hears the voice of the Pakistani, named Changez. He dominates the conversation because he approaches the American and forces him to listen to his life story, which is profoundly interesting. The story develops as a detailed account of Changez’s former life as a self-proclaimed New Yorker successfully climbing the corporate ladder at an acclaimed valuation firm. He is completely taken by American culture and receiving money to support his family in Pakistan. He even falls in love with an American woman. Changez is thriving by American social and economic standards. But then September 11, 2001 occurs and Changez is forced to face his adopted identity. It is here in the book that a concept of terrorism is exposed. Changez’s reacted to watching the Twin Tower attacks by smiling. He said, “I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.”
This moment in the book was a game-changer for me. How could someone who was grafted as a product of America react with so much hate and disdain. Our class discussed this question to no satisfying avail. But that’s the point. We cannot comprehend the response because those attacks took something away from our nation. It stole the lives of innocent men and women for a reason much of us still do not understand. The story of Changez is fictional, but a valuable one to know. The story does not stop at his reaction to 9/11, instead the events act as a step toward his transformation. Throughout his four years in America (he was a 22-year-old post graduate from Princeton) he struggles with accepting his identity as a Pakistani. Oftentimes, he ignors his nationality to appear more American for his colleagues and America. But the events of 9/11 cause him to realize that America is not for him because he is not American. Moreover, his duty is to his country and that is where his purpose lies.
The seismic shift of Changez’s identity is reflective to the concept of terrorism. How do most Americans define a terrorist? Is it based on an individual’s religion, skin-color, nationality or job description? In this course we read several novels and conceptions that have caused me to question my idea of terrorism. Changez’s internal dilemma with identity turns into an external response to America responding to the then recent terrorist attacks. He is torn between choosing his country, the security of America and deciding where he belongs. But America rejects him and leaves him prey to racial profiling and crude comments. This new New York forces him back to his home, Lahore, Pakistan. But it is his retreat back home and involvement in anti-American and pro-Pakistan demonstrations that causes American’s to view him as a potential terrorist. My questions is why? If one chooses to refute American fundamentalism does that make he or she a possible threat to national security? What do you think defines a terrorist? The novel is worth a read. It is quick and it raises lots of questions. I recommend that if any of these questions resonate with you to pick of the book and tell me what you think.
Apparently the novel is becoming a motion picture starring Kate Hudson, Riz Ahmed, Liev Shreiber and Kiefer Sutherland. So perhaps discussion won’t end here.