The Reluctant Fundamentalist: A New Politics of ‘Critical Localism’

While I am yet to watch the film version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (though ITHE+RELUCTANT+FUNDAMENTALIST1 hear great things about it), which I will most probably be watching next week at the IFC theater near NYU, here is a write-up I did a while back on the novel. Again, this might appear a little academic but there is no other way to treat a complex issue. Here I mostly focus on the politics of novels written around 9/11 and how The Reluctant Fundamentalist proposes a politics of the local/localism.

In an essay on 9/11, Richard Gray notes that the main action in these novels has retreated to the domestic sphere. In his response to Gray’s piece, Michael Rothberg cites Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall (2005) as an example of an endeavor to reclaim the public sphere once more. The turn toward the private might be a consequence of the corruption of the public/political which was saturated with the rhetoric of revenge after the attack. Rothberg very interestingly suggests that while Gray may be right that 9/11 novel in America does not show any formal experimentation, the real problem is not just that of form but of proposing a new form of politics that will reclaim the public sphere from the self-serving politicians.

In this brief essay, I try to show how Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalistthe reluctant fundamentalist novel cover offers a postcolonial form of politics that retrieves the specificity of local Muslim life in Pakistan. This form of politics could be called, following Arif Dirlik and James Clifford, ‘critical localism’, a mode of resistance against the ‘deterritorializing’ impulses of both global capitalism as well as Islamic fundamentalism, both of which operate as machines across the globe overriding territorial limits. Valdez Moses specifically provides the example ‘critical localism’ in Thomas Hardy’s novels as nostalgia for retrieving traditional communities.

In Hamid’s novel, the name of the protagonist Changez suggests past Muslim glory.  Also, the setting of the novel in Mughal empire’s monumental achievement, Anarkali Bazaar, denotes an ambiguous penetration of capital in Pakistan, which is at once a space where modern capitalist forms of consumption operate and it is also a place where the pre-capitalist past (in the form of the bazaar) survives. The setting highlights a communitarian dimension of life in place of the homogenous modern life under capitalist regimes. Thus, localism operates at the level of space/geography and also as a particular mode of life, culturally different and historically anachronistic.

While the most obvious way to read Hamid’s novel is to see his articulation of the local as a response to American capitalism. It is not that localism, as Dirlik reminds us, had disappeared but that it was simply ‘suppressed or, at best, marginalized in various ideologies of modern identity.’ Also, Hamid’s novel appears to be recoding what Dirlik had termed the new political movements as a ‘politics of difference’ and a ‘politics of location.’

Although from the perspective of global capitalism, the local is not a site of liberation struggle but one of manipulation. This is what Deleuze and Guttari terms as ‘deterritorialization’ or the capital’s very desire to produce a homogeneous global culture which contradictorily makes local resistance possible. But that is just one part of the story that the novel narrates. Another aspect of localism is the protagonist’s attempt to articulate national aspirations through activism on a university campus. (Here one is reminded of Imran Khan’s staunch nationalist stance vis-à-vis American influence in Pakistan’s domestic politics.)  This emphasis on the national is also an attempt to undermine the transnational imaginary of radical Islam. As Changez tells his American visitor: ‘I can assure you that I am a believer in non-violence; the spilling of blood is abhorrent to me…I am no ally of killers…’ It is not difficult to decode the reference to ‘killers’: the people helming American foreign policy as well as the radical Islamists.

It might appear that sometimes Hamid’s narrative defies my claim of a politics of ‘critical localism’: ‘I had returned to Pakistan, but my inhabitation of your country had not entirely ceased. I remained emotionally entwined with Erica, and I brought something of her with me to Lahore – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I lost something of myself to her that I was unable to relocate in the city of my birth.’ However, Changez’s emotional entwinement with Erica or the metonymically substitutable America complicates the notion of locality.

While inhabiting the borderland of the local and the global, ‘critical localism’ becomes a subject-position that is assumed as a matter of choice (‘I am not opposed to the building of walls to shield oneself from harm’) to subvert equally the claims of fundamentalist pan-Islamism and capitalist globalism. The contrapuntal vision of the returned (or exiled?) who views himself ‘at once inside and outside our world’ (Edward Said) refuses to buy into the binary rhetoric of ‘us’ and ‘them’ which defines both Islamic terrorism and the western ‘war on terror.’ As Changez claims: ‘Such journeys have convinced me that it is not always possible to restore one’s boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings as previously imagined ourselves to be. Something of us is now outside, and something of the outside is now within us.’

The global vision is rejected in favor of a local one and the local is no longer a walled off social life, rather a strategic, alternative subject position for the articulation of a radically different version of politics and Islam. No wonder Changez makes it his mission in life the advocacy of ‘a disengagement from your country [America]’ and organizes political demonstrations ‘for greater independence in Pakistan’s domestic and international affairs.’ These demonstrations are radically different from the articulations of the fundamentalist Islamists who use violence to resist the homogenous forces of western modernity and, paradoxically, to produce a homogenous vision of Islam. In the radical Islamist vision, Kamal Pasha writes, the internal heterogeneity of Islam and difference in ‘quotidian practices of Muslims across geographical frontiers, spanning varied local contexts, becomes subsumed under the common rubric of resistance to globalization.’

In the wake of 9/11, Hamid’s novel provides an example of ‘reterritorialization’ of Muslim life by reclaiming the public sphere. In contrast to the American 9/11 novels that retreat into the domestic space, the action in Hamid’s novel takes place in a prominent public space in Lahore, Anarkali Bazaar. While the American part of the novel mostly takes place in interior spaces – class room, plush corporate offices, house for romantic encounter with Erica, suggesting the cozy American domesticity and smugness born of consumerist, material comforts – the second part is about the exteriority of action. Even while narrating a traumatic memory, the narrative does not end up as a psychological quagmire of a disturbed individual. Changez’s individual story is juxtaposed with activities in the market place in Lahore and on a university campus in an attempt to reclaim the political space.

The banal everyday life, what Said calls ‘the human destiny’, is important for a politics of ‘critical localism.’ The history of Islam is as varied in different local contexts as that of any other religion. The discourses of Islamic terrorism in the context of globalization erase local differences in the process of constructing a pan-Islamic polemic in which the Islamic notion of ummah or unity in the quest of God becomes pervasive. As a counter to western as well Islamist discourses, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist proposes an aesthetic form of communicative engagement (the novel is unusual in that it is written in the second person because it addresses an American and the global readership) as well as ‘critical localism’ as a new form of politics.

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