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Portraits of the Fundamentalist as a Young Man

Two Novels Take On The Challenge Of Sympathetically Looking Through The Eyes Of The Inscrutable

Okan Arabacioglu

By Zak M. Salih | Posted 6/20/2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist; The Sirens of Baghdad

By Mohsin Hamid; By Yasmina Khadra

Harcourt, hardcover; Nan A. Talese, hardcover

Reading about Islamic fundamentalism in today’s sociocultural environment is like staring into the gaping maw of some jungle man-eater: We’re captivated by the closeness of the serrated jaws and the seemingly impenetrable blackness of its mouth, all the while remaining aware that, at any moment, that maw can snap shut over our fragile heads. There is a similar catharsis in the recent wave of fiction devoted to understanding the fundamentalist, that curious and problematic animal whose origins and methods never fail to capture our attention.

What subject is better suited to the energies of the world’s novelists? Within the mind of an Islamic fundamentalist lies a wealth of themes and moral concerns ripe for the taking. The heartless decadence of Western civilization; the nature (and definition) of evil; the boundaries between preserving honor and seeking a mindless vendetta; the chaos of war and reconstruction; the seductive power of political and religious ideas--these are just some of history’s age-old themes that find themselves regurgitated in our post-Sept. 11 world. No surprise, then, that they form the heart of two recent additions to what will no doubt soon become a literary canon of fundamentalism: Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Yasmina Khadra’s The Sirens of Baghdad.

In exploring the roots of fundamentalism, both works posit a pivotal moment in their respective protagonist’s (or is it antagonist’s?) life, after which the world can no longer be seen in the same way. For Changez, the titular fundamentalist of Hamid’s slim new novel, that event is, not surprisingly, Sept. 11. Before then, this young Pakistani transplant had made his way through the highest echelons of American education and, Princeton degree in hand, landed a prestigious position with the powerful international valuation firm of Underwood Samson. Nestled in the warmth of the Western world’s embrace, Changez reacts to the televised terrorist attacks with an ironic smile. “I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees,” he recalls.

His professional life (as a tentacle of the West’s economic power) and his personal life (spent pursuing a deeply troubled young woman) shattered, Changez returns to his native country, where he lends his voice to the masses crying out against the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It is during an evening conversation with a mysterious American visitor that he recounts his story; this dramatic monologue lends itself to an interesting tension that unfortunately slips away as the present-day conversation awkwardly plods on to its foreseeable conclusion.

If Changez’s crisis of conscience comes at the hands of Sept. 11, then the divine moment of change for Khadra’s nameless young Iraqi is the result of a no-less-obvious event. Rooted in the chaos of war-torn Iraq, The Sirens of Baghdad places a majority of the blame on a night raid by a group of U.S. solders who burst into the young man’s house and, in a moment potent enough to make Freud shiver with psychoanalytic glee, humiliate his elderly father by pushing him to the floor and exposing his genitals.

The personal and cultural humiliation of this act, coupled with other episodes of military mismanagement, send the young man off to Baghdad, where he falls in with a group of radical insurgents and becomes instrumental in plotting a terrorist attack with the potential to dwarf Sept. 11. Burning with a frightening anger that makes the existential crisis of The Reluctant Fundamentalist look like a bad hair day, the young Iraqi is honor-bound to avenge the humiliation of his father and his family name. “Honor is no joking matter,” he seethes. “An offense must be washed away in blood, which is the sole authorized detergent when it’s a question of keeping one’s self-respect.”

Key to both of these novels, despite their narrative predictability, is the way in which they turn the idea of fundamentalism upside down. Most surprising of all is that the fundamentalism on display in these works has so little to do with the Islamic fundamentalism made an ever-present fear in our eyes. Both Hamid and Khadra work toward an understanding of fundamentalism as a complete and utter devotion not necessarily to violence but to a personal principle that has little regard for traditional standards of right and wrong. In the same way that Changez recognizes the negative implications of his reaction to Sept. 11, so too are we walking on delicate territory when we consider the fact that Hamid’s reluctant Pakistani and Khadra’s insurgent-in-training remain steadfast to their principles of country and family and determined to stand up for themselves in a world that tramples over them.

If these two works say anything about the future of fundamentalist-themed literature, it is that its focus will be on understanding the fundamentalist mind not as one consumed by a blanket hatred of the West but as one completely devoted to its own personal moral code, even at the expense of the rest of the world. In a bygone world, the poet John Donne stressed that no man was an island entirely to himself; these intimate portraits of fundamentalists as young men, the products of a radically different era, suggest otherwise.

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