Social Distance in Mohsin Hamid’s the Reluctant Fundamentalist

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Updated: Jul 03, 2021
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“Dating back to as early as European Colonization in the United States, race has always been a determining factor in how one person treats another. Whether seen through the enslavement of African Americans, the exploitation of Native Americans, or the current day push against illegal immigrants, the difference in skin color has become a major contributor to the racial hierarchy in America, with whites, historically, on top. As the U.S. has become more socially integrated, efforts for equality have grown through the creation of laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the passing of the 15th Amendment giving everyone the right to vote. However, internal prejudices have not disappeared. Equality is a fragile construct, which was shaken, as well as America’s perceived sense of safety, in correspondence with the events that occured on 9/11. A whole group of people, ethnically Arab or Muslim, were then subjectively seen as dangerous. Dehumanization became a common way of coping with what was seen as a breach in national security. Written by Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist paints a picture of the life of a Pakistani man living in the United States, Changez, both pre and post 9/11. He experiences what can be termed as social distance, or the amount of perceived societal space between one individual and another. In this paper, I will argue that Changez experiences an increase in social distance, in regards to relating to those around him, following 9/11 in America, due to the highlighting of race and national identities, and the growing disparities between social classes.

As mentioned, social distance can be defined as relationally feeling very far from another person, even if he or she was physically right next to you. The Bogardus Social Distance scale, developed in 1924, was one of the first measures of one’s position regarding a particular ethnic or racial group, often used to measure the attitudes toward African Americans in the United States (Geisinger). Though created in the 1920’s, it has continually been used to determine race relations as the atmosphere in America has shifted over time. The scale works by asking a series of questions determining the type of relationship the respondent would be willing to have with said person of a said race or ethnic grouping (Geisinger). Zero distance meant you would be willing to marry a member of that particular group, whereas maximum distance meant wanting to exclude that person from the country (Geisinger). Over the years, the scale has been looked at to determine social distance not just between ethnic groups but also race, religion, occupation, etc. (Triandis).

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Indicated previously, in the 1960s, Triandis and Triandis argued that Bogardus’ social distance scale could be used to measure attitudes outside of just ethnic groups, exploring factors such as race, religion, nationality, occupation, or political ideology. They propose that these factors intersect when determining social distance, seeing as they can not be viewed individually. As a result from their study, they found that race is the most important determinant for whites, followed by social class (Triandis). They also found that one’s nationality was the most important background variable, suggesting that “conformity may be by far the most important determinant of social distance” (Triandis). How much an individual conforms to the cultural expectations of the country they reside in can then determine anther’s willingness to accept that individual.

Furthermore, Schildkraut discusses the factors that play into either supporting ethnic polling following 9/11 or not, such as whether or not the Arab individual is a U.S. citizen, or how extreme the ethnic profiling is, i.e. simple questioning or internment camps. She defines ethnic profiling as “when law enforcement authorities use racial or ethnic characteristics to determine which people to subject to heightened scrutiny in order to prevent crimes from occurring” (Schildkraut). Specifically in this case, she is referring to Arab Americans or those who has Arab features. Among her discoveries, Schildkraut found that ethnoculturalism is the leading factor in individuals supporting ethnic profiling; ethnoculturalism being the ideology that there are strict borders on who can be a member of a specific group, in this case being considered “American”. Additionally, she measures to what extent one’s national identity affects policy debates and conceptions about needed security (Schildkraut).

Hence, in light of Bogardus’ Social Distance and previous literature, I argue that Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist exhibits an increase in social distance between Americans and those with the physical appearances of being Arab or Muslim, after 9/11 through the highlighting of race. This is first revealed in the novel directly following the fall of New York’s Trade Center Towers. The main character, Changez, was in Manila on a business trip and was flying back to New York. He was first stopped at the airport before boarding the plain, detained to a small room and forced to strip down for security (Hamid 74). Once he finally boarded, he felt spurned and uncomfortable. After landing in New York, he was separated from his white colleagues and was inspected among the foreigners. In the end, his fellow businessmen left without him and he rode home alone (Hamid 74). In this instance, he felt both physically and relationally disconnected from those around him.

I also predict that the plane passengers and his colleagues felt distance between themselves and Changez, due to the heightened security measures. In that moment, he is immediately labeled as dangerous because of his physical appearance, being from Pakistan, even though he was dressed in a suit, with white friends. Additionally, he comes home from Pakistan and is also labeled by those around him due to his race and the fact that he grew out his beard (Hamid 130). In doing so, he is alienating himself further, playing into what some Americans viewed features essential to the stereotypical Middle Eastern man. In Schildkraut’s study, she found that there was greater support for ethnic profiling of Arab men in relation to the amount of fear an individual has regarding a terrorist attack from an Arab person. In this way, his racial appearance in addition to the beard expand his social distance with the fellow plane passengers. when He refers to his beard as a “symbol of [his] identity” (Hamid 130), asserting that he is, in fact, different. The events of 9/11 shook him, reminding him of his home in Lahore.

Moreover, following 9/11, I argue that in Hamid’s book, social distance increases in accordance with a greater emphasis on one’s national identity. Being from Pakistan, Changez never feels American, even after attending Princeton and getting a high class job. He imitates being an American, however, in the end, he claims his identity as a Pakistani man. His “American” illusion is shaken first when he encounters a jeepney driver in Manila (Hamid 66-67) and then later when he smiles while watching the towers fall (Hamid 73), leading to Changez eventually letting himself watch some of the war between America and Afghanistan on the news (Hamid 99-100). In regards to the jeepney driver, though this event took place in the novel prior to 9/11, Hamid uses it as a foreshadowing to Changez later accepting his identity, as someone not belonging to America, which is pushed upon him after the Twin Towers fall. Changez is in a limousine with his white, American colleagues, when he looks out the window and sees a Filipino man staring at him with what Hamid describes as “undisguised hostility” (Hamid 66).

At first he cannot understand why, but he then turns to his colleague and realizes that he, Changez, actually feels much closer to the Filipino driver than his American friend. They share a “third world sensibility” (Hamid 66), meaning that they both felt ostracized from America in some way, like any other country, even if it was considered “established”, would be less than America herself, making someone feel like they simply do not belong. This social distance between himself and his American colleagues only grows once 9/11 takes place. He finds himself smiling, watching the towers in New York fall on the news, because of “the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees” (Hamid 73). In this moment, he claims his national identity as simply being, not American, and it separates him mentally and emotionally, meaning that he can not tell his American colleagues of his feelings. Later, after returning home from work one night, he turns on the television and is devastated while watching an American raid in Afghanistan. He “trembles with fury” (Hamid 100) because of the brotherly connection he feels to Afghanistan, seeing as that Pakistan is their neighbor. He begins to feel further and further separated from his friends, his boss, Jim, and his girlfriend, Erica. Whereas, they also begin to separate from him. Erica, for example, pulls away from him mentally, increasing the social distance, even if Changez is right next to her. Erica, in this instance is a metaphor for America, pulling away and into herself. Like Triandis argues, nationality is a strong factor in increasing social distance, as well as social class.

Likewise, it can be argued that following 9/11, social distance in America increased through the emphasizing of the disparities between social classes, as evidenced through when Changez hears of several Islamic cab drivers are beat up (Hamid 94) and when he later quits his job at Underwood Samson (Hamid 153). As America moves forward in what ends up being a self-proclaimed call for justice and retaliation, Changez discerns that there are Pakistani cab drivers being beaten to death, multiple FBI raids, and disappearances of Muslim men (Hamid 94). Changez convinces himself that these were unlikely to happen to him because of his higher social class, seeing that he graduated from Princeton and has a job at a prestigious valuing firm. In this instance, the relational space between Changez and those who share his same ethnicity is enlarged due to class status. He perceives himself to be better, distancing himself from what he claims as only rumors of violence. He later realizes he was simply in denial, eventually causing him to quit his job. He reaches the point where he can no longer live a life being someone who he is not. He could not be “a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading…” Afghanistan and possibly Pakistan (Hamid 152). Ultimately, due to 9/11, the feelings of isolation brewing in Changez were manifested. Even though he grew up with money in Lahore, he did not feel like he belonged with his high class American co-workers and friends. The internal turmoil and separation he felt led him to give it all up and, in the end, leave America.

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist provides deep insight into America’s response to attacks such as 9/11, and consequently, how it affects each individual in the country. It is these major events that reveal the cracks in the political system, and where prejudices still prevail in the minds of men. It has been found that one’s own background identity does contribute to what type of relationship one would be open to having with a person different from themself (Triandis). In Changez’s case, he never felt like he belonged in America, feeling that he “lacked a stable core” (Hamid 148). His own fragile identity came to light when America, herself, began to put up walls against his people. The distance between individuals only grew out of response to being so shaken. In the view of one’s identity, we can see how race, nationality and social class all play a role in an increasing social distance. The intersection of each factor forms an individual’s beliefs. Each identity was brought to the light in the wake of disaster, which ultimately had ramifications for each individual. For Changez, that was having to return to Pakistan. For Americans, I think that is a question that must be asked. What ideas or held conceptions does one have towards Muslim people in light of 9/11? And how can reconciliation happen, both within oneself and with those individuals. To understand and ultimately decrease social distance, one must choose to seek it out, and position their hearts toward people, rather than away.”

Social Distance in Mohsin Hamid’s the Reluctant Fundamentalist essay

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Social Distance in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. (2021, Jul 03). Retrieved from