To Celebrate, or to Decry, Religion: Fiction by Zadie Smith and Mohsin Hamid
In White Teeth by Zadie Smith and The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, the authors demonstrate the different ways that religion can become a factor in cultural tradition and in friction between different racial groups and nationalities. The character of Changez Khan in The Reluctant Fundamentalist becomes a defender of jihadi ‘fundamentalist’ actions through outside events and as a reaction to American aggression, rather than as an expression of true internal Islamic beliefs. Other characters, however, associate him with the Muslim faith due to his country of origin and culture, and religion appears inextricable from culture throughout the novel. Smith’s approach diverges to some extent from Hamid’s, as White Teeth explores the extent to which its characters try to form precise identities through tension with their original religions and cultures.
For example, in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the first physical characterisation of Changez given to the reader is his ‘beard’, in the opening paragraph. Although the vernacular here, which Changez maintains throughout, is extremely polite and initially phatic (as his first sentence is ‘Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?’: a phrase that could even appear willingly subservient) the unnamed American is ‘alarmed’. Hamid then exhibits the implied assumptions, which the American has presumably made in order to be afraid, in the sentence, ‘Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America’. A beard within in the setting of Lahore implies a commitment to the Islamic faith, as the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi, Hanbali and Shia schools of religious law encourage men to grow beards in order to emulate the Prophet. The setting is only revealed to the reader later, however, so all they have to infer Changez’s alarming qualities from is the second half of the sentence, ‘I am a lover of America’. As this implied statement of his foreignness completes the description of his traditionally religious appearance, Hamid links culture and religion as associated and equal threats to a white American citizen.
Changez describes the past relationship of Erica and Chris after she has left him, saying ‘Perhaps the reality of their time together was as wonderful as she had, on more than one occasion, described to me. Or perhaps theirs was a past all the more potent for its being imaginary. I did not know whether I believed in the truth of their love; it was, after all, a religion that would not accept me as a convert. But I knew that she believed in it, and I felt small for being able to offer her nothing of comparable splendour instead.’ If Erica and Changez’s relationship is interpreted as representative of his ultimately unsuccessful infatuation with the West, then it is significant that the previous love between two Americans is a ‘religion that would not accept (him) as a convert’: he cannot replace the American Chris or truly emulate his life. Hamid therefore may be implying that to the West, religion and culture are inextricable. The description of these two Americans’ relationship specifically centres on ambiguity over how much was ‘imaginary’, although Changez questions through emphatic italicization whether the truth of this American religion matters as much as this particular individual’s faith: ‘I knew that she believed in it’. Hamid continues the lexical field of religion in his mention of its ‘splendour’ as well, a word often associated with ‘God’s light’, and when Changez sees Erica later at the clinic, he describes her as looking ‘devout’ and starved, as though she has been ‘too consumed by prayer’ to eat. Changez also describes the downfall of Erica as ‘powerful nostalgia’, clearly echoing the condemnation of ‘crippling nostalgia’ in America. This force is a connection that Changez cannot understand, as he is outside of it, and acts as an illogical compulsion. This conceptual metaphor, stretching across the novel as it does, frames an American presence as a religious one, as though to clarify to Hamid’s Western audience that patriotic connection to the United States could be as mystifying and threatening to someone from Pakistan (even one capable of being comfortable in America) as Islam could potentially be to them. Arguably, as personal religion does not affect Changez’s life in isolation, but the confusion and appeal to faith over logic of American nostalgia does harm Erica, Hamid even portrays the appeal of America as a more powerful dogmatic religious force within the novel than Islam itself.
Changez identifies himself with the ‘janissaries’ of the Ottoman empire, observing ‘I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine’. This ‘kinship’ is one of both race and religion, which form a more convincing, familial connection than his geographical one to America when he lived there. Although the janissaries were Christians forced to serve for a Muslim army, suggesting that the Islamic religion itself is not inherently exploited by others or indeed necessary to the allegory, the fact that he sees himself as metaphorically serving another religion as well as a rival nation reinforces the idea of Americanism as a religion. The location of this epiphany corroborates a prioritisation of ideological ‘kinship’ over geographical loyalty: in Chile, there is nobody he knows or cares about, but Juan-Batista influences him significantly due to the anti-American outlook that they share. His decision to grow a beard also stems from this visit: religion is again an instrument in resentment against a nation.
In White Teeth, Smith portrays Islam disconnected from culture through the character of Millat Iqbal, as Smith contextualises his conversion to the fundamentalist group K.E.V.I.N. by Western culture more than by the traditional Muslim upbringing that Samad had, which he tries to bestow upon the more academic twin Magid through sending him to Bangladesh. Millat’s obsession with American gangster movies influences his journey into fundamentalism: when trying to reject thoughts of the films, the recurring reference to Goodfellas in his mind, ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’, becomes ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Muslim’. This clear parallelism may emphasise the lack of any original, purely introspection-inspired motivation behind his desire to join K.E.V.I.N., but Smith is also demonstrating that this decision originates from a compulsion towards the clear order of an organisation like the mafia. Unlike his twin, Millat has stayed in multicultural, confused London as a second-generation immigrant with little sense of his roots, and as a result his mind is a ‘mess’ of West and East, requiring any structure or connection to his own culture. Ironically, by joining this organisation, he also rejects his cultural roots by turning away from his father’s form of Islam and guidance. The organisation of young men are all seeking their own religious origins through the ‘fundamentals’, as Millat describes ‘clean living, praying (five times a day without fail), fasting, working for the cause, spreading the message’, although he admits that it ‘pissed him off that were not pious thoughts’ and hesitantly adds ‘And that was enough, wasn’t it? Maybe. Whatever’, teenage vernacular imbuing his introversion with a dismissive shallow attitude towards deeper faith. The missing connection to culture and faith here is therefore within the mind, and in the deeper contemplation or compassion that these directionless young men lack.
Samad is a displaced Muslim character, similar to Changez. Although he has moved to a Western culture, however, Samad clings to his faith in the face of Smith’s diverse London, what Irene Pérez Fernández describes as a ‘multicultural space where a homogenous cultural identity is questioned’ or ‘a hybrid reality that for (Smith) is not extraordinary or magical but a part of (her) ordinary life’. He maintains a single identity, unlike the more confused second-generation characters, through his religion and his deeper mental connection – untainted by Western contextualisation unlike his son. He sees his roots as intrinsic, as he explains to Arthur: ‘”I don’t eat [pork] for the same reason you as an Englishman will never truly satisfy a woman … It’s in our cultures, my friend.” He thought for a minute. “Maybe deeper. Maybe in our bones.”’ His pause for thought, replicated by an actual break in the reported speech, and the anaphora of ‘Maybe’ subverts his actual word, as though he is uncertain about this supposedly certain fact of his identity. Smith also appears to criticise this interpretation within the text, however, by having him drink and commit adultery: his loyalty appears to be to a cultural ideal of religion rather than the religious tenets themselves. Smith also declares ‘If religion is the opium of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister.’ Religion does not act alone here; Samad commits the ‘sinister’ act of effectively kidnapping his own son due to an idea of cultural tradition in his head rather than a commitment to Allah, as the surroundings provide a cultural external force: Magid could have simply become more devout anywhere. He appears to be far more certain in his religious identity than Millat, but the maintenance of cultural traditions in combination with Islam causes him to tear his family apart.
Contrastingly, Smith evokes a complete rejection of roots through the character of Clara Bowden and her decision to leave behind religion. Her family are also inextricable from their identity as Jamaican Jehovah’s Witnesses, so Clara has consciously decided to disrupt that emotional connection as well as their inherited culture. Smith hints, however, that due to her upbringing, she may always be resisting an urge to relapse into faith. When she chastises her mother for influencing Irie, Smith undermines her words: ‘”Hortense, I don’t want you filling her head with a whole load of nonsense. You hear me? Your mother was fool to it, and then you were fool to it, but the buck stopped with me and it ain’t going no further. If Irie comes home spouting any of that claptrap, you can forget about the Second Comin’ ‘cos you’ll be dead by the time it arrives.” Big words. But how fragile is Clara’s atheism!’ The mention of ‘the buck’ stopping with Clara acknowledges that faith is her cultural legacy, and while ‘it ain’t going no further’ appears to emphatically deny the possibility of Irie succumbing, the fact that she has to violently warn her mother away demonstrates how ‘fragile’ Clara’s resolution is. The abrupt two-word sentence ‘Big words’ also imparts a cynical, unimpressed narrative voice through a bathetic contrast with the previous sentences’ dramatic invocation of ‘the Second Coming’. These ‘big words’ stand out as denial particularly because Clara is such a practical character, as demonstrated by Smith when the character gradually decides to break away from religion: ‘The more blessed she felt on earth, the more rarely she turned her thoughts toward heaven. In the end, it was the epic feat of long division that Clara simply couldn’t figure. So many unsaved. Out of eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses, only 144,000 men could join Christ in heaven.’ By rejecting her own roots and religion, Clara also rejects ‘division’. This loss of identity is therefore actually quite positive within context: unlike Samad, Clara’s lack of connection to her culture is a choice, and therefore she can derive meaning from it rather than clinging to religion.
The critic James Wood criticised Smith as participating in a common contemporary trait of ‘hysterical realism’, a ‘fear of silence’ that prioritises dense stories and sub-stories over any real portrayal of human beings. This accusation of social and theoretical ‘glitter’ may appear justified in the use of religion as interconnected with her theme of cultural and racial roots, rather than as a personal experience tied to the characters, but it could be argued that the confusion of motivations behind each character’s interaction with religion only accurately reflects modern misconceptions. As Smith replied, her writing is a response to confused times: ‘laughter in the dark’, with a ‘useful employment’ of both head and heart in order to create empathy and analysis. In terms of reception, some have also criticised The Reluctant Fundamentalist for its avoidance of Islam as a religion, separate from culture and country, and the narrator’s personal religious views. Radicalisation expert Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens accused the novel of deliberately building a ‘far too simplistic’ parallel between Islamist fundamentalism and western capitalism, by portraying Changez’s reluctant turn towards fundamentalism as solely a reaction to American politics rather than admitting any real reinvigoration of his Muslim faith. However, the blur between religion and culture within the novel reflects the reality of incorrect assumptions made by Western society overall, similar to the stranger who calls Changez an ‘Arab’ in Chapter 8.
The criticism of religion in these novels depends on a relationship between culture and religion: when characters are separated from their family’s country, their link back to it is through religion, whether forced onto them by the assumptions of others or chosen themselves in a quest for meaning. Hamid’s novel, in considering a wider clash between West and East, focuses on how religion can be a part of assumptions made against another culture: an instrument in cultural biases rather than a choice made by an individual. On the other hand, Smith displays religion as a tie to your roots, which her characters chase after or reject based on their comfort within a multicultural London. Either way, the contemporary writing styles of the authors naturally lend themselves to a political interpretation about the confusion and aggression brought by this ambiguity between culture and religion in a post-9/11 world.
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