The post-9/11 novel as a political and literary trauma. Fact and fiction in Mohsin Hamid's novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"

Scientific Essay, 2016

45 Pages


Table of Contents

I. 9/11 - a historical and political survey

II. The influence of 9/11 on Muslim Writing

III. The Reluctant Fundamentalist ̶ the prototype of a 9/11 novel

IV. Conclusion

V. Bibliography


It has now been fifteen years when America and the world were hit by a terror attack of a new and unknown quality. The Muslim terrorists belonging to Bin Laden's terror network Al- Qaida who hijacked several planes to use them as lethal weapons against America and her symbolic role as the country of freedom and democracy started a new era of political, social and religious uproar and chaos inexperienced so far.

This chaos expressed itself not only in the Gulf Wars that were to follow or the ongoing wars in Lybia, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan and the migration waves to Europe as a result from all this it also paved the way for a literary embodiment of 9/11 as a literary element which has found a fixed place within migrant writing in the widest sense and Muslim writing in particular.

The fact that writers from East (and West) incorporated this key date into their novels threw light on the fact that 9/11 did not only function as a global, national, collective, religious or individual trauma it also showed its widespread application for plot, character, constellations, speech and reception of many authors. The introduction and employment of 9/11 into contemporary literature slowly but steadily showed its ongoing importance for contemporary writing.

In 2007 the newspaper USA Today declared on a headline that 'Novels about 9/11 can't stack up to non -fiction' thus throwing light at the multiple use of it as a narrative element. In 2015 an editor for The New York Times Book Review suited that the necessity for a 9/11 novel goes on because it reflects 'a new age of terror'.

The fact that 9/11 is a widely used element of Muslim writing shows that it is this group of contemporary novelists who are aware of its manifold use for literature.

Literature is, however, always a reflection of social, political and religious conditions and it is exactly this link which is of special interest here.

The author of this text therefore first of all gives a general introduction into 9/11 before he tries to reflect in with Muslim writing and the post-9/11 novel thus throwing light on the close link between both sides and the literary conequences resulting from this. This will be done with the help of Mohsin Hamid's novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) which has by now been accepted as a masterpiece of this new genre.

Shall we go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard?

Shakespeare Henry V

I. 9/11 - a historical and political survey

The terror attacks of September 11th 2001 have changed the world. The consequences from the political, economical, cultural, moral and religious point of view are still having enormous effects and have split the world into two opposing sides. The ‘War on Terror’ proclaimed by President Bush quickly developed into a global war on terror known by the term GWOT.[1] The aims were the destruction of a (fictious) enemy and the protection of economic interests (Kepel, 2008: 7). The terminology used by the Bush administration is interesting to look at. The talk here is nor only about a ´War on Terror` or “This crusade on Terrorism” (Aslan, 2009: 59) it is also against an axis of evil. This (religious) phrase is a clear hint at Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan which became America`s main enemies during the Second World War and it has now been transferred to North Korea and above all Islamic terro

This historic link to the Second World War can also be seen in the traumatic similarities for America because 9/11 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour had the same effects on American society (Ende/Steinbach, 2005: 582).

The American reaction to the attacks of 9/11 included a fast military involvement it yet also meant a slow working up of these events. This statement surely goes for a literary reflection as well (see Enkemann, 2002: 46; Glass, 21.08.2006).[2]

The slow literary incorporation of the conflict between the West and Islam in general and 9/11 in particular went along with many mistakes made by America and her allies. The political instability in Iraq, the religious hardliners in Iran and Afghanistan and the rise of terror networks like Al-Qaida were followed by an ideological radicalisation on both sides. The result was a clear trend to religion as the central element of the conflict. This went for both sides and the reason could be seen in the attacks on America:

“This is a religious war. September 11 was only the beginning” (Sullivan, 07.10.2001).

Apart from politicians and religious leaders on both sides it was intellectuals and writers who saw a close connection between the question of personal freedom in our time. Salman Rushdie on the conflict between Islam and the West:

“Rather it is a war of fundamentalism against faith of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity” (Rushdie, 02.11.2001).

Rushdie here not only talks about the conflict between Islam and the West he also touches on a central weakness of Islam as a religion. Islam so far has not experienced a reformation or a secularisation. Globalization and migration processes will push this problem ahead and modern Islam will be confronted with the task of keeping or giving up its manifestation as a religion offering political identity (Talib, 2003: 24).

The present radicalization of young Muslims in Europe clearly shows this danger which is linked to a life in the diaspora, the experience of being religiously different and simple economic failure.

The consequence from this on the Muslim side is a critical reflection of this basis that only Islam can solve the question of Muslim identity – a notion close to blasphemy yet necessary for a peaceful living together.

The West must critically question its colonial past within the Muslim world along the intention to find a new access to the Muslim world in the face of the mistakes made in the past.

Milton-Edwards (2005) clearly has this in mind while stating:

“Most conservative explanations of the fundamentalist phenomenon in Islam, however, ignore this explanation. Muslims are blamed for their own failings and the failure of their societies. The role of the West was signified merely as ´quiet indifference` rather than the relentless expression of a foreign policy agenda designed to facilitate the national interest of Western states above all others. In some cases the challenges have been met head-on with islamic opposition and even revolution. In all that time, however, Islamic fundamentalism – however it is defined – has remained dynamic” (ibid.: 2005: 134).

The future of Islam and the West after 9/11, the Gulf Wars, the attacks of 7.07.2005 in London and the present conflicts will be followed by five main trends:

1. There will be a further escalation between these two cultural regions and between Islam and Christianity (Huntington thesis).
2. The basis for an honest dialogue between the three main monotheistic religions will be laid (Cornwall, 2004: 2; Newmann, 2005: 2-4; Heine/Haithan, 2006: 15-41; Sagemann, 2007; Eilstrup-Sangiovanni/Jones 2008; Lowndes/Thorp, 2010: 123ff.; Rifkin 2010).
3. Islam from the religious and political point of view paves the way for an internal reformation and secularization (see Gemein/Redmer 2005).
4. Muslim countries and governments must change their legal system based on the Sharia. This must go along a wider use of social media, the chance of education of the young generations, an economy which is open for changes and the guarantee of democratic patterns in society.
5. There will be an increase of religious fundamentalism (e.g. the IS).

Whatever the trend will be a clear side effect of 9/11 was the chance to start a new and critical access to Islamic topics in literature both in the West and the East.[3] The view is also shared by Bauder-Begerow/Schäfer (2011) who state:

“By taking to task the cultural responses to the events of September 11, 2001, literary and cultural studies may not only restate their preoccupation with how images, views and truths are fabricated” (ibid.: 10).

The attacks on America on September 11th 2001 meant a turning point in modern history. On this date people all over the world had to accept the fact that Western nations included ethnic and religious groups which are not willing to integrate. The members of these groups live their lives based on their own tradition, culture and religion. They radically separate themselves from mainstream society with the aim to destroy western culture and its values in order to replace them with a radical form of Islam. The basis for this can be found in modern migration processes setting in after World War Two and the phenomenon of globalization which radically changed modern man`s life. The danger of a Muslim talking over is yet more obvious in Europe (Ulfkotte, 2009: 19). For America things improved after President Obama moved into the White House. This president started to renew relationships with Muslim countries and he also exchanged his predecessor`s concept of a GWOT (Global War on Terror) for the notion of a “long war” (Hardy, 2010: 196), a term created by John Nagl. What is meant by this is the additional attempt to fight conflicts with Islam not only with military but also with political and economical aid and measures in order to eradicate radical Islam at its roots. Under President Obama America seems to recognize that the ongoing conflicts with Islam can not be won by military means simply because religious fundamentalism and modern terrorism dispose of an ideological dimension which can not be destroyed with weapons alone. What is needed as well is an intelligent and proper contact with people having a different cultural and religious background and generous economic help.

The West must keep in mind that the fight against radical Islam does not have to stay on the level of a fight against other governments it is above all a struggle against people, their ideas, their values, and most important their religion.

What is clear today is the fact that this fight takes place on a global scale involving three main challenges which are described by Hardy (2010) as follows:

“The triple challenge, then, is to understand Islam, Islamism and jihadism in all their diversity; to appreciate the roots of Muslim grievance; and, on this basis, to craft a set of co-ordinated policies – local, regional and global – designed to foster a less hostile and more equitable relationship between the West and Islam. A tall order? As tall as the Twin Towers. But without a new approach, based on a surer grasp of Islamism and its discontents, the Muslim revolt will continue for generations to come.” (ibid, 2010: 202)

Whatever development will take place two facts are unquestioned since 9/11. First, the world has become different and will stay different. Second, and this is important for the concept of this essay a literary incorporation of Islam, Muslim fundamentalism Muslim life in the West and the consequences of 9/11 seem to be of an ongoing interest for Islamic or Western writers and their readers.

It was a basic trend of the British press from the early 1980s until today yet especially in the course of 9/11 and the attacks of 2005 on the London Underground to present the Muslim world and the West as opposing parts. The basis for this can be found in a concept of 'Them' and 'Us'. This open difference between Islam and the West has a long tradition and on top a racist background with all its social consequences:

“This frequent tendency of the press to divide ´Islam` and ´the West`, even in the domestic sample, has obvious implications for the social inclusion of British Muslims” (Richardson, 2004: 113).

Richardson (2004) does not only see the platform for this racist trend in many British newspapers he pinpoints it down to two papers in particular. The Independent and The Guardian (ibid.: 153; also see Poole 2002 who presents an exact analysis of Muslim representation in British media). The closeness of Islam to terms like terrorism, fanaticism and extremism have created some sort of phobia on Islam which has reached a new dimension (McRoy, 2006: 18). Any survey of the presentation of Islam in the media in general and the press in particular over the last two or three decades supports this trend.[4] In this context the central role of the so called Rushdie Affair is undoubted because it added a radicalization of young Muslims to the already established xenophobia.

This radicalization is based on a high level of unemployment, a denial of Western and traditional values and an obvious weakness of the police – taken together all topics idea for an ideal presentation in the press.

The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in 2001 also included a cultural, social and religious instability within the Muslim community itself. Along the military engagement of the West during the Gulf Wars and its presence in many Muslim countries an influx to radical Islam could also be seen and became object of press publications. (Gemein/Redmer, 2005: 205ff.; Milton-Edwards, 2005: 113ff.; Gabriel, 2007: 86ff.)

The key role of 9/11 is also seen by Poppe/Schüller/Seiler (2009) and it has become clear since then that a completely different presentation of Islam in the media in general has been picked up. The trend here went from the exotic and romantic to a negative one. This again was the main reason for the existing phobia on Islam whose basis is a mix of facts, half truth and mystic elements. (Brown, 2006: 297-299; Yousef 02.01.2011).

As already been pointed out the openness of many young Muslims for fundamentalism is closely attached to violence. Kelek (2010) here not only talks about the low level of integration he also warns against a further increase in all forms of violence:

“Mit wachsender religiöser Bindung steigt die Gewaltbereitschaft der jungen Muslime tendenziell an“ (Kelek, 22.01.2010).

The result of many press publications on Islam and Fundamentalism in countries like America or England can be seen in the description of Islam as a cultural and religious concept opposed to the West. The use of opposing terms such as good and bad was one result of this (Ruf 2009: 119ff.). Another was a presentation of Islam as a religion which lacks and denies any secular interest (Hippler, 2009: 265), is radical, violent and megalomaniac (Der Spiegel 41/ 2001). This all was accompanied by a dualistic basis which differs between modern and pre-modern, progress and regression, rationalism and irrationalism (cf. Schneiders 2009).

II. The influence of 9/11 on Muslim Writing

"The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us. The writer tries to give memory, tenderness, and meaning to all that howling space."

Don DeLillo In the Ruins of the Future

Migrant writing as a major element of contemporary English speaking literature of the last 5 centuries has constantly been connected to topics such as the trauma of migration, exodus, immigration, assimilation, diaspora and identity matters all of which can be connected to religion indirectly or directly. It is Haviland (2010) who comments on traumatic losses or events and their recovery which the words that in general "narrative plays an important role in these models" (ibid.: 429). This close connection to the religious stems form the fact that religion (just like culture) is a major 'identity provider' with a touch of a resistance identity which helps to contrast the opposing worlds the migrant has to face. Literature and religion -which had lost their traditional close ties of the past - were suddenly re-discovered by Muslim (and some Western writers as well) with the aim to deplore individual characters or topics such as the 'war on terrorism'. Yet novelists writing about Islam and terrorism in particular seem to mix the alien and other with the sinister and violent.

Terrorism (to which 9/11) belongs can thus be seen as an element of criticism or attacks on a (seemingly) tyrannizing state which fundamentalists like to replace with an even more terrorizing regime. It is especially the growing group of Muslim writers who here seem to follow Dostoevsky or Conrad who are considered to be the pioneers of terrorist writing. For the American situation one consequence following from 9/11 was the fact that America equated 9/11 with terror. The most important novels published in the aftermath of 9/11 are definitely John Updike's The Terrorist (2006) , Don DeLillo's Falling Man (2008), Alexie Sherman's Flight (2007), Khaled Hossein's novels The Kite Runner (2003), A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), T he Mountains Echoed (2013) and Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007).

On the British side pioneer works here are Kiran Desai' s The Inheritance of Loss (2006), Hisham Matar' s In the Country of Men (2007), or Salman Rushdie' s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015) along the large number of female writers such as Monica Ali, Tahmima Anam, Fadiy Faquir, Samina Ali or Kia Abdullah who included 9/11 as an element to push the action or to simply reflect character development or character constellations.[5]

Within the very short timespan of 15 years the 9/11 novel has developed into a contested and troubled genre because 9/11 was (and is) more than a historical event, it is a setting which itself started an explosion of fiction that wasn't necessarily to have been. It showed, however, that the 9/11 topic of fiction is of special quality and need because novelists want to reanimate reality. Writers and readers alike have the chance to draw themselves back into the orbit of life because mankind has become apathetic or simply shocked and traumatized because of the events of that day. It was the theologian Michael Wyschogrod who remarked in the face of the Holocaust that 'Art takes the sting out of the suffering' and it is here where the basic attempt of this genre can be seen.

The wide employment of 9/11 as a literary element in many contemporary novels disposing of a Muslim background does, however, not necessarily mean that critics talk about a new genre of the terrorist novel, the historic novel or a new type of detective novel but it definitely hints at this manifold employment of 9/11 as a literary element. Apart from the strictly speaking literary function it is the general mix between the religiously alien function of the Islamic background which this date includes. It is exactly with the help of 9/11 that novelists and readers alike are confronted with a violent other of a new kind. Otherness itself has found a fixed place in contemporary migrant writing but it is the Islamic elements which have created this radical quality.[6] To merely talk about the literary side does, however, not fully cover the full range of 9/11 since there is always a negative political manipulation and a negative multiplication that goes along any literary employment of this day. It is these two poles which finally make the reader reflect the literary presentation of any Muslim characters among which there is hatred, misunderstanding or sympathy which novelists cover in many contexts such as biographies or religious and political contexts.

Most Muslim writers are aware of this difficult inclusion of 9/11 into their works and it is here where they often function as postcolonial writers who have always found themselves between the classical constellation of native and alien or Islam and the West. It is here where they are often trapped in the fault line of these binaries and it also exactly in these fields where they have to place and to present their characters who have to re-adapt their lives. Apart from the biography or semi-biography it is also the use of familiar postmodernist or modernist devices such as the disjunctive chronology which make up the plot.

One result from this use of 9/11 therefore lies in a critical revision of the West as the place where oppressed and modern oriented people can find shelter from a militant Orient whose representatives carry bombs, function as suicide bombers or hijackers.

It is this militant background which reminds the reader that anger, hatred and fury are the easiest emotions life offers and that violence as such is an easygoing tool and too automatically used to solve complex personal and political problems.

This also goes for the Western readers who should be aware of the fact to simply label militant Muslims (in live and fiction) as being paranoid.

The fact that these characters are set in the West and in Muslim countries alike shows that the novel - as Said suggested - hints at the polarity of East and West which too often is still governed by the national and colonial histories of the Muslim countries and their Western colonization. What is striking so is the fact that Islam as a religion is often presented as being apart from politics. This also goes for the use of militant jihad since both are mostly used to support the narrative as such. Militant Islam or jihad are also often used to deconstruct the rigid logic of the violence 9 / 11 includes and both mainly help to show (or break down) the above mentioned polarities between East and West.

The present trend of many Muslim writers is to take the narrative away from the West to the former colonies (or their reflection of both) and it can therefore be seen as an attempt to show the ongoing personal and postcolonial desire to create independence.

Novels including terrorism in general and 9/11 in particular are often marked by a deep pessimism and cynicism about politics which they attach to the personal of the main characters or a nation. In short the Muslim side is deeply rooted in the three classical traumatic events the Muslim world had to face with the West. The first encounter of this kind were the crusades which were followed by Western imperialism of the 17th, 18th and 19th century which humiliated Islam culturally, economically and religiously. The third - and in its own kind - the most dangerous one is the present development of globalization which has attacked (and still attacks) Islam in all its spheres. One major result from this was a feeling of humiliation within the Muslim world by the West which was linked with the permanent wish of the Muslim world to get recognition (Moïsi 2009: 92-97; 105 ff.). This feeling of having lost the belief in oneself can therefore be considered to be one major reason for the renaissance of Islamic fundamentalism and 9/11 is a logical result from this. Hourani (1992) already hinted at this while stating about the Arabic world and its problem to have lost "den Glauben an sich selbst" (ibid.: 369).


[1] The phrase of the American Global War on Terror implies a multiple literary meaning such as the new American interpretation of the old and new Europe (see Habermas/Derrida, 31.05.2003; Lakoff 2006). It also stands for a concept of a war against terrorism which is difficult to lead and not easy to win. Terrorism is hereby understood as a disease which can damage the body (here America). One therefore has to fight it like a disease an idea which can already be seen in Hobbes’ Leviathan (Musolff, 2002: 328). In this context Islam is understood as a religion which has become insane by terrorism (Hippler 2009: 267) and therefore war with Islam is a logical consequence (Kaldor 2000; Emig 2001).
Meyssan (2003) links this reaction of America and the West to religious motifs. The attacks are seen as a punishment by God (ibid.: 81/82; 84) following the principle taken from the Old Testament ´An Eye for an Eye, a Tooth for a Tooth` (also see Kaplan 2005; Vertigans 2009). Once these ideas were taken up and linked with an enemy coming from the East it became clear that any attempt to manipulate this concept meant an attack of a war closely connected to the notion of a ´Holy War`. It yet has to be pointed out clearly that the military involvement of America and her allies must also be seen from the economical point of view. It is nothing else but a modern continuation of the economic interest of the old colonial powers Great Britain, France, Russia and Turkey known by Kipling`s phrase ´The Great Game` (for the effects of 9/11 see Heine 2006: 130; 139ff).
It is yet Friedman (2006) who clearly sees the misuse of this date by the Bush government for the American people themselves when he says: “In doing so, Mr. Bush not only drove a wedge between Americans and the world, he drove a wedge between America and its history and identity” (ibid.: 617).

[2] This slow literary incorporation of 9/11 is best described by Adjorján (07.08.2011) who almost one decade later made the following statement:
“9/11 ist keine eindeutige Geschichte. Sie endet nicht mit dem Tod Bin Ladens, und wo sie beginnt, bleibt vage und mysteriös. Das ist es, was das Ergebnis so interessant und gewaltig macht“.
For the symbolic and aesthetic importance of this date see Virillio (2002), Baudrillard (2002), Frow (2003), Amis (2008).

[3] The literary reflection of 9/11, the Gulf Wars and the war in Afghanistan used terms like crusade, axis of evil or war against terror. These terms can also be seen as examples of political manipulation and literature as a political weapon because both exactly want to create the reality they want. In short:
“By this view, narrative is central for practices of persuasion in political contexts” (Nünning, 2008: 188).
For a further critical reflection of 9/11 also see Hufschulte, 18.08.2011; Bender, 04.09.2011; Ford, 11.09.2011.

[4] The phobia against Islam appears as a mix of helplessness and defamation which is marked by all which can not be classified or understood and which is labeled as being “al-Quaida-nah” (Huhnholz, 2010: 52).

[5] Forerunners of 9/11 novels introducing radical Islam and fundamentalism are Hanif Kureishi's Black Album (1995), My Beautiful Laundrette (1986), Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988), V.S. Naipaul Among the Believers (1981). Today it is the large group of female Muslim writers such as Leila Aboudela, Fadia Faquir or Tahmima Anam who embedded radical Islam into their novels along matters of emancipation.The literary output of novels after September, 11 2001 is tremendous and multiple. Muslim and Western writers alike were and still aware of the vast use of 9/11 as a literary element. The list given here to the reader is incomplete, it does however throw light on the large number of writers who employed it into their works in a multiple way and different genres. All novels are listed up according to their year of publication: Mohsin Hamid Moth Smoke ( 2001), Monica Ali Brick Lane (2003), Nicholas Rinaldi Between Two Rivers (2004), Khaled Hosseini The Kite Runner (2004), Asne Seierstad The Bookseller of Kabul (2004) David Foster Wallace (2004) , Ian McEwan Saturday (2005), Bret Eaton Ellis Luna Park (2005), Dan Fespermann The Warlord's Son (2005), Benjamin Kunkel Indecision ( 2005), Salman Rushdie Shalimar the Clown (2005), Chris Adrian A Better Angel (2006), Robert Ferrigno Prayers for the Assassin (2006), David Llewellyn Eleven (2006), Jay McInerney The Good Life (2006), Joel C. Rosenberg The last Jihad (2006), Ian Mcewan Saturday (2006) ,Claire Messud The Emperor's Children (2006), Carolin See There will never be another you (2006), Jess Walter The Zero (2006), Helen Schuman A day at the beach (2007) , Martin Amis The Second Plane (2008), Nadeem Aslam's The Wasted Vigil (2008), Andre Dubus III The Garden of Last Days (2008), H. Noavi's Home Boy (2008), Joseph O'Neill Netherland (2008),Salman Rushdie The Enchantress of Florence (2008), David Levithan Love is the Higher Law (2009), Kamila Shamsie Burnt Shadows ( 2009) . Anna Perera Guantanmo Boy (2009), Jonathan Franzen Freedom (2010) , Don DeLillo Point Omega (2010), Amy Waldmann The S ubmission (2011), Thomas Pynchon Bleeding (2013), Nora Raleigh Baskia Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story (2016) , Gae Polisner The Memory of Things ( 2016). A special genre of 9/11 fiction are teenage books which use the teenage point of view to reflect this day and its consequences. The most important ones here are: Wendy Mills, All we have left, Nora Raleigh Baskin , Nine, Ten. A September 11 Story, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Towers Falling. It is of course also a complete genre of the novel - the detective story - which picked up 9/11 as the perfect narrative element. See e.g. Pynchon 's Bleeding Edge ( 2013).

[6] The talk here is about another important element of migrant writing which lies in the presentation of the disporic cultural and religious identity which seem to focus itself out as the key element of Muslim writing as the literary form to reflect Muslim hybrid existence which includes a kind of identity 9/11 reflected, namely resistance identity as the form of modern Muslim existence in the West. Postcolonial writing in the past has been marked by concepts of exile, exodus, trauma migration, immigration, assimilation, ghetto, diaspora or globalization all of which together formed the 'migrant condition' (see Edwards 2008). Since 9/11, however, this 'migrant condition' has been added up to religious fundamentalism which radicalized it in many ways while newly stressing Muslim identity with the result of distinguishing between Muslim and non Muslim identity as such.

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The post-9/11 novel as a political and literary trauma. Fact and fiction in Mohsin Hamid's novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"
Comenius University in Bratislava
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Dr. Matthias Dickert (Author), 2016, The post-9/11 novel as a political and literary trauma. Fact and fiction in Mohsin Hamid's novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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