The Reluctant Fundamentalist (and the Journalist Spy)
Courtesy: IFC Films
Moviegoers have any number of reasons to appreciate the achievements of the Indian-born filmmaker Mira Nair. The director of twenty-two titles (according to IMDb), she has created a body of work that not only elevates our cinema but elucidates our world, even as it simultaneously entertains and educates its audience. Her newest film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is in many respects her most ambitious. Based on the 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid, it tracks the progress of a son of the Pakistani elite who, after receiving a scholarship to Princeton, finds success at a McKinsey-like global consulting firm, where he enthusiastically embraces the pitiless diktats of global capitalism and reaps its seductive rewards.
The year is 2001 and, of course, a crisis is coming. Watching the towers come down, the young man—none too subtly named Changez (Riz Ahmed)—finds himself excited by the audacity of the attack upon this arrogant empire in spite of his moral revulsion at the mass murder. Lunching later with an elegant Turkish publisher whose business he has been instructed to shutter, Changez finds himself compared to a janissary—Christian boys captured and trained to attack their homelands by the Ottoman Empire—and cannot entirely disavow it. In the novel, told in the first person, he explains, “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.” Nair says it was this story that compelled her to purchase the rights to Hamid’s novel.
Changez grows a beard, quits his job, breaks up with his lover (Kate Hudson) and moves back home to Lahore to oppose the imperialists. He “reluctantly” exchanges the fundamentalist assumptions of The Wall Street Journal for those of the Koran.
Nair and her team have grafted another story onto Changez’s. It involves a frenzied American search for a kidnapped professor who is being held, Daniel Pearl–style, for execution as a spy. This part of the plot feels ripped from the headlines, as it vaguely echoes not only the story of Pearl but also the more recent one of Raymond Davis, the private contractor who, in Pakistan on a diplomatic passport, killed two Pakistanis and was held in a Lahore prison for months as the local populace demonstrated repeatedly for his execution. (To make matters worse, an SUV dispatched to the scene, apparently to try to extract Davis before his arrest, struck and killed another young Pakistani.) The case led to an enormous degree of tension between the United States and Pakistan and their respective intelligence agencies, as well as feelings of frustration and infuriating impotence on both sides, exposing the ugly underbelly of the two governments’ deeply cynical relationship.
Pakistan’s former US ambassador, Husain Haqqani, argued recently in Foreign Affairs that the alliance between the two nations in its current form is all but hopeless. The United States is interested in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban and does not really much care what this means for Pakistani society, so long as the nukes are safely stored. The Pakistanis are interested in soaking the United States for as much military aid as possible but see India, not the jihadis, as their primary adversary. Power is so diffusely distributed within Pakistan that it’s hard to tell who is on whose side anymore, which is a big part of the reason that Osama bin Laden apparently felt so comfortable hiding there for so long. Both nations are deeply unpopular with each other. Haqqani notes a 2011 Gallup poll in which Pakistan ranked with Iran and North Korea among Americans, while another poll, done by Pew in 2012, found that 80 percent of Pakistanis disapproved of the United States. But these numbers are not much different from what they were in 2002, “at arguably the height of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation against terrorism.”
Nair’s film does a fine job of humanizing these conflicts and is valuable for doing so. But watching it, I was troubled by the filmmakers’ addition of a counterpart to Changez, an American journalist (Liev Schreiber) who is also a CIA agent. As I told Nair, I found this easy equation of reporter with spy to be potentially dangerous to Western journalists working in the Arab world and elsewhere that anti-American jihadis operate and enjoy significant popular support. Nair put me in touch with the film’s writer, William Wheeler, who argued that, despite frequent denials by CIA spokespeople, such arrangements remain a reality. As he writes in an e-mail, “in a 2002 memo CIA director George Tenet refused to deny that the CIA would use ‘journalism as cover.’ The agency’s stated policy has been to avoid using American journalists and organizations as cover, but even this policy has a giant loophole, allowing the CIA to do so under extraordinary circumstances. Two French DGSC agents were posing as journalists in Somalia when they were abducted in 2009. It is an awful idea in general, but we are creating a fictional espionage film…. The scenario in our film is far from implausible.”
Implausible? No. Unhelpful? Yes—or so I fear. Wheeler argues (and Nair concurs) that “journalists are persecuted because they are journalists, not because their persecutors actually believe they are spies. Accusing innocent journalists of being CIA spies is most often a refuge of scoundrels—an excuse used by terrorist groups or totalitarian governments (like Assad’s Syria) to attack or persecute people whose articles they don’t like. These entities will continue to find reasons to persecute journalists like Daniel Pearl.” But if that is the case—if journalists are frequently accused of imagined CIA ties by those who abhor their reporting—why provide cinematic reinforcement of the stereotype that their attackers are seeking to exploit?
Wheeler also argues that my concern “radically over-inflate[s] our influence.” I surely hope so. But either way, I urge you to see this intelligent and challenging film and to ponder the myriad mysteries it so thoughtfully illuminates.
In 2008, Jeremy Scahill wrote about the rise of the private intelligence industry, including the rise of Blackwater (now Academi).