Fanaticism—the Malignant Inflexibility of our Cultural Beliefs

By Taggert Smith

Our discussion of Hanif Kureishi’s short story “My Son the Fanatic” spanned a wide range of topics, but by the end came to focus on the question of who was in the right—Parvez or his “fanatical” son Ali. To my view the tragic emotional divide of father and son implicates a cancerous and truly fanatical inflexibility in both parties’ beliefs-around gender, religion, and society in general.

The noun ‘fanatic’, per Oxford Languages, originally described “behavior that might result from possession by a god or demon.” This idea of “possession” implies being owned and controlled by our beliefs–what might be imagined as a god or demon–rather than the reverse.

“My Son the Fanatic” puts religious fanaticism we’re familiar with—embodied by Ali—alongside our established constrcutiosn of gender norms, as well as other inflexible culturally held beliefs, seen in Parvez as well, prompting the audience to question the effects of our accepted societal constructions.

Parvez’s beliefs around the role of a male son in his worldview are clearly laid out in his expectations for Ali: “to get a good job, now, marry the right girl and start a family.” Parvez feels entitled to these expectations for Ali thanks to the sacrificial role he has played as a father, and feels AlI ought not to exercise his freedom of beliefs accordingly.

In trying to solve the puzzle of Ali’s rebellion between Parvez and Bettina, they come to the shared understanding that all people need “a philosophy to live by,” a need which Ali recognizes and has addressed with religious fundamentalism. Optimistically, Bettina counsels Parvez, “You must tell him what your philosophy of life is. Then he will understand that there are other beliefs.’

However—in a turn I’m sure is familiar to everyone who has ever tried to argue with someone whose mind is made up—Ali takes the presentation of Parvez’s own beliefs as a fundamental assault on his own, hotly declaring, “Around the world millions and millions of people share my beliefs. Are you saying you are right and they are all wrong?” Throughout the story Ali has been unable to give any respect to the coexistence of differing views and experiences of gender and religious roles, much as we see in Western culture’s current discussion around gender.

Parvez’s frustration at the unsanctioned path his son has taken finally boils over, and he physically beats his son without warning nor explanation. In this final scene both father and son seem to realize the utter inflexibility of the other’s worldview, as they live out the brutal results of that fanaticism. Parvez “knew that the boy was unreachable, but he struck him nonetheless.” And as he does so, Ali retorts not physically but with the rhetorical question, “So who’s the fanatic now?” Drawing the ultimate parallel between Parvez’s and Ali’s fanatical cultural constructions that had been set up throughout the story.

Ultimately, “My Son the Fanatic” serves to remind us of the harmful and divisive effects of inflexibility with our beliefs when it comes to how we as human beings should live, as well as the difficulty of opening ourselves up, a moral which is infinitely relevant to the cultural phenomena we examine in this course.

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