The word “terrorist has been brandished about liberally since 9/11. We hear it spoken on the news, we read it in the papers, and we listen to politicians around the world use it to point fingers at their enemies. John Updike’s novel, “Terrorist is one of the first novels by an American author that tries to explore the emotional make up of this global phenomenon.
Updike’s terrorist is 18-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, the son of a Bohemian Irish American artist who is abandoned by her Egyptian husband. Ahmad can barely remember the father who walked out on him as a child. The only father figures he has growing up are his mother’s boyfriends that come and go. In an effort to connect with the father he never knew, Ahmad decides to study Islam. He begins attending lessons at a storefront mosque in his small town of New Prospect, New Jersey and falls under the influence of Yemeni Shaikh Rashid.
The high school guidance counselor, Jack Levy, a non-practicing Jew, takes a late interest in Ahmad – just weeks before his graduation. He’s puzzled by Ahmad’s disinterest in attending university, and by his rigid beliefs. In a conversation with his mother, Teresa, he asks, “How did he get to be so – so good? Did you set out to raise him as a Muslim? She explains that “Islam meant nothing to me – less than nothing, to be accurate: it had a negative rating. And it meant not much more to his father.
But Ahmad finds stability in his study of the Quran, and in finding God, he has found a constantly present companion. “To Ahmad, Updike explains in an interview with BookPage following the release of the novel, “the words of the Quran are sacred. They’re alive . I thought it was important to show how much Ahmad needed to make his own philosophy, as it were, because the environment wasn’t coming up with any.
Ahmad has a strong hatred for the American way of life, though he’s born and raised by an American mother who personifies the liberalism of its society. Though Islam is central to Ahmad’s belief, Updike had originally imagined the protagonist as a young Christian. “I imagined a young seminarian, he said during an interview with The New York Times, “who sees everyone around him as a devil trying to take his faith away. The 21st century does look like that, I think, to a great many people in the Arab world.
He went on to explain: “I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system. Nobody’s trying to see it from that point of view.
“I sometimes think, he added, “‘Why did I do this?’ I’m delving into what can be a very sore subject for some people. But when those shadows would cross my mind, I’d say, ‘They can’t ask for a more sympathetic and, in a way, more loving portrait of a terrorist.’
Ahmad’s struggle to abide by his faith is touching. As his mother puts it, “his faith seems rather beautiful. His loneliness, however, is heartrending. He’s the last remaining student of Sheikh Rashid. The only student that he connects with is a young, black girl who sings in her choir, but doesn’t believe in her faith. The only man to show a selfless interest in him is Jack Levy, but – in true thriller style – Updike keeps you guessing until the final pages of the novel if that is enough to save him.
Updike’s efforts at empathy are commendable. As a reader, you may find yourself starting to soften towards Ahmad and to commend his commitment to his beliefs, especially as it marks him as an outsider. As a reader familiar with Islam, you may understand that his holding on to the more fiery passages and the more rigid beliefs is a bit extreme given that you know many that follow their faith more liberally than Ahmad.
Ahmad’s lifestyle is almost monastic. But he has chosen a life that sets him apart from everyone in his community, and so lives a life on the fringes of New Prospect as he tries to minimize his contact with the “godless Western society he lives in. He has not forged any ties – physical or emotional – to anything in this society save his faith. He even begins to question the strength of his teacher’s faith.
Thus, for a young man who abhors the world he’s living in, and does not see a place for him in its future, dying for his faith doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice. Rather, it gives purpose to his being.
However, if you’re a reader that is unfamiliar with Islam, you might not understand that it’s not that common to find people who follow their faith so rigidly. It’s troubling to think that in their efforts to understand Islam and terrorism, triggered by 9/11, Americans might take this as a general reflection of Muslims with strong faith. They might not make the effort to understand that it the combination of a troubled youth and a lack of belonging that give that religious faith another dimension – and that Islam is just an example of that faith.
What he doesn’t highlight in his novel, he makes clear in his interviews: “[Ahmad] is my hero. I tried to understand him and to dramatize his world. Besides it’s not just young Muslims who are killing themselves. We have all these American high school students, Updike noted in his interview with BookPage, “steeped in Protestantism and Judaism, who bring guns to school and shoot up the cafeteria knowing that they are going to die at the end of this rush. There are a lot of teenagers who are going to take big chances.
“Terrorist, by John Updike, is available at local bookstores.