“Terrorist” by John Updike
John Updike’s newest novel, Terrorist, is the story of a high school student, a convert to Islam who gets caught up in a suicidal terrorist plot to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel during morning rush hour. Like all novels by Updike, this one is well-written, engaging, and theologically astute. It’s also frightening. What is so chilling about the novel is how very ordinary it is. It’s not a “thriller” but an engaging story of an 18 year old named Ahmad and the people in his life: his clueless mother, his world-weary guidance counselor, the girl who flirts with him at school, the manipulative imam at his storefront mosque.
The idea of a religiously-zealous teenager getting involved in such a violent plot is, in Updike’s telling, entirely believable. Especially for those of us who were religiously-zealous teenagers. My youthful zealotry was Christian (Pentecostal), not Islamic, but I saw a lot of my teenage self in Ahmad. His obsession with “purity” and a strict adherence to his religion start out as youthful idealism, but they easily pave the way to religiously-motivated violence.
And for those who think Christian zealots are unlikely to engage in such violence, I refer you to my previous post (June 23), “Christian” Groups Defend Bush’s Use of Torture. Christians have condoned torture and slaughtered their enemies since the days of the Crusades and the Inquisition, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The institutionalized Christianity that Kierkegaard called “Christendom” is frequently very different from what Jesus himself taught.
From the novel:
“When I turn to Allah and try to think of Him, it is borne in upon me how alone He is, in all the starry space He has willed into existence. In the Qur’an, He is called the Loving, the Self-Subsistent. I used to think of the love; now I’m struck by the self-subsistence, in all that emptiness. People are always thinking of themselves,” he [Ahmad] tells Joryleen. “Nobody thinks of God – if He suffers or not, if He likes being what He is. What does He see in the world, to take any pleasure in it?”