The Terrorists Among Us
It’s not just Islam, but the tension between Islam and Western modernity, that makes them tick.
While I was on a visit to Toronto recently, police arrested 17 men, the oldest of them 43 but most much younger, on charges of plotting a terrorist attack. They wished, apparently, to blow up the parliament in Ottawa and publicly behead the prime minister. Cops caught them in the process of buying three times as much material for explosives as Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing. Reporting the arrests, the New York Times called the men “South Asians”—though one of them was an Egyptian, two were Somali, and most had been born in Canada—thus concealing by an inaccurate euphemism the most salient characteristic of the alleged plotters: that they were all Muslims. The Canadian police, emasculated and even stupefied by the exigencies of political correctness (the modern bellwether of virtue), said that the 17 came from such diverse backgrounds that they were unable to discern anything in common among them.
Canadians, on the whole, reacted to news of the plot with a mixture of outrage and disbelief. A few responded more vigorously, smashing the windows of a Toronto mosque, which the press swiftly denounced as un-Canadian. But many wondered, why us? when Canada had been among the most tolerant and accommodating countries to its immigrants in the world, and where celebration of diversity for its own sake had been made almost an official fetish. Could it be that no liberal policy goes unpunished?
It rapidly became clear that no single sociological factor of the kind usually invoked to explain outrageous behavior—poverty, say, or racial discrimination—could explain the adherence of all 17 to the plot (assuming that the charges against them are true). The Somalis involved were born in Somalia in the midst of the chronic civil war there and came to Canada as refugees, where they soon fell into unideological delinquency before catching the Islamist bug; they were not economic success stories. Other alleged plotters, however, emerged from the well-integrated middle classes, such as the son of a successful doctor of Indian origin who had emigrated to Canada from Trinidad. The pictures of the houses in which some of the plotters lived and grew up must have made more than a few newspaper readers envious. Whatever explained the resort of the 17 to the scimitar and the bomb, raw poverty or the hopelessness of insuperable discrimination was not it.
It so happened that the Toronto arrests coincided with the publication in America of a novel by the distinguished writer John Updike, called Terrorist. This novel is an attempt to enter the mental world not of a young Canadian but of a young American would-be Islamist bomber. It received, to put it mildly, mixed reviews emphasizing its weaknesses far more than its strengths. Sociological or psychological accuracy and acuteness cannot entirely compensate for literary shortcomings in what is, after all, a literary artifact, but in view of the importance of the subject and the dearth of other attempts to treat it imaginatively, I think Updike deserves more credit than he has received.
The story concerns a young man called Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, the son of an Irish-American mother and an Egyptian immigrant father. The mother is a nurse’s aide in a hospital and an aspiring, though untalented, amateur artist. Her husband, whom she met while he was an exchange student at what Updike calls the State University of New Jersey, abandoned her when Ahmad was three years old, never to be seen again; his failure to make good in America weighed heavily on his soul.
Ahmad and his mother live in New Prospect, New Jersey, a run-down postindustrial city now home mainly to blacks and immigrants. Ahmad attends the local high school, where he is of above-average scholastic ability; but, falling under the influence of Shaikh Rashid, the imam of a hole-in-the-corner mosque in New Prospect, he decides not to continue his education but to become a truck driver instead. That way he will not participate fully in the degenerate society around him. Becoming a truck driver is, for an 18-year-old of his intelligence and potential, like a spiritual retreat into the wilderness.
A guidance counselor at his high school, Jack Levy, a world-weary and washed-out Jew at the end of his career, tries to dissuade him from this course of action, which Levy supposes will destroy Ahmad’s life chances. In the process, Levy winds up in a torrid affair with Ahmad’s mother. By a coincidence of the novel’s plot, the sister of Jack’s wife, a woman of German Lutheran descent, is an assistant to a Donald Rumsfeld-like director of the Department of Homeland Security.
Ahmad goes to work for a cheap furniture store owned by Lebanese immigrants, whose son, called Charlie (but nonetheless a Muslim), persuades him to undertake a suicide mission to explode a bomb in the Lincoln Tunnel. Charlie is, in fact, an FBI agent who has infiltrated a band of extremists, of whom Shaikh Rashid is one; but his cover is blown and he is murdered brutally before the suicide mission can be averted. However, Jack Levy, via his contact with the Department of Homeland Security, which has passed on to him information concerning the proposed bomb attack, manages to avert it by persuading Ahmad, at the last minute, to desist.
Reviewers disparaged the implausibility of the plot, whose resolution relies upon creakingly contrived coincidences, and criticized the characterization as feeble. How Ahmad became so attached to his slender Muslim heritage, for example, rather than to his much stronger Irish Catholic one—his mother being the only parent he has ever known—Updike doesn’t explain at all. Perhaps he had been taunted at school for his mixed parentage and decided that he might as well die for a Muslim sheep as a Christian lamb by adopting only the Egyptian moiety of his identity; or perhaps he realized in a subliminal way that in the modern multicultural world, there is more mileage in being a minority than in being a déclassé member of the mainstream. In the current climate, you can’t fail as a minority: you can only be failed by others.
The book’s dialogue, too, is frequently stilted and unbelievable. Ahmad, for example, often sounds more like a wooden, pedantic prig than a disaffected youth emerging from a New Jersey slum, tormented by inchoate existential doubts and anxieties. For example, when Charlie tells him that his attendance at the Islamic Center had declined and that the shaikh would like to see more of him, he replies: “To chastise me, I fear. Now that I work, I neglect the Qur’an, and my Friday attendance has fallen off, though I never fail, as you have noticed, to fulfill salat, wherever I can spend five minutes in an unpolluted place.” I’ve met a lot of 18-year-olds, of many different types, from the slums, but I’ve never heard one talk like this.
Yet for all its weaknesses, the novel remains an impressive attempt to understand the worldview of a modern would-be Islamist terrorist, avoiding caricature and recognizing complexity. Without condoning terrorism and without any apologetics for those who commit it, the book invites us to see ourselves as others might see us and to look at the world through eyes other than our own. And this is surely part of the function of imaginative literature.
Updike is scarcely the first author to draw attention to the fact that terrorism is not a simple, direct response to, or result of, social injustice, poverty, or any other objectively discernible human ill.
It is not the personal that is political, but the political that is personal. People with unusually thin skins ascribe the small insults, humiliations, and setbacks consequent upon human existence to vast and malign political forces; and, projecting their own suffering onto the whole of mankind, conceive of schemes, usually involving violence, to remedy the situation that has so wounded them.
Dostoyevsky knew this, but the author closest to Updike in spirit, if his great superior in felicity of execution, is Joseph Conrad, the Pole-turned-Englishman. Conrad experienced political persecution from the inside, having been exiled to Siberia during his childhood with his father by the tyrannical czarist regime. One might have expected him therefore to have sympathized with extremists of almost any stripe, but he understood only too well that those who opposed tyranny by terrorism objected not so much to tyranny as such but to the fact that it was not they who were exercising it. Indeed, the terrorist temperament was apt to see tyranny where there was none. As Conrad puts it: “The way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds.”
In Conrad’s The Secret Agent, for example, the Professor—“his title to that designation consisted in having been once assistant demonstrator in chemistry at some technical institution,” who quarreled with his superiors “upon a question of unfair treatment,” and who had “such an exalted conviction of his merits that it was extremely difficult for the world to treat him with justice”—is a man who has devoted himself to devising bombs and detonators. Predisposed to dissatisfaction by his small stature and unimpressive appearance, he develops “a frenzied Puritanism of ambition” that seems once again, after September 11, only too familiar to us. “The extreme, almost ascetic purity of his thought, combined with an astounding ignorance of worldly conditions, had set before him a goal of power and prestige to be attained without the medium of arts, graces, tact, wealth—by sheer weight of merit alone. . . .
To see [his ambition] thwarted opened his eyes to the true nature of the world, whose morality was artificial, corrupt, and blasphemous. . . . By exercising his agency with ruthless defiance he procured for himself the appearances of power and personal prestige.”
Updike’s Terrorist has much in common with Conrad’s The Secret Agent, published 99 years previously. In both books, a double agent tries to get a third party to commit a bomb outrage; in both books, the secret agent ends up slain. In both books, the terrorists operate in a free society unsure how far it may go in restricting freedom to protect itself from those who wish to destroy it. The terrorists in Conrad are European anarchists and socialists; in Updike they are Muslims in America: but in neither case does the righting of any “objective” injustice motivate them. They act from a mixture of personal angst and resentment, which easily attaches itself to abstract grievances about the whole of society, thus disguising the real source of their consuming but sublimated rage.
Conrad tells us that one of the sources of terrorism is laziness, or at least impatience, which is to say ambition unmatched by perseverance and tolerance of routine. Mr. Verloc, the secret agent, has a “dislike of all kinds of recognized labour,” which, says Conrad, is “a temperamental defect which he shared with a large proportion of revolutionary reformers of a given social state. For”—Conrad continues—“obviously one does not revolt against the advantages and opportunities of that state, but against the price which must be paid in the same coin of accepted morality, self-restraint, and toil. The majority of revolutionists are the enemies of discipline and fatigue mostly.”
Ahmad’s refusal to go to college might be interpreted in this light: for the path to constructive achievement is long, hard, and unsure, strewn with tedium and the chance of failure, while the life of destruction is exciting, even in its most tedious moments, because of the providential role that the destructive revolutionist has awarded himself. Once the magic wand of revolutionary destructiveness has been waved, even dull routine becomes infused with significance and excitement.
The mental laziness of Islamism, its desire that there should be to hand a ready-made solution to all the problems that mankind faces, one that is already known, and its unacknowledged fear that such a solution does not really exist, Updike captures well. When asked by his employer why he does not go for further education, Ahmad replies, “People have suggested it, sir, but I don’t feel the need yet.” Updike, as the omniscient narrator, adds: “More education, he feared, might weaken his faith. Doubts he held off in high school might become irresistible in college. The Straight Path was taking him in another, purer direction.” The refusal of free inquiry derives from an awareness of the fragility of the basis of religious faith; and since certainty is psychologically preferable to truth, the former often being willfully mistaken for the latter, anything that threatens certainty is anathematized with fury.
Muslims are hardly the only ones, either in the past or the present, who experience difficulty in relinquishing their most cherished ideas and presuppositions. It is a normal human trait. (Darwin, in his Autobiography, tells us that when he came across a fact that threw some doubt upon the theory he was developing, he wrote it down, for otherwise he was sure to forget it.) But when a system of ideas and set beliefs claims eternal validity and infallibility, when people adopt that system as their primary source of identity, and when into the bargain those people find themselves in a position of long-standing and seemingly irreversible technical and economic inferiority and dependence vis-à-vis people with very different ideas and beliefs, resentment is certain to result. Not wishing to relinquish their cherished ideology—their only possible source of collective pride and accomplishment—they seek to explain the technical and economic superiority of others by different kinds of denigratory mental maneuvers. They may claim, for example, that the West has achieved its preeminence by illicit use of force and pillage, by exploiting and appropriating the oil of the Muslim lands, say.
The justice of a criticism does not depend upon the motive that lies behind it, of course. But the claim about the exploitation of oil is not merely self-serving; it is patently absurd. If anything, the direction of the exploitation has been precisely the opposite, for merely by virtue of their fortunate geographical location, and with scarcely any effort on their part, the people of the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere have enjoyed a high standard of living thanks entirely to the ingenuity of those whom they accuse of exploitation and without whom the oil resource would not be an economic resource at all.
But this fact does not mean that all Muslim criticism of the West is entirely wrong or beside the point. Updike starts his novel with a description of the world as Ahmad sees it, and a most uncomplimentary vision it is. What he sees is a world of brutal ugliness, vulgarity, egotism, and lack of restraint. He sees a civilization that is charmless and lacking in refinement and substance, even if the people living in it seem to be enjoying themselves at least some of the time. Their sorrows, however, are the consequence of their enjoyments, and outweigh them; their horizons are severely limited to the eternal present moment.
“All day long [at Central High School] girls sway and sneer,” exposing their “bare bellies, adorned with navel studs and low-down purple tattoos,” while “boys strut and saunter along and look dead-eyed, indicating with their killer gestures and careless scornful laughs that this world is all there is.” An atmosphere of indulgence pervades the school. “The halls of the high school smell of perfume and bodily exhalations, of chewing gum and impure cafeteria food, and of cloth—cotton and wool and the synthetic materials of running shoes warmed by young flesh. Between classes there is a thunder of movement; the noise is stretched thin over a violence beneath, barely restrained.”
Out in the run-down city, “former display windows [are] covered by plywood crawling with spray-painted graffiti.” What do these graffiti mean? “To Ahmad’s eyes, the bulbous letters of the graffiti, their boasts of gang affiliation, assert an importance to which their perpetrators have pathetically little other claim. Sinking into a morass of Godlessness, lost young men proclaim, by means of property defacement, an identity.” The teachers at the school, weak or unbelieving Christians and Jews, preach restraint to the children without really believing in anything much themselves, and without practicing such restraint in their private lives. Tylenol Jones, a young black who takes an instant and violent dislike to Ahmad (in a society, or aggregation, of individualists and egotists, people dislike those who are very different from themselves), perfectly symbolizes the generalized egotism of society: he received his name merely because his mother happened to see a television advertisement for the product and liked the sound. Whimsical rejection of convention could scarcely go further; and such a rejection reduces freedom to nothing more than the practical expression of the first thing that comes into one’s head, even if it is at the expense of another human being. As such, freedom seems to Ahmad to be not a blessing but a curse.
Reviewers have mocked and even reviled Updike for his unappetizing description, through the eyes of Ahmad, of the popular culture of underclass America, and for pointing to revulsion against it as a motive for a suicide bombing. Even if one allows that Updike’s description is accurate (as I think any tolerably objective observer must), it is in fact so partial a characterization of the country in its entirety as to be utterly tendentious. It is to mistake the part for the whole, and it risks suggesting that Islamist bombers might have a point after all. Besides, there are far worse things in the world than the smell of chewing gum and bad cafeteria food, and far worse acts committed than the adornment of walls and other surfaces with ugly, hermetic, and no doubt idiotic signs. To complain seriously of what amounts to bad taste and make it a motive for mass murder, when the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot are still within living memory, is—well, in bad taste.
But it seems to me that Updike rather than his critics is right—or rather, accurate. He is not trying to justify Ahmad but to explain him. How could Ahmad have developed a more rounded view of the social environment into which he was born, or have achieved some kind of mature historical perspective on it, without the aid and guidance of people who knew better, whose mental world was not circumscribed by New Prospect, New Jersey? His mother is unable or disinclined to provide him with any guidance. To understand the distinction between criticism of the way people choose to use their freedom and criticism of freedom itself requires some historical and philosophical sophistication, which it is the duty of schools to inculcate. By inference, Central High School has failed to do this where Ahmad is concerned, leaving his clever but uncritical mind a fallow field in which Shaikh Rashid can plant his ill-germinating seeds.
The crude nostrums of Islamism rush in where the Enlightenment fears to tread.
I have talked to a lot of young Muslim critics of Western society, living in the West, and few of them were aware of the philosophical basis of Western achievement, which they believed to be merely materialist and founded on crude plunder, never having heard any other viewpoint.
Updike also has an understanding of the role of sexuality in the formation of the Islamist terrorist mind-set. On the very first page, Ahmad demonstrates that he is a sexual being who is struggling to control his desires, because he realizes that when unbridled or uncontrolled, sexuality is dehumanizing. The description of the navel studs and purple tattoos lying low on the abdomen ends with his question: “What else is there to see?” Clearly he can imagine it and be attracted by it.
Later in the novel, a black girl called Joryleen, whom he knew at school, has since become a prostitute with Tylenol Jones as her pimp, and she seduces Ahmad to the point where she masturbates him to orgasm. He is not so very different, and has never been so very different, at least in his basic desires, from the mass of his fellow slum dwellers, whom he has hitherto despised and excoriated. He is attracted by what is repellent to him; his rejection of the society that produces such powerful attractants is what psychiatrists used to call, in the days when Freud was still a respectable figure, reaction formation. In resisting the hypersexuality of his environment, he is trapped into falsely denying his sexuality altogether.
All in all, then, Updike has produced a more convincing and subtle, and, in my view, accurate portrait of a young Islamist terrorist than he has generally received credit for—even for all his book’s literary faults. He rightly sees Islamism in the West as culturally hybrid, rather than as a pure product of Islam: a reaction, albeit one consonant with certain Islamic traditions, to a very severe and, indeed, overwhelming cultural challenge from without rather than as something arising purely or spontaneously from within Islam itself. He understands the deeply human, but also deeply destructive, desire for a simple solution to all existential and practical problems at once. He is sufficiently imaginative to understand that our imperfect societies have more than enough within them to appall sensitive outsiders and marginals (as surely all conservatives should appreciate). He also realizes that violent repulsion can be the consequence of illicit attraction. And all this without for a moment suggesting that Islamic terrorism is other than a terrible scourge.
This is quite an achievement, even if his book will not outlive the Islamist threat, as Conrad’s book has outlived the anarchist one.
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