Two Novels Tell Very Different Stories About Terrorism in America

May 30, 2019 | 5 books mentioned 1 9 min read

1.

It’s strange that the attacks on September 11 are referred to almost exclusively by their date, because it was an event so large that its aftermath sprawls well beyond the borders of conventional time. Maybe this is why we call it 9/11 and not 9/11/01, the former reminding us that trauma has a recurrent, cyclical nature.

covercoverHealing, however, can be a more linear process. In the 17 years since 9/11, our culture has worked through an index of ideas about terrorism, Islam, and any potential link between the two. We can see this, in part, by looking at the novels that seek to explore this link, two of which are Terrorist by John Updike, published in 2006, and The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan, published in 2016. While many post-9/11 novels tend to focus on the experience of victims or witnesses—such as Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—Updike’s and Mahajan’s novels are, to some degree, exercises in understanding a terrorist’s motivations, particularly as a function of religion. However, for all their similarities in subject matter, a number of distinguishing factors—namely the decade that separates their publications, as well as the cultural viewpoints of their authors—allow them to demonstrate a specific evolution of thought regarding Islam and terrorism.

2.
Terrorist was published in 2006, and the novel is steeped in the anxieties of the era in which it was written. The protagonist, Ahmad, an Egyptian-American high school senior living in an economically depressed part of New Jersey, is the novel’s titular terrorist. And though it isn’t until later in the book that he is introduced to the terror plot in which he will participate, from the very beginning he embodies the caricature of Islamic fundamentalists that emerged directly after 9/11—primarily that they hate us for our freedom and the way that freedom flaunts our godlessness. This is expressed in the novel’s opening lines:

Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair. Their bare bellies, adorned with shining navel studs and low-down purple tattoos, ask, What else is there to see?…The teachers, weak Christians and nonobservant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief…They lack true faith;…they are unclean.

The novel’s trajectory doesn’t need to take Ahmad far from where he starts. Already, his devotion to God and Islam results in his demonization of non-Muslims, and in psychosexual anger. In addition, Ahmad’s Islam functions to alienate him from the other characters in the novel, particularly his white mother, his Jewish guidance counselor, and a black Christian acquaintance from school named Joryleen. His father is absent in his life, so he is the only Egyptian Muslim in his small social circle, which makes his race and religion topics of interest to those around him. Ahmad’s religion, in fact, often seems to be the only thing his social circle is capable of talking about. And this focus seems warranted as Ahmad sees the world through the prism of an Islam that openly suggests violence. The novel is filled with exchanges similar to the one that takes place after Ahmad accepts an invitation to see Joryleen sing in her church choir. She thanks him for coming; he replies:

“You have been gracious to me, and I was curious. It is helpful, up to a point, to know the enemy.”

“Enemy? Whoa. You didn’t have no enemies there.”

“My teacher at the mosque says that all unbelievers are our enemies. The prophet said that eventually all unbelievers must be destroyed.”

This teacher, Ahmad’s imam, is one of the people who recruits him for the suicide bombing he later agrees to participate in, underscoring the fact that all of the novel’s Muslim characters are eventually part of the terror plot. This cleanly fulfills the assumptions the other characters make about Muslims: that they are not to be trusted, that they are enemies of America. They become what many bearded men of a certain race or religion became in the years after 9/11—representatives of the overlap between Islam and evil. Ahmad’s guidance counselor, Jack Levy, whose distrust of Islam primes him to save Ahmad from his ultimate suicide mission, meets the imam at Ahmad’s graduation. It doesn’t take long before Levy, knowing nothing about the man, associates his religion with violence:

Levy studies the imam—a slight, impeccable man embodying a belief system that not many years ago managed the deaths of, among others, hundreds of commuters from northern New Jersey…[H]is initial good will toward the imam dissolves: the man in his white garb sticks like a bone in the throat of the occasion.”

This is one of many times the connection between violence and Islam is articulated. Taken individually, one could argue that the book’s moments of prejudice—e.g. when Jack’s wife tells her sister “Think of what our parents would have said if we’d brought home Muslim men to marry,” or when the secretary of defense advises another character to get out of New Jersey because “It’s full of Arabs—Arab Americans, so-called.” —might aid a larger purpose. A racist character does not prove a novel racist. The problem of this novel, however, is not that characters say Islamaphobic things, but that the events of the novel only prove these characters right. Every Muslim in the book is a terrorist. Each one wants to see harm done to America. None are to be trusted. While American fear and distrust during the post-9/11 years accounted for an ongoing legacy of violence and death, in Terrorist, that fear and distrust are completely warranted and, perhaps, all that will save us.

3.

Titles may not be the most useful part of a book on which to dwell, but they can serve as a starting point. In Updike’s novel, the title is a claim of decisiveness, a claim to understand the wounded American imagination from which the word terrorist gathers its power. Updike’s title speaks well to the novel’s heavy-handedness, telling readers the whole story, conjuring up a spectacle of violence and destruction. Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, on the other hand, promises a narrative more subtle and complex, which does not rely on social and political caricatures.

The novel opens with a public bombing in a crowded market, and while the rest of the narrative focuses in large part on the victims of this bombing, the renderings of the bombers offer glimpses into the characters’ religious and political motivations. The bomb maker, Shockie, returns from the attack to his organization’s home base, and the room he shares with Malik, noting that:

Malik was praying on a mat…He was a religious person—religion, Shockie thought, that crutch of the weak.

Shockie and Malik are both Muslims. It is not Islam as ideology, however, that has led them down the path to violence, but their inclusion in an oppressed minority group. Islam as a religion separates the two men—Shockie, the motivated and dedicated killer disdains Malik’s devotion. And that religious devotion seems to be the root of Malik’s moments of compassion, for which he is often derided, such as when he suggests at a group meeting that,

We should write letters to the victims and [their] families […] After all, what these victims go through is similar to what we all have gone through as Kashmiris. Something bad happens to them, they expect the government to help them and instead the government ignores them. […]If you want a true Islamic revolution in this country—not just fighting selfishly for our small aims—then we need to win over these people, show our solidarity with them, tell them that our hands were tied, we were only trying to expose to them the callousness of the people they have chosen to elect.”

In Malik and Shockie, Mahajan braids together a number of motivations for these acts of violence. While Islam, like any other well-known identity, functions to group people together through shared experience, it does not send those people on the path to murder. As The Association of Small Bombs seems to suggest, the path that leads to the violence of terrorism, begins somewhere else.

4.

In The Association of Small Bombs, violence is far less the bloody fulfillment of Islam’s tenets than it is a misguided attempt to counter Muslim oppression. But like Terrorist, The Association is also interested in the transformation from peaceful citizen to violent extremist. This transformation can be seen in Ayub, a leader of The NGO, a peaceful protest group dedicated to getting prime minister Modi to own up to his Islamophobic policies.

Ayub’s religion is tied to both his nonviolence and his tendency toward revolution. He often looks to the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali for hope and inspiration. He and his girlfriend, Tara, pillars of The NGO, are united in their grand aims of bringing Modi to justice and encouraging peace between Hindus and Muslims. However, they are less united in their personal aims, and when Tara breaks up with him, it initiates a heartbreak that becomes disillusionment and then violence.

Ayub moves back to his family’s small village and lives on their farm. There, he considers the ineffectualness of nonviolence. He considers assassinating Modi. His thoughts turn rancorous, bitter, and cynical. At this point—just as he is beginning to fall from grace—Ayub is introduced to Shockie, thereby bridging the book’s opening act of terror with its concluding one.

Shockie questions Ayub’s motives for joining violent extremist group, Ayub thinks through a few potential reasons, then says:

I tried nonviolence…I wanted equality between Hindus and Muslims, brotherhood. I thought the majority could be persuaded with such action…Now I see it’s a world where everything operates by force…I had always thought you had to educate others about your pain, show them how to solve it. Now I realize you have to make them feel it.

Throughout Ayub’s journey to violence, he questions his own motives. More often than not, they are political and moral, an act of revenge for what India or the Western world has done not to the Muslim religion but to the Muslim people:

How many time had Tara and he contacted some absent journalist at a major newspaper, one of those people who nodded and took no notes and then shook his head and said, ‘But what’s the story?’  What’s the story? The story is that thousands of innocent Muslims are being killed in plain sight, that innocent Muslims are being harassed in America for a crime they didn’t commit, that innocent Iraqis going about their business now wake to hear American armored vehicles razing…with their sirens while gangs of disaffected young men in office clothes shoot back from the alleys, reloading their AK-47s.

But both the novel and Ayub are aware that murder is not simply the result of political disagreements. While Ayub’s anger over the injustices done to Muslims has significant bearing on his actions, he decides that for someone to do what terrorists do, a more primal anger must be part of the equation. This is seen when Ayub imagines the last moments of Mohammed Atta, who is believed to have helped organize the attacks on 9/11:

There was too much blood involved—blood tossed against the mile-high windows of the WTC like a libation—for the reasons to not be emotional and hotheaded, even if it took the hijackers a year of training to accomplish their goals. Killing others and then yourself is the most visceral experience possible. Atta must have felt himself full of sexual hate for the people piled high in the towers, bodies in a vertical morgue.

Though Ayub has many motivations for violence, the most primal emotional one seems to come into full focus in the moments just after the bomb he planted detonates:

Hundreds of people lay on the ground. From the shop came only silence. Ayub—thrown to the ground, rolling, sliding—thought: Tara will hear me now.

In these lines, Mahajan’s terrorist is allowed to preserve the shreds of his humanity, rather than become a cliché of extremist Islam. Religion makes Ayub a marginalized and oppressed minority within his community. But it is not the path to the dehumanization, extremism, and violence that marks Ayub’s fall from grace.

5.

Like titles, it might be fruitless to dwell too long on endings. However, there is a fundamental difference evident in the conclusions of each novel.

In Terrorist, Ahmad is ready to drive a truck laden with explosives into the Lincoln Tunnel. He is stopped by his guidance counselor, saved by the slightest recognition of his own humanity. After the plot has been diffused, Ahmad drives the truck back to New Jersey, and in the novel’s final paragraphs observes the residents of Manhattan:

All around them…the great city crawls with people…all reduced by the towering structures around them to the size of insects, but scuttling, hurrying, intent in the milky morning sun upon some plan or scheme or hope they are hugging to themselves, their reason for living another day, each one of them impaled lives upon the pin of consciousness, fixed upon self-advancement and self-preservation. That, and only that.

These devils, Ahmad thinks, have taken away my God.

This paragraph, especially the last line, can be read as Ahmad having lost, with the foiled attack, what he sees as his meaning and purpose. Without his upcoming martyrdom, without the murder that would have brought him closer to god, he must now accept his mundane life. Perhaps his Islam was only a way to escape sad conditions, the pain of fatherlessness or alienation. However, the connection between Islam and violence is maintained throughout and articulated clearly at the end. The connection might be complicated by a number of personal and circumstantial factors. But that connection is one that many people in the United States took for granted in the years directly following 9/11. Updike’s book echoes the beat of the American pulse, one that was perhaps hammering too fast for thought, reason, and compassion, and too fast for us to consider the stark boundaries of good and evil that we drew around one another.

But if time can heal, then the privilege of time belongs to Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs. The book was also written by a writer of color who was raised in India and does not share Updike’s white, ethnocentric point of view, a writer who understands that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism are not things inflicted upon the Western world, but delocalized symptoms of many complicated issues. Mahajan’s novel also illustrates the ripple effects of violence, and show us that there are few winners where terrorism is concerned. Each of the characters’ lives end in sadness, loneliness, or fear. For some, for Ayub, that end is death.

After detonating his bomb, he manages to escape and is taken in by Shockie’s gang. They abandon him on a deserted island. After desperate attempts to save himself, he gives up, and Mahajan notes that,

[H]e became very tired and despairing and he sat down by a crooked doorframe and wept. ‘I am sorry, God,’ he said finally, recalling his oldest companion—one he had forgotten. ‘Take me back.’

Before Ayub starves to death, it is the disconnection between violence and religion that Mahajan chooses to underscore. It’s a striking note to end on. If a novel is, to some degree, a product of its time, then this choice seems reflective of the progress toward understanding that has taken place over the past decade. It also offers a glimpse into what may be possible in the decades to follow.

Image credit: ActionVance.

’s fiction and essays have appeared in Colorado Review, The Rumpus, Witness, Redivider, The Florida Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He is currently a Provost Graduate Fellow in the creative writing Ph.D. program at the University of Cincinnati. You can find him on Twitter @AfsheenFarhadi.

One comment:

  1. To my mind, Updike’s novel is not as simplistic as presented here.
    It is an analysis of how young people can get drawn to extremist
    views, which undeniably exist, without anybody saying that they are
    a general Islamic phenomena. It rather astutely shows how American
    social conditions may lead youngsters to seek guidance “elsewhere”.
    And it does correctly refer to the Qur’an as quoted by people who
    make no difference between a literal lay interpretation without any
    spirituality. Taken face value, the Qur’an repeatedly and unmistakably
    says that unbelievers and (worse:) apostates are to be annihilated.
    Doubt, free thinking and gnostic courage are punishable by death.
    True religious trust in a God wise enough to guide humans through
    errancies and intellectual adventures is lacking in fundamentalist
    views. (However, good Islamic literature and art is full of that trust.)

    Updike had the courage to say what truly religious and moderate
    Muslims (millions of them all over the world) would want to say if
    they only could. I will not be convinced by anybody saying that
    Islamist attacks are in no way connected to Islam as long as I don’t
    hear of any Fatwa pronounced in high places against criminal acts
    in the name of God.

    My advice: Read the Qur’an AND Updike with equal care, and in a spirit
    of non-judgemental, life-supporting human brother – and sisterhood.
    And do not even try to justify violence and arrogance on the base of
    whatever religion.

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