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  • Violence and the Faithful in Post-9/11 America: Updike’s Terrorist, Islam, and the Specter of Exceptionalism
  • Anna Hartnell (bio)

Representations of September 11 in news media, film, and literature that emerged in the first few years after the event tended to restate and reaffirm the centrality of the West. Rather than negotiating the world’s most significant bifurcation along East-West lines in the post-Cold War period, to date the subject of most prominent 9/11 representations have overwhelmingly—and in many ways understandably—been the traumatized western subject whose aim is to recover, as opposed to transform, the confidence of a pre-9/11 era. In the midst of what many are now characterizing as an emergent 9/11 industry, the late John Updike’s penultimate novel, Terrorist, struck a new and significant note. Terrorist signals the attempt on the part of one of America’s most well known and prolific writers to confront the complexities of the relations between Islam and the US in the wake of 9/11. In so doing he self-consciously explores the discourse on morality—the subterranean economy of much post-9/11 reflection—as the clash of monotheistic religions.

“Islam” has long been, as Edward Said explains in the opening chapter of Covering Islam, “news” (2–79). Well before September 11 a monolithic “Islam”—the focal point of this so-called clash—has served as a watchword for violence and terrorism in the western media. In [End Page 477] fact, the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, have in some ways opened up a more serious and nuanced discussion of this longtime object of fascination for the western imagination; that a serious writer like Updike has claimed ground largely dominated since 9/11 by the mainstream media marks a progression from the Orientalist depictions of Islam particularly prevalent in the public spheres of the US and Britain. Just how far Updike’s Terrorist actually travels from this all-too-familiar territory will be the focus of this essay.

Though, as I show, aspects of Terrorist’s treatment of Islam—in particular, its exploration of the relationship between faith and violence—are problematic, the novel nonetheless in large part refuses the national triumphalism that underpins much post-9/11 reflection in the US. By attending to the ethnic as well as the religious positioning of Terrorist’s central protagonist, I argue that Updike rejects the temptation to consolidate the presumption of American unity and innocence that has formed the popular horizon for understanding the 2001 attacks. Thus, contrary to the many commentators who have dismissed Updike’s 9/11 novel, I suggest that its achievements have been significantly underrated. While not his most aesthetically accomplished work, Terrorist nonetheless marks a departure from the fictional representations of 9/11 produced by a number of literary heavyweights in the last decade. In the US, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005) are written from the perspective of the western “victim” of terrorism, as is Ian McEwan’s British perspective on 9/11 in Saturday (2005). Updike’s decision to tackle the perspective of the “perpetrator” is a courageous attempt to pull away from the prevalent cultural tendency to privilege the category of “trauma” in treatments of 9/11 that emerged in its wake and with notable rapidity in the years 2005–2007.

This essay thus situates Updike’s portrait of a would-be Islamist terrorist within a post-9/11 cultural milieu that, in privileging a traumatized western subject, gave rise to a sharp resurgence in expressions of American civil religion and its related exceptionalist discourse. Terrorist, I argue, emerges as an important intervention that occasions a reflection on the relationship between religion and violence that was in large part shaped by a moment now habitually and ritualistically marked as a cultural fault line. As Ronald Grimes writes, “September 11 has become a sacred time, a ritual date. If you don’t think so, listen to the incessant incantation: 9/11, 9/11. Everyone repeats it, gets the allusion, feels its weight. The date, utterly symbolic in force, binds ‘us’ together and...