This story explores the roots (or some of the roots) of Muslim discontent in America, showing how people who are chafing at what is essentially a culture clash can internalize this into hatreds and resentments justified with polemic and intellectual rationales. The contrast between Islamic viewpoints and godless industrialized, consumerist, decadent America is starkly drawn, especially using the vehicle of Ahmad's point of view. At times the contrast alone seems nearly sufficient to answer the question asked by a character early on: Those people out there. Why do they want to do these horrible things? Why do they hate us? (p. 48).
This central question (for American readers, at least) is approached again and again throughout the book in various guises. Updike spends a great deal of time rather didactically exploring Islam in America through the viewpoints and mouths of his characters. He moves from the philosophical underpinnings to the cultural rifts perceived by Muslims adrift in a foreign culture, the sense of alienation that grows there from, and more.
[...] the role of truck bomber.” Perhaps it is this which makes his character so believable. One strives to make sense of the (potential) aimlessness of his actions, for Ahmad does not seem to definitively act through his own agency but again and again is acted upon and led by others. In particular, his imam seems to have full grasp of how Ahmad operates, including school (making him choose a vocational track instead of college), job (connecting him to the furniture store), and social life (telling him that he should always stay far from women and nonbelievers), etc. [...]
[...] It is also provides a semi-answer to the do they hate question: don't hate us; some few individuals want to sow destruction, and others are playing follow the leader out of (one presumes) the same kind of mundane, even self-serving reasons for which Ahmad follows the lead of the imam and others. Perhaps most disturbing in this book the more so for the truth it touches upon is the depiction of Muslims as an underclass in America, highlighting the vagaries of our (unacknowledged) class system and the negative impact this can have on people's lives. [...]
[...] He's the one who urges Ahmad to get a trucking job, he's the one who takes him to the furniture store to start working as a trucker and eventually get involved in all the terrorist activities. Is it not the imam he believes rather than Islam? These are questions the story does not answer, but which the thoughtful reader may wish to ask himself. From this perspective, then, the story touches upon the greater issue of self-determination and agency. Ahmad is clearly acted upon, and led by others. [...]
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