In the movie Traitor, Don Cheadle plays a Sudanese-American Muslim working deep cover to penetrate an Islamic terrorist network.
Since I’m recommending the movie, I don’t want to give away too many plot points. But the movie nicely illuminates several analytical points I want to make about religious psychology.
Religion – any religion, really, but especially Islam in our present historical moment – exists in at least two psychological modes. On the one hand, there is “true” religion, or elite religion as I have referred to it in earlier posts. This is religion at its purest theological essence. My own religious tradition, orthodox Presbyterian, excels (and is recognized to excel) at addressing the central tenets of Christianity: “what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man”, in the words of the Westminster catechism. On the other, there is religion as an expression of ethno-cultural nationalism, less an ethical code or spiritual insight than a component of in-group loyalty. It is this second mode at which Islam as practiced especially among expats (and perhaps among Russian Orthodox) succeeds wildly and at which American Protestantism fails. Indeed, one reading of the New Testament is that Christianity was in its essence a reaction against the extent to which Judaism had become little more than a shibboleth, elevating circumcision and other symbolic gestures of loyalty to the ethnic Jewish community above true righteousness. (Arguably, it is in this mode that Judaism persists to this day.)*
It is in this context that I want to recall the John Updike novel Terrorist, about a half-Arab young man in New Jersey who falls in with a radical cleric and volunteers to become a suicide bomber. The novel was criticized for presenting an inauthentic portrait of an actual terrorist as far as its central character was concerned, which is true – but I think that’s the point Updike was making by showing the tension between Islam as a theology (as represented by the young man) and Islam as an expression of ethnic nationalism (as represented by his confederates). Ultimately, the elite nature of the young man’s faith is precisely what makes him back away from executing his plans.**
Similarly in the movie Traitor. Cheadle is far more of a devout Muslim in the elite sense than the Arabic terrorists he his trying to stop, who are motivated by anger at the “crimes” of Westerners against their people (the precise nature of which are never elaborated). This particular aspect is perhaps overplayed, and I was especially disappointed that the Christian FBI agent (Guy Pierce) is only shown in religious observance at the point of duress. Why is it that Hollywood is willing to portray devotion to an alien religion in a positive light but feels the need to mute that devotion when the subject is a Christian?
That said, the movie is about as right-wing as a terrorism movie of this caliber could hope to be. There isn’t a treacherous white Christian who turns out to be the real bad guy (although the movie makes a couple of feints in this direction). “Racial profiling” gets handled far more lightly than we would expect, and indeed, the movie explicitly shows the danger posed by immigration since the terrorist network infiltrates the U.S. on student visas. Although the ethnic origins of these terrorists look far more ambiguous than is likely in the real world, they and their moles inside American intelligence are for the most part obviously Arabic or African.
The movie may not break any artistic ground, but it squarely hits what it aims at. It invests the audience in the characters, creates plenty of suspense and just enough action, and keeps us guessing throughout. So, two thumbs up.
* Just to clarify: as an ethno-nationalist myself, I tend to see the absence of in-group solidarity in American Christianity as a shortcoming, and am almost uniformly disappointed with the church’s haphazard and incoherent forays into politics and policy.
** Also just to clarify: it is not the business of American policy, and surely beyond its competence, to attempt to cleave “true” Islam from “nationalist” Islam. In point of fact, nationalist Islam has become such the dominant mode that our endless appeals (a la Gen Petraeus) to an allegedly “authentic” non-terrorist version is surely beside the point. Perhaps because I can identify with Islam’s nationalist aspirations that I can recognize how dangerous it is when allowed to flourish on our shores.