An action thriller ripping across three continents has a storyline about the son of an Islamic cleric, who displays admirable piety and wrestles with moral ambiguity, and the son of a Baptist preacher, who discloses a minimalist faith. One seeks God’s will; the other says he believes in God without letting faith trouble his actions. One is black; the other is white. Both are Americans.
“Traitor” is a must-see PG-13 movie, if one pays attention to the dialogue without getting distracted by the abundance of drama.
Granted the dramatic quality of the movie stands alone–sleeper cells, suicide bombers, shadowy alleys, security cameras, emails and chase scenes. Terrorists launch attacks and plan a massive attack which will make the American public know that they are unsafe everywhere. The counter-terrorists track attackers and bend U.S. law. If you want electric drama without the enjoyable exaggerations found in the Jason Bourne trilogy, then “Traitor” passes the test.
And if you want more, say action and reflection, then watch “Traitor.” It has a narrative about religion that gives the movie its real depth and beckons people of faith to think more carefully about their prejudices.
Sitting at a French restaurant one evening, a cosmopolitan Fareed (Aly Khan) pours wine for Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) and Omar (Said Taghmaoui). Samir and Omar had first met in Yemen, where they were arrested as terrorists by government forces and U.S. agents. Both soon observe the other’s faithfulness to Islam. Omar then recruits Samir to fight against the crusaders.
At the restaurant, Samir stares in disbelief and disgust at what Fareed is doing.
“What’s a matter?” asks Fareed. “Don’t look so disturbed, Samir. We shave. We drink alcohol. Sometimes we even eat pork.”
Fareed and Samir argue over what the Qur’an really says about compromising faith. One offers a koranic proof-text to justify Islamic cultural accommodation. The other counters with another interpretation.
Omar intercedes and explains. Fareed replies, “Faith is good. But you have to know how to follow orders too.”
In another scene, much later in the movie, one FBI agent asks his colleague Roy Clayton (Guy Pierce), “What made you learn Arabic?”
Clayton answers, “I took a class in college and got hooked. I even switched my major from religion to Arabic studies.”
“You were a religion major?” asks his partner.
“My daddy was a Baptist minister. His daddy was a Baptist minister,” replies Clayton.
Unfortunately, the Baptist narrative receives too little development. Missing is how being raised in a Baptist minister’s home shapes Clayton’s values, if at all. The viewer is left with little more than a sense of Clayton’s cultural Christianity. Yet maybe that is one of the points of the movie.
Such is not the case with the Islamic narrative. The movie makes a meaty point about the diversity within the Islamic global community composed of different nationalities, races and economic classes. It etches incisive lines between authentic and manipulative Islamic faith.
More importantly for the American, Western, ethos, “Traitor” has a Muslim action figure who earnestly struggles with the difference between right and wrong. He shows a faith rooted in his tradition’s sacred text, not a blind faith, but a reasoned, compassionate faith, one which makes room for Martin Luther King Jr.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.