Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775
Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s first play, premiered in Chicago in January 2012. The play then moved to London, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013, and premiered on Broadway at the Lyceum Theater in October 2014. Akhtar’s writing and stagecraft were widely praised by critics, with both Charles Isherwood of the New York Times and David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter including it among their selections of the ten best plays of 2012.
The drama was also topical. Despite the fact that more than ten years had passed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the issue of Islamic jihad remained in the public mind in 2012. Among the intelligentsia, this sustained interest was partly due to a spate of books attacking religion in general and Islam in particular by such writers as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens is briefly mentioned, along with Martin Amis, another British writer, when Isaac and Amir clash over the topic of “Islamo-fascism” in scene 3.
There is an irony in Amir’s dismissing Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis as “a couple of sanctimonious British bullies,” an irony which both foreshadows and complements the much greater irony with which the scene ends. Amir’s dismissive attitude towards Islam, and his characterization of the religion as the brutal creation of ignorant people is similar to the critique of Hitchens and the other “New Atheists.” However, it turns out that this does not matter to Amir. The New Atheists, like Emily, Isaac, Jory and the partners at the firm where he works, are not members of Amir’s tribe. None of them understands what it is like to feel a thrill of pride upon seeing a successful jihadist attack on the West. Only Abe, with whom Amir initially seems to have the greatest conflict, would understand this feeling, and Abe is not present for the debate in scene 3.
Amir dismisses his ideological allies because ideology is, at some level, unimportant to him. When he is drunk, he recognizes that he identifies emotionally with Islam against the West. This identification runs deeper in him than it can in Emily, whose connection to Islam is comparatively superficial. When he points out that the Quran sanctions wife-beating, Emily objects that this may be a mistranslation. She does not want to associate such violence with the formal beauty of Islamic art. It is a tragedy both for her and for Amir that his only idea of Islam is barbaric and bigoted, so that when he suddenly and surprisingly embodies Islam, he becomes violent, putting into action precisely the brutality he condemned earlier that night.
The complexity of both Amir’s and Emily’s relationships with Islam prevents Disgraced from becoming a dramatization of what Terry Eagleton called “the God Debate” in his 2010 publication Reason, Faith, and Revolution. When Amir and Isaac begin to argue, Emily and Jory try to change the subject, either out of boredom or from a sense that such discussions can easily degenerate into bitter personal attacks. At first, the battle lines seem clear. Despite his dismissal of the New Atheists, Amir takes the New Atheist position: that religion is barbaric, superstitious nonsense and that Islam is a particularly glaring example of its faults. Isaac and Emily both counter this with protests that such a simple condemnation misses the subtleties of religion in general and Islam in particular. They are less concerned with the theology in the Quran than with the beauty of Islamic art and architecture and the wisdom of Rumi and other heterodox thinkers. Jory eventually joins in on Amir’s side, but she looks at the matter from a feminist perspective, emphasizing the misogyny of traditional Islam and the erasure of women from the public sphere.
At this point, the play takes on the qualities of a Socratic dialogue. But the drama returns as it emerges that the emotions of the characters, with the possible exception of Jory, are at odds with their intellectual positions. Emily discovers that her love of Islam is more superficial and less heartfelt than she thought it was. Isaac, who uses Judaism as the butt of his satirical wit, reveals that he has a visceral attachment to Israel. Above all, Amir reveals that his rationalism and skepticism run no deeper than Emily’s contrasting views. The audience is forced to the uneasy conclusion that perhaps only Abe, who hates the West and condones a militant vision of Islam, has a consistent philosophy which allows his heart and mind to be at peace with one another. Ultimately, the play offers no conclusions about Islam itself, only revelations of the characters’ true priorities and feelings with regards to Islam.
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