Disgraced Themes

The main themes in Disgraced are tribalism and violence, racism and Orientalism, and the nature of Islam.

  • Tribalism and violence: The play examines the role tribalism plays in the lives of contemporary Americans, including those who outwardly denounce it.
  • Racism and Orientalism: Akhtar shows some of the forms racism can take, with a particular focus on Western bigotry towards Asian cultures.
  • The nature of Islam: Each character in the play has a different view on Islam, suggesting its complexity as a faith and cultural tradition.

Themes

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Last Updated on February 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973

Tribalism and Violence

Disgraced examines the various ways in which tribalism can influence contemporary Americans. Amir and Isaac, and, to a lesser extent, Jory, conceal tribal feelings behind sophisticated modern facades. Abe’s tribalism and violence are on the surface, and only Emily appears to be free of such influences, perhaps because she is the one character from an unequivocally privileged background. Amir reveals his tribal nature in the most dramatic way. He has been condemning Islam in sweeping terms as the grim, narrow religion of people who see life purely as a struggle. Only when he has established this uncompromising view of the Islamic faith does he admit any sympathy for it. The broader philosophical and aesthetic tradition of Islam, as outlined by Emily and Isaac has no appeal for him. His is the bloodthirsty, narrow version of the faith that creates a thrill of pride in his heart when he sees the September 11 terrorist attacks

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While Amir is the most violent and repressed character, whose desperate attempts to contain his conflicted adherence to Islam cause it to surface crudely, Isaac is also surprisingly vehement in his support for Israel. He adopts an attitude of amused contempt for Jewish culture until he feels it is threatened, preferring Islam precisely because it has no visceral hold on him. As soon as he hears Amir speak approvingly of “wiping Israel into the Mediterranean,” however, his tribalism asserts itself and he becomes aggressive and defensive, as Amir knew he would. Jory adopts a similarly uncompromising attitude with regard to her livelihood and her status as a woman in a sexist world and profession. The violence of these feelings and the reactions they cause make Emily seem deracinated and even shallow by contrast. She feels this herself at the end of the play when she says that her work was naïve, springing from a purely intellectual appreciation of Islamic art rather than the emotional connection that Amir feels at the center of his being.

Racism and Orientalism

Of the five characters in Disgraced, two are Muslim and South Asian, one is African-American, and one is Jewish. Given the characters’ context—the United States in the early twenty-first century—the specter of racism is constantly present, even when it is not overt. It is most closely examined in the form of Orientalism.

At the beginning of the play, Amir has recently been insulted in an unspecified manner by a waiter whom both he and Emily regard as a racist. However, Amir is uneasy about his wife’s superficially affirming but insensitive response: painting a portrait of him modelled on a famous Velázquez portrait of an enslaved man. Amir protests that he has no idea what the painting has to do with the waiter and is clearly uncomfortable with the implied comparison between him and Juan de Pareja, which is later made explicit by Isaac. Emily’s Orientalist tendencies are equally evident in her admiration and emulation of Islamic artwork. She speaks of Islamic culture in favorable and uncritical terms, which frustrates Amir, given his first-hand knowledge of Islam’s more questionable principles.

Amir is convinced that in sophisticated New York society, and in the specific context of a Jewish law firm, his Muslim origins are more of a handicap than Jory’s Blackness. He has to deal with a range of racist reactions, from the waiter’s overt racism to his wife’s subtle Orientalism. A peculiar refinement of racism emerges in Isaac’s pointed questions about how Amir deals with the racial assumptions of security officers at airports. Isaac’s criticism of his confrontational attitude highlights the predicament Amir is placed in, given the suspicion and scrutiny to which he is inevitably subjected. 

Emily is the only character who does not have to deal with racism in any form, and her tone-deaf attitude to racial conflict contrasts with her artistic sensitivity. Isaac hints that her “brown husband” is a kind of Orientalist trophy, a living expression of her affinity for Islam. While Emily resists this interpretation of her marriage, Amir himself feels it in her blithe dismissiveness of his concerns about his precarious position at his firm, and within society.

The Nature of Islam

Each of the five characters has a different perspective on Islam. Amir regards it as a narrow, barbaric, and intolerant religion. Emily sees it as a luminously beautiful tradition which has inspired great works of art. Isaac has a more populist and less informed version of the same view, with his ideas drawn from Western commentators and translations of Rumi rather than from the Quran. Jory sees Islam as an oppressive, patriarchal religion that is responsible for the oppression of women. Abe comes to believe that it is the one true faith, destined to conquer and purify the world.

The playwright does not attempt to arbitrate the question of who has the correct view. His stance is a realistic one, since people in American society hold all these views of Islam, and many more, and there is no final arbitrator of who is correct. Liberals like Emily and Isaac are eager to dismiss views of Islam that focus on its militant or political dimensions, such as those held by Abe and Amir. However, Abe and Amir are interpreting their own culture, and there is no single authority to declare their understanding incorrect. Despite the relative simplicity of Isam’s core beliefs—that there is one God, and Muhammad is his Prophet—the faith is far from simple in practice. Because Muslims can interpret the Quran as they see fit, as shown in the textual debate between Amir and Emily, this initial theoretical simplicity gives rise to endless real-world complexities. The battle to decide who defines Islam and who speaks for Muslims is never-ending, since all Muslims speak only for themselves.

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