(Michael Feingold’s article appeared on Theatermania 1/23.)
"A landscape," said Gertrude Stein, "is such a natural setting for a battlefield or a play that one must write plays." The first striking feature of Ayad Akhtar's three recent plays is that they're set — and not always just metaphorically — on the stormiest of current battlefields: the war that shouldn't exist but does between Islam and the modern, Westernized world.
That war shouldn't exist because Islam, as a religion, has the same equivocal relationship to contemporary life as the other great monotheist religions. Neither Christian nor Jewish fundamentalists feel any great enthusiasm for female equality, homosexuality, or the host of ancillary issues linked to them, like contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Nor will you find them expressing much enthusiasm for the kind of cartoon blasphemy that provoked the slaughter at Paris' Charlie Hebdo. (Officially godless Communist states probably don't like it much either. Sony didn't get hacked because North Korea thought The Interview was a laff riot.) Even a few strongholds of Mormon fundamentalism share Islam's resistance to the outlawing of polygamy.
These matters of course make up only a small part of what turns Islamic fundamentalism into terrorist violence. The part of the world in which Islam predominates is largely impoverished, a Third World realm offering an extreme contrast between a largely corrupt wealthy elite and a vast number of angry poor, its modernization only superficially appliquéd, the province of a small and shaky middle class struggling to grasp contemporary values that the rich don't care about and the poor don't comprehend. Theocracy — meaning rule by Quranic law — remains the prevailing governmental form, and built into it is the sectarian struggle, nearly as old as Islam itself, between Sunni and Shia views of the religion both practice. (Most victims of "Islamist" terrorism are other Muslims; while the world was mourning the dozen slaughtered at Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haram wiped out an entire fishing village in northern Nigeria, massacring an estimated 2,000.)