Charismatic Leadership Through the Lens of a “Rap God”

Kanye West is extraordinary in many ways. As a producer, rapper, and fashion designer, Ye is worshipped for his innovative thinking and ingenious products. However, there’s no need to explain why Kanye is so great when he will tell you himself. People have always been quick to judge Kanye and his boisterous attitude. Then again, it is not often when someone describes themselves as a god. Before labelling Kanye as an egotistical maniac, it is important to analysis why Ye gives himself such high praise, and more importantly, why people believe it.

giphyYe receives a lot of attention for his outrageous commentary on society and himself, such as the time he boldly stated “My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live” (Jedeikin, 2012). In alignment with social theorist Max Weber’s definition of charismatic leaders, Kanye does not speak to please the majority, or “does not derive his claims from the wills of his followers” (Economy and Society, 1978: 1113). Rather, Kanye is akin to charismatic leaders in that he is quick to criticize and share his unique ideas, putting the “duty [on his followers] to recognize his charisma” (Economy and Society, 1978: 1113). In an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, Ye addresses his critics, saying, “they call me ‘Wacko Kanye.’ Isn’t that so funny? That people point fingers at the people who have influenced us the most. They talk the most shit about the people who cared the most” (Weiss, 2016). Kanye is unapologetically himself in all that he does and lets his success speak for itself.

Another key characteristic of Weber’s charismatic leadership includes “specific gifts of body and mind that [are] considered ‘supernatural’” (Economy and Society, 1978: 1112). Ye admittedly has a list of credentials to back up his larger than life persona. Kanye’s feature in Time magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People is just one of the many awards he has received acknowledging him for his groundbreaking influence in pop culture (Musk 2015). As a producer, Kanye is considered a trailblazer for modern hip-hop and rap. Top music moguls, such as Russell Simmons, praise Ye for “his genius, his tenacity, his creativity, his relentlessness and his madness” within the music industry (Boardman, 2013). Furthermore, as a sneaker designer, Kanye has been deemed the “King of Shoes” (Bell 2015). His shoes, Yeezy Boosts, are so insanely popular that although they are originally priced at $200, they often resell for thousands of dollars a pair. Kanye West’s success is not the same as Drake’s or Justin Bieber’s; Ye transcends the mainstream form of popularity and captures audiences with his extraordinary and innovative creativity.


Kanye’s unconventional stage design for his Saint Pablo Tour 

Sociologist, Marlene Fiol’s (1999) investigates how charismatic leadership initiates social change, specifically noting the deconstruction of social norms with the reconstruction of new ideas. As a producer, Kanye epitomizes Fiol’s observations in that he rejects standard recording processes and uses inventive techniques to create music that are then replicated by other artists. A Vox Media video (2016) analyzes Kanye and his unique ability to digitally manipulate the human voice to fill “every nook and cranny in his music”, which is just one of the ways Kanye continues to transform hip-hop music.

Although celebrity worship is a popular modern phenomenon, few fans worship celebrities like Kanye’s fans worship him. Yeezianity, or The Church of Yeezus, wasunavngiven.gif created by a loyal Kanye West fan in the wake of the rapper’s seventh album, Yeezus. The group claims to believe in Yeezus, as the “highest living human being… (who) will help to usher in a New Age of humanity.” The creator of the Church of Yeezus, Ben Liebman, relates Kanye to Jesus in that “the idea of becoming like Jesus is intimidating; it is blinding, his perfection is so unbelievable – like looking at the sun… [Kanye] is a stepping stone to Jesus…a realistic current day model of Jesus” (Dodge, 2014). Yeezianity may be extreme, but Kanye’s immense success and super-human persona presents the perfect icon for young audiences to idolize, especially in a society that places so much power on celebrity figures.

The fact is, Kanye West is a genius and he knows it. His boundless creativity in music and in fashion never goes unrecognized, and his ability to capture audiences and have them believe that he is, indeed, superhuman is a skill that few possess. Kanye will always be remembered for his ingenious music-making ability. However, like many other charismatic leaders, Ye’s legacy will include his passionate speeches and memorable quotes. I, for one, can sympathize with Kanye’s greatest pain in life (to never be able to see himself perform live), for a charismatic performer as captivating as Kanye truly only comes once in a lifetime.

Work Cited

Bell, J. (2015, October 22). FN Crowns Kanye West ‘King Of Shoes’ For Yeezy Boost. Retrieved May 13, 2017, from

Boardman, M. (2013, December 02). Russell Simmons: Kanye West Is A ‘Genius’ Retrieved May 13, 2017, from

Dodge, S. (2014, January 24). EXCLUSIVE: Meet the unemployed middle class boy from New York behind the religion that reveres Kanye West. Retrieved May 13, 2017, from

Fiol, C. M., Drew Harris and Robert House. 1999. “Charismatic Leadership: Strategies for Effecting Social Change.” The Leadership Quarterly 10(3):449-482 (

Jedeikin, D. (2013). 15 Most Ridiculous Kanye West Quotes. Retrieved May 13, 2017, from

Musk, E. (2015, April 15). Kanye West. Retrieved May 13, 2017, from

Weber, M. (1968). Economy and Society (Vol. 2) (G. Roth & C. Wittich, Eds.). Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Weiss, S. (2016, October 20). Kanye West Went on a Passionate Rant About Changing the World on ‘Ellen’ Retrieved May 13, 2017, from

(2016, September 01). Retrieved May 13, 2017, from


Is football a Quasi-Religion?

Football – soccer in America – is the world’s most popular sport. With over three billion followers in the world, football has a larger following than Christianity, the world’s largest religion that has 2.2 billion followers (World Population Clock, 2017). This staggering statistic hints that football has a tremendous impact in people’s social lives.

FoootballAs someone who has closely followed the game for the last 13 years, I have often asked myself this question: is football a religion or at least a quasi religion? According to Paul Tillich, a German philosopher and theologian, a quasi religion is an entity with unintended similarities to religion (Ford, 1966). Football resembles religion in how it gives people a collective identity and purpose and how it is experienced through interaction with others.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim suggests that religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices which unites its members under a collective identity (Coser, 1977). Football gives people a sense of collective identity just like religion. When national football teams play, they do not only play for a trophy only; they play to show pride in their identity.  For example, the rivalry between Scottish and English national football teams is deeply rooted in historic political battles between these nations that stretches back to the 1800s (Frank Melley, 2013). Both countries are part of the United Kingdom, but their fiercely competitive nature is based on demonstrating the superiority of being Scottish or English. It is all about identity.

In addition, symbolic interaction is at the heart of football as it is in religion. Sociologist George Herbert Mead’s theory of symbolic interactionism states that the meaning of objects, events, gestures and behaviors comes from the interpretations people give them. If Sunday did not represent the day of Jesus’ resurrection, then it would not be any different from Thursday to Christians. A painting in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is not just a regular painting because Catholics attach divinity to it.  This symbolic interaction is also present in the world of football. Football stadiums are not just regular playing grounds. They are often constructed with a deeper meaning attached to the architecture. For instance, in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the biggest stadium was built in the shape of a calabash, a vessel which is commonly used by the Zulu people of South Africa to carry water (McManus, 2016). The greatest players of the game are immortalized into statues that adorn stadiums in the same way statues of saints and prophets decorate the walls of most churches. Football stadiums, jerseys, statues and museums, are all symbols which enshrine the principles and traditions of the game.

Stadium one  calabash

The Soccer City Stadium in South Africa  (top) was built in resemblance of a calabash (bottom)

Furthermore, these great players are not just patrons of the game; their lives are standards that football fans look to for inspiration and guidance. Sociologist Christian Smith (2003) states that humans are moral believing animals whose actions are guided by the cultural moral order they are part of. This theory also holds in the football community. Values such as hard-work, sacrifice and passion shown by the players on the pitch become lessons that parents teach their children and principles young kids admire. In turn the players become the priests that maintain a public image that portrays the admirable values of the game.

For some fans, the inspiration and admiration of some football players can end up Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 2.01.42 PMboarding on idolatry. This is particularly evident in a documentary by Journeyman Pictures which describes how a football fan-base in Argentina officially started a church
in memory of a great Argentine footballer called Diego Maradona. In this ‘Church of Maradona’ Diego is worship like a god. His life is considered a template which provides guidance for the followers in the same way Jesus’ life is template for a Christian. This is obviously an extreme case of admiration but this goes to show football creates a community where people can find purpose and guidance.

Though the game of football strikingly resembles a religion, I will not go so far as to claim that it is one. There are fundamentals that it lacks for it to qualify as a religion. In Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman states that “Religion refers to concepts, rituals, experiences, and institutions that humans construct based upon their belief in the supernatural, otherworldly, or spiritual.” (Zuckerman 2008:154). Football lacks a faith system which is part of major world religions like Christianity, Islam or Judaism. It additionally lacks a supernatural entity which is a higher cosmic order that is the center of the followers’ existence. Football fans can have their personal religious affiliations but they do not believe the game is guided by a universal supernatural being. Football might not qualify as a religion but it resembles religion in a number of ways. This is why, like Paul Tillich, I would consider it a quasi-religion.


Coser, L. A. (1977.) Emile Durkheim – The Sociology of Religion. Retrieved April 04, 2017, from

Ford, L. S. (1966). Ultimate Concern: Tillich in Dialogue. D. Mackenzie Brown. The Journal of Religion, 46(1, Part 1), 56-57.

Mead, G. H. (1963). Mind, self, and society: from the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Journeymanpictures. “The Church of Maradona – Argentina.” YouTube. YouTube, 13 Dec. 2007. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.

Melly, F (2013,). Friendly? They don’t exist when England face Scotland… How time has created the oldest football rivalry. Retrieved April 04, 2017, from

Moorhouse, H.f. “Football Hooligans: Old Bottle, New Whines?” The Sociological Review 39.3 (1991): 489-502. Web.

Smith, Christian. Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

Zuckerman, P. (2010). Society without God: what the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.


Islam in Prisons: A Coping Mechanism or Fuel For Terrorist Action?

Many people believe that the presence of Islam in prisons poses an inherent threat because it can lead to violent radicalization, but this is not a Muslim issue. This skewed view of Muslim prisoners evolved through the use of small amounts of anecdotal evidence.  Although Islam is the most popular religion for conversions in prison (80% of all conversions) there have been very few instances of terrorist activity (Waller, 2003). Instead, radicalization in prisons is fueled by a number of other circumstances independent of religion.


Image from Rami Nsour’s article  “Islam and Muslims in the U.S. Prison System.”

To begin, prisons are inhospitable places where violence runs rampant with 21% of prisoners experiencing assault in a 6-month period from both other prisoners and staff (Wolff, 2009). In these harsh conditions, new prisoners find themselves lacking their traditional mechanisms of support, frequently making them more willing to adopt a radical belief system (Mulkahy et al., 2013). This, is combination with a lack of religious leaders available, exacerbates a prisoners risk of radicalization (Hamm, 2009). In the US particularly, the racial divides and violent atmosphere push many minority groups, in this case Muslim inmates, into either Muslim gangs or across racial lines into non-Muslim groups. It is here that prisoners become even more likely to be radicalized (Jones, 2014). These pressures however are not particular to Islam. In fact two notorious historical figures, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, developed their radical belief systems while incarcerated (Mulkahy, 2013).

One of the most utilized examples in the alarmist narrative about the rise of Islamic terrorism in prisons is the Jam’iyyat Ui-Islam Is-Saheeh (JIS) group that came out of Folsom prison in California. (Hamm, 2009). Folsom prison is a maximum-security prison where problematic inmates are sent. Here prisoners face terrible overcrowding, 40% of inmates have hepatitis C, there are no rehabilitation programs, and violent gangs run out of control. Kevin James, who was the leader of JIS, gained his following within this context. Members were excited by JIS because it provided an outlet for their rage about their current situation and the systems that they felt put them there. As one inmate involved in JIS put it, “When our back is against the wall, we will seek justice”(Hamm, 2009 pg. 674).


Image from Max Whittaker’s series on Folsom Prison.

It is clear that there were many factors leading to the development of JIS that were not due to the Islamic religion itself. In fact, many studies have suggested that Islam does not post an inherent threat of radicalization in prisons (Mulkahy, 2013; Hamm, 2009). Rather, Islam was found to be a positive influence on prisoner’s transition, and ability to cope with the stresses of incarceration (Hamm, 2009).

In fact, at Folsom prison a man named Akil, who is currently serving a lifetime sentence for murder, found himself delving into Islamic religious texts. He says, learning about Islam “ taught me to have respect for others. It taught me to understand the true nature of humanity. It keeps me from doing the bad things of my past” (Hamm, 2009. p. 676).

Akil has gone onto develop a program called The Islamic Studies Program, which actually uses Islamic teachings to counteract the threat of radicalization. The positive effects of a program like this goes to show that Islam itself is not the underlying issue here.

The Islamophobia which surrounds Muslim prisoners, especially post 9/11 frequently leads to the mistreatment of Muslims by staff and other inmates creating a sense of insecurity surrounding prison life for Muslims (Liebling et al., 2011). It is not that this anecdotal evidence should be disregarded; it is to say that there is something more at play than Islam in radicalization. It is very important to investigate these fundamental causes if the root of the problem is to be addressed. One thing is for sure; marginalizing Muslim prisoners is certainly not the solution that is needed.

Work Cited

Hamm, M. S. (2009). Prison Islam in the Age of Sacred Terror. British Journal of Criminology, 49(5), 667-685. doi:10.1093/bjc/azp035

Jones, C. R. (2014). Are prisons really schools for terrorism? Challenging the rhetoric on prison radicalization. Punishment & Society, 16(1), 74-103. doi:10.1177/1462474513506482

Liebling A, Arnold H and Straub C. (2011). An Exploration of Staff–Prisoner Relationships at HMP Whitemoor: 12 Years On. London: UK Ministry of Justice National Offender Management Service.

Mulcahy, E., Merrington, S., & Bell, P. J. (2013). The Radicalisation of Prison Inmates: A Review of the Literature on Recruitment, Religion and Prisoner Vulnerability. Journal of Human Security, 9(1). doi:10.12924/johs2013.09010004

Waller, M. (2003). ‘Terrorist Recruitment and Infiltration in the United States: Prisons and Military as an Operational Base’, testimony before the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 14 October.

Wolf, N. (2007). The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

Wolff, N. and Jing S. “Contextualization of Physical and Sexual Assault in Male Prisons: Incidents and Their Aftermath.” Journal of correctional health care : the official journal of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care 15.1 (2009): 58–82. PMC. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.

Protecting Sacred Land

For over a year, national media sources have covered the controversial Dakota Pipeline project, representing perspectives ranging from concerned environmental activists to corporate capitalists. Despite this buzz, media sources have failed to give sufficient attention to the Sioux Tribe’s perspective on the Pipeline, which, if acknowledged, poses a significant challenge to the pipeline. The Sioux’s perspective can be understood through the concept of lived religion which explains that the sacred is intertwined with everyday life (Orsi, 2003). If this concept were applied to the Sioux, people would understand and appreciate that the land the pipeline crosses is sacred and intertwined with the Sioux’s everyday life. As such, building on that land threatens the Sioux’s way of life.

Why does the Sioux regard this land as sacred?

Monuments on this land hold religious and historical value to the Sioux. For example, a stone statue that stands in the area that the pipeline is set to destroy represents an area visited by members of the tribe during spiritual prayer (Bailey, 2016). Canon Ball River Drainage holds sacred status as well. As Peter Nabokov, a UCLA professor of American Indian Students, has  noted, “warring bands of enemies never created conflict with each other as a spiritual presence was there (Bailey, 2016).” The land, itself, is also viewed as intrinsically sacred. Stephen Pevar, an attorney with the ACLU, has explained that land is “critical…to Native spirituality” and that Native Americans cultivate a sacred bond with the land.

The sacred value that Sioux subscribe to the land is not a distant and obscure concept. In addition to valuing the land for being sacred, the Sioux value the land for its everyday uses. The Sioux use the land for hunting and fishing and as a burial ground and water supply (Healy, 2016). This use and value of the land reflects the concept of lived religion which suggests religion and the sacred are part of, “the way human do other necessary and important things (Orsi, 2003).” Lived religion reveals that this land simultaneously has sacred qualities and is crucial to the Sioux’s everyday life.

The Sioux’s claim to the land

The Sioux place importance on this land because they believe that the land belongs to the tribe. In 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation. In 1877, Congress removed major areas of land from the reservation without the required consent of three fourths of the tribe. By removing this land, Congress separated Standing Rock Reservation from the Great Sioux Reservation. The proposed pipeline would cross this same area of land that Congress removed from the reservation.


Map of the land that the Dakota Pipeline is proposed to cross.

The Proposed Dakota Pipeline

Once it’s completed, the Dakota Pipeline will cross 1,172 miles, cost 3.7 billion dollars to build, and transport 570,000 barrels of crude oil each day (Monet, 2016). Energy Transfer Partners LLC owns the pipeline, and on March 11, 2016, the Iowa Utilities board unanimously approved the plans to build it (Miller, 2016). Pipeline supporters — who include corporate capitalists— see the pipeline as profitable. They argue that the pipeline will aid in transportation of crude oil, create thousands of construction jobs, and boost the American steel industry (Bailey, 2016).

Pipeline opponents – who include vocal and well-publicized environmental activists — counter these claims with arguments that the pipeline will contaminate drinking water, promote fossil fuels, and infringe on Native American sacred land (Bailey, 2016). Environmental activists have gathered in camps surrounding the pipeline since April 1, 2016 (Bailey, 2016). Protestors, chant, “Mni Wiconi”– Water is Life – claiming that the pipeline has detrimental consequences to the clean water in the area (Monet, 2016).


Environmental activists and Sioux protesting to “protect” water.

The Sioux’s perspective of the pipeline, seen through the context of lived religion, is woefully under-appreciated. The arguments of the corporate capitalists and environmental activists have overshadowed the Sioux perspective. The pipeline would cause harm to the Sioux – by disturbing land that is sacred and critical to their everyday life.  No one would think about building a pipeline through the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. or St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. This pipeline, through lived religion, is just as sacred and should be just as untouchable. 

Polytheism: Genuine or just trendy?

A couple years ago, I was sitting with a friend when he asked about the ring that I wear on my left middle finger. It is a small silver ring with a St. Christopher emblem set on top. I explained that it is an old Christian tradition in my family to give kids a St. Christopher when they turn sixteen years old. St. Christopher is the patron saint of voyagers. Sixteen is the age when most kids begin to drive, so this tradition has become a protective tradition within my family.

My friend also referred to the Buddha figurine in my room—a figure whose belly I am supposed to rub when I need extra luck. My grandfather who had an interest in Buddhism purchased the figure for me. My friend remarked that it was interesting to note the many ways in which polytheism has manifested itself in modern day society, contrasting the Buddha with my St. Christopher ring. At the time, I thought it was a strange comment. I had never considered myself religious. Despite my family ties to these religious symbols, my parents identify as atheist and agnostic.

Coming from various cultural traditions, my family has an interesting approach to religion. We subscribe to certain Jewish family traditions. We give each other Christian symbols and Buddhist figurines. But we do all these things while still questioning the existence of a god. My family picks and chooses the religious practices and beliefs that we believe represent us. Scholars have asked whether these polytheistic trends reflect a greater interest in spiritual concerns or instead, a dissolution into what is ‘trendy.’[1]

Although research shows that most Americans are engaging in a genuine exploration of faith and spirituality, for some people like those in my family, polytheistic trends are not so much tied to spiritual concern as cultural identity expression. As more and more people treat religion with a “pick and choose” mentality, there has been a growing trend of polytheism.[2] Advertising and marketing have shown people the abundance of choice that is at their disposal.[2] Consumers have become accustomed to picking what they want and don’t want. Similarly with religion, they hope to pick the practices, beliefs, and emblems that best cater to their individual situations.

While religiosity seems to be fading from my environment, it has been important to remember the many, new appearances it has taken. Religion has been infused in various marketable goods, finding a place in everyday, capitalist society. Religious symbols can allude to your worldview, as well as represent parts of your identity.

The question arises of whether or not these commodified symbols are less sacred because of their place in the contemporary capitalist marketplace. Rather, are they understood as profane reproductions of sacred symbols? Are these commodities created out of interest in the furthering of religious exploration or the potential for profit?

My brother’s St. Christopher keychain very clearly displays my family’s protectionist tradition when he travels. Commodities with religious symbols, like the keychain, can keep religion present in contemporary people’s minds, as well as provoke viewers to ask questions about their origin and meaning.

In a capitalist-dominated American society driven by personal interest and profit, there is a stronger push for every action and idea to reap tangible material rewards. Previously a religious symbol could stand alone as an object of reverence. Now, for some people it stands out as a commodity that draws attention and raises questions. These religious symbols are part of identity expression and can also inadvertently spur religious discussion.

Not everyone will fully understand commoditized religious symbols in the context of the religion from which they derive. There are many consumers who choose these symbols for merely aesthetic purposes. Not every consumer subscribes to the religious beliefs that follow the emblems or figurines that they may purchase. While religion may be losing its fervor for some people, the commodification of religious symbols can allow for continued, yet different, acts of religious exploration.

[1] Roof, Wade Clark. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
[2] Forbes, Bruce David, and Jeffrey H. Mahan. 2000. Religion and popular culture in America. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced : Religion on the Secular Stage

Disgraced Program

The Disgraced program at Syracuse Stage

Theatre has a history of raising necessary community dialogue about social issues that are difficult to discuss.  For example, in 1994, the musical Rent by Jonathan Larson premiered and brought HIV/AIDS awareness to a mainstream audience.  Not only did it start a dialogue, but the show became a leader in fundraising for those affected by the diseases (Cocovinis, 2011).  Rent is not unique; research suggests that audience members who witness performances that deal with social problems tend to want to talk about them afterwards (Kelaher et. al. 2012).  Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a production of Disgraced at Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, NY, which promoted community dialogue about one of the most infamous off-limits subjects of polite conversation: religion.

Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, with its eighteen professional performances, was the most-produced play in the United States in 2015.  This season it was still in the top three (Tran).  Popular since its premiere in Chicago in 2012, Disgraced has had Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, and has been produced in many other major cities. 

Disgraced tells the story of Amir, a present day, non-religious man who was raised Muslim.  It explores how Amir’s Muslim background affects his treatment at work and his relationship with his nephew, Abe, who does not understand why Amir feels compelled to distance himself from his Muslim family and community.  It also takes a look how Amir’s Muslim background affects his relationships with his friends and wife.  The main conflict occurs in a dinner party scene in which Amir and his friends of different religious and ethnic backgrounds get into a heated argument over their perceptions of their own religions and those of each other.  This scene struck a chord with many audience members.

By showing different characters’ perspectives, the play skillfully presents its characters’ unique and personal relationships with faith.  What are Amir’s personal feelings about his Muslim background?  How do they come up in his day to day life?  Amir’s experiences, and those of his friends, shed light on American lived religion, which according to Religious Studies scholar Robert A. Orsi (2003), examines how religion manifests itself in people’s daily lives and practices, rather than reducing a religion simply to the tenets it proclaims and the texts it follows.  This can help us understand the intricacies of religion and also brings the human being into the picture.   

“This way of approaching religious worlds eliminates the comfort of academic distance and undermines the confidence and authority of the claims “we are not them” and “they are not us.” We may not condone or celebrate the religious practices of others but we cannot dismiss them as inhuman, so alien from us that they cannot be understood or approached, only contained or obliterated” (Orsi 174).

In alignment with Orsi, Akhtar, who has written a few other plays that center on the Muslim identity and experience in the United States, is quoted in the Syracuse Stage Disgraced program saying, “I’m not writing from theory…I’m just observing people in my life and my family and I’m also observing myself and I’m sort of creating narrative out of these observations. Being Muslim. Being American.” (Syracuse Stage).  So the stories presented onstage are actually based on Akhtar’s own experience and his observations of real people’s individual interpretations of their religions.  And through this kind of work, Akhtar creates characters with whom audience members are able to empathize.  This, in turn, promotes social awareness. 

According to an actor in the production, Syracuse Stage scheduled a talkback after each performance of the show, which is a rarity for a regional theatre.  A talkback is an informal conversation between actors and audience.  Audience members are encouraged to react to the show and ask questions of the actors.  Often talkbacks are special occasions.  The inclusion of talkbacks shows the weight Syracuse Stage puts on importance of community discourse, especially on the themes of religion and identity highlighted in this production.  Also surprising to me was the fact that most of the audience stayed, as I have been to shows at which only fifteen out of two hundred people stay for the talkback.  The questions asked went far beyond the typical, “How long did it take you to memorize those lines?”  This audience wanted to know the actors’ opinions of the perspectives they represented onstage.  The audience asked questions about the play’s title in relation to the events they saw unfold, and wanted to discuss religious identity- their own and their connections to those they saw depicted onstage.

Disgraced is the perfect example of theatre’s ability to promote necessary community dialogue about important social problems.  In a country that recently barred the entrance of citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries (Diamond, 2017), it is fitting that one of the most-produced plays at professional theaters is one by a Muslim American playwright that tells the stories of two Muslim American men and their different experiences with Islam.  The message that these theaters are sending is: the Muslim American identity is important and nuanced.  It’s worth exploring onstage and discussing afterwards.

Christmas in Copenhagen

On November 1st in Copenhagen, Christmas markets open their doors. Holiday lights are hung, trees are decorated, and the limited time “Julebryg” beer is released. From this day forward, the entire city of Copenhagen relishes in holiday spirit in anticipation of Christmas Day. The street lamps are covered with decorative wreaths while central squares house dozens of markets, ornate Christmas trees and Ferris wheels. Friends begin to schedule weekly Christmas lunches, called “julefrokost”, and begin baking traditional “abelskiver” donuts. This holiday countdown brings warmth, spirit, and excitement to the cold, dark months of winter.


Christmas market filled with traditional Christmas food, drink, and gifts.

Last fall, I spent four months in this city and was struck by how the Danes celebrated Christmas. Having spent the holiday season in cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, and Prague, I am confident that no city celebrates with the ubiquitous spirit that Copenhagen does. After visiting Denmark’s next two largest cities, Aarhus and Aalborg, it became clear this spirit was not unique to Copenhagen, but permeating throughout the entire country. I began to wonder why this was, and looked to religion as the obvious explanation. I quickly realized how wrong I was.

Despite Denmark’s near obsession with Christmas, it is one of the least religious countries in the world. While nearly three quarters of the population identifies as Christian, only 19% of the population finds religion important in their everyday lives (Gallup 2015). Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, having spent two years researching religion in Scandinavia, found that most Danes are either skeptical about the existence of a God or have rarely even thought about it (Zuckerman 2008). Only 28% of Danes believe in a God, and only 2% of church members people attend services weekly (Gallup 2015). Most Danes don’t worship Jesus, pray, or read religious texts. Why, then, is this Christian holiday so important to such a secular country?

IMG_2332 (1)

Tivoli, Copenhagen’s renowned amusement park, opens for a limited three weeks during the holiday season.

Being religious is not a prerequisite to celebrating Christmas in Denmark. Many Danes don’t believe in the religious origin of the holiday and still celebrate it fervently (Zuckerman 2008). While the majority of Danes do attend religious services on Christmas Day, few attend for its religious content. Instead, Danes engage in this Christian ritual because it’s just what people do. Christmas is not unique in this way – most Danes marry in churches, celebrate Easter, and baptize their children because they are national rituals and important means of community involvement. Danes, rather than being traditionally religious, are culturally religious. Danes may not believe in the tenets of Christianity, but engage in these religious rituals to have fun, connect with family, and take part in their national cultural identity. Jan Lindhart, a bishop in Denmark, describes, “The Danes don’t need to go to church on Sundays because they can do their Danishness every day of the week” (Zuckerman 2008: 171). Danes don’t need church to feel Danish, because being Danish doesn’t mean being Christian. Being Danish means celebrating Christmas in its cultural context – and not its religious context.

The question then becomes, why this ritual of Christmas celebration and not other religious traditions? Baptisms, confirmations, or Easter don’t foster half as much spirit or excitement as Christmas does. This two-month extravagant celebration of Christmas means something different to the Danes. There, Christmas is not just an established communal tradition – it is a manifestation of Denmark’s value system.

If asked to describe Danish culture with one word, it would be “hygge.” This word has no direct English translation and is exclusive to Danish culture. Hygge is a feeling embedded within all aspects of life in Denmark. Hygge is comfort, coziness, and connection with others. It is the experience of enjoying family’s company or sharing dinner in a candlelit apartment. Hygge is moderation and modesty, and being hyggelit means never seeking attention or exuding wealth. Anthropologist Jeppe Linnett argues that hygge is the implicit cultural value of balance and moderation that is rooted in the nation’s cultural identity of social, economic, and political equality (Linnett 2011). This particular value may explain why Christmas, more than any other religious or cultural event, brings such thrill and excitement.


Holiday market in Nytorv, one of Copenhagen’s busiest squares.

The concept of hygge carries symbolic meaning about this culture and provides residents with norms to live by. Linnett describes hygge as “a cultural reference point that all Danes relate to…and is the structuring principle of a fundamental moral order for everyday Scandinavian life” (Linett 2011: 38). Being Danish means being hyggelit, and there is nothing more hyggelit than Christmas. The lights, candles, and fireplaces are provide warmth and comfort during the dark, cold months. Families put work aside to spend time with loved ones. Friends shop at street markets for handmade gifts, never purchasing anything too extravagant and always thinking of friends before themselves. The hyggelit nature of this holiday explains why its celebration is so widespread and unique. To this secular nation Christmas is more than a holiday; it is a celebration of hygge and the great values the small word represents.

Since my semester in Copenhagen, friends have asked for advice on which months to travel there. My answer is obvious: the holiday season. To miss Christmas in Copenhagen would be to miss a true understanding of Danish culture and its intersection with secularity.


One of the many Copenhagen streets decorated with Christmas lights from November to January.