Extremism: The Commonality between ISIS, “Jesus Camp,” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”

Snow hit New Jersey Thursday, and school was closed for two days. Translation: I was off from work  and afforded the luxury of what to do with my free time. As you may have seen from my previous post, I spent Wednesday night preparing for the storm by watching Jesus Camp, a documentary about a Pentecostal Evangelical children’s summer camp. I spent Thursday reading Writing Ethnographic Field Notes and preparing to write about my observational experience in my campus’ student center. Friday, I decided to do some more research on religion in pop culture. Translation: I spent a lot of time scrolling through Twitter and a lot of time watching Netflix’s newly released original series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I had no idea this would actually become a productive task.

As I learned in just the first episode, the lead character in the series, unbreakable_kimmy_2701_NAKimmy Schmidt, was kidnapped by a fanatical “religious leader” of a doomsday cult who convinced four women God had brought the apocalypse to Earth and killed everyone but those who lived safely in their underground bunker. The show, then, picks up 15 years later, when Kimmy is rescued by SWAT team members and begins trying to make sense of life above ground by re-evaluating flashback experiences to her time in the bunker.

Three hours, and 6 episodes in, I was wondering why someone who seems so intelligent (for only having an 8th grade education) would believe this ridiculous message. Twitter, surprisingly, was there to answer my question when I received the following tweet in response to one about my blog.

While it was relevant, I hadn’t really tweeted anything about Islam. In fact, my knowledge of Islam is extremely limited to things I’ve heard in the media–things about Islamic extremists. I clicked the link in good faith, thinking I might learn something applicable to my research, even though it seemed more like a spammer trying to get traffic to his page than anything else.  What I found was a link between the facts I’d garnered about ISIS from the media, the documentary I’d watched, and the doomsday cult that captured Kimmy Schmidt.

Yes, I recognize that it may seem extremely unsympathetic of me to make a comparison between a group that is violently and publicly killing Christians and a comedic sitcom about a nonsensical cult, but hear me out. The issues at the heart shine light on some very important concepts in religion. I am not working to justify the actions of any extremist group but merely working to help us understand why the followers of extremist groups might do what they do in the name of God.

In the article “Belief vs.Trust” by Dr. Safdar DushanTappeh, as tweeted to me by @islamrevisited, Dr. DushanTappeh argues that in every religion “there are always some notions, rules, and rituals that cannot be explained rationally and the religious person is expected to blindly swallow them with the added flavor of belief and trust.” This would explain why we, as bystanders, can’t wrap our heads around the actions of self-proclaimed religious groups that seem so blatantly anti-religious. His thesis, then, argues that this blind trust is the same corruption religion was formed to confront. With this argument, religious belief and religious trust are not the same.

DushanTappeh moves to define the following two terms in his writing:

1. Belief: The foundation of religious thought, the unprovable principles around which a religious man or woman will structure his life. 

2. Trust: The reliance a religious man or woman puts on the source of beliefs, whether divine creator, religious text, or religious leader.

The problem with beliefs is that while they are the foundation of religion,they have to come from somewhere. A religious person often looks to his or her religious leaders for guidance in understanding and practicing beliefs. This seems logical and valuable. Religious leaders are trained in interpreting and sharing religious texts. Why shouldn’t they be trusted by their congregations? Well, it is important to remember that interpretation is subjective. And one thing I will always remember from my English professors in college is that some interpretations can be wrong, particularly those that take parts of the works out of context.

ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq andisis-army-700x430 al-Sham), according to Graeme Wood’s article in The Atlanticfollows a “distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.” ISIS isn’t Islam. ISIS is leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s version of Islam. Islamic State’s chief spokesperson, as cited by Wood, juxtaposes biblical punishments with modern violence by calling Muslims to “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.”

So, yes, ISIS is attracting psycopaths and adventure seekers, but it’s central messages are derived from coherent and learned interpretations of Islam. The messages are just being skewed by Baghdadi, and the followers are misplacing trust in him.

This is the same way, in my opinion, the children in Jesus Camp, misplaced trust in Becky Fisher who called them soldiers in a war for God. This is the same way Kimmy Schmidt believed Richard Wayne Gary Wayne who declared the world was ending. Believers see an authority who is telling them something terrifying, telling them they have a duty, and. perhaps out of fear of God, they listen, even if it means going against their gut instincts.

Extremism in religion is problem caused by misplaced trust. This insight probably won’t help us solve the problems extremism creates, but it might help us understand why it seems to overtake rational, moral human thought.

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8 thoughts on “Extremism: The Commonality between ISIS, “Jesus Camp,” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”

  1. Would not have predicted that superb weaving of sources and otherwise outrageously polarized subjects. I found myself thinking about the path your research is laying and wondering what you’ll keep and discard and ultimately what you’ll create. I’m impressed, but that is no surprise.

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    • Elaine, thanks for the kind words!

      I was really worried that people would find my link between what you nicely called “polarized subjects” troubling and disrespectful, but I’m glad you didn’t think it read that way. I really appreciate the feedback!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lauren-this post brought to mind my friend Diane. I’ve known Diane for about 6 years and met her years after her move away from a fundamentalist christian (lowercase intentional here) life mostly in camps. She is now such a liberal, rational, intelligent, and not religious person that I sometimes cannot believe that was ever her life and belief system. We have many open conversations about religion in general, my catholic upbringing, and her former life. She has said to me on more than one occasion, “they truly BELIEVE to the core what they say and do (about extremist and/or fundamentalists which in my opinion, are the same) is the right way and ONLY way”. It only helps me in the sense that I am always open to others’ beliefs until they try to impose what they believe on me and/or cannot in any way be open to me and what I believe. There is no conversation only a mindset. That to me is where the breakdown occurs and where the point of no return lies.

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    • Kristen, it’s so interesting to hear how people change so drastically, but it’s definitely good that your friend had the ability to do so.

      I also really agree with your point about being open listening to and learning about other’s beliefs as long as there is no attempt at conversion of the audience.

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  3. Blind trust does seem to be worse these days as does being stuck in a mindset. A liberal arts education is suppose to offset that for one but much education seems geared toward that and specializing. People seem to travel mostly to get place to place not to experience different cultures when they are there. For all this globalization and rush rush rush, blinders are making us less in tune not more. Less connecting seems to make people more desperate to connect even if the connection is off, way off. What happened to: “Stop and THINK”, the “Golden Rule”, “Just because jimmy jumped off a bridge, would you?” I see less thought put into things these days then ever. What can change this? Another world war? Things seem to be getting more and more convoluted.

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    • Phyllis, the point you make about connections is an important one. “Less connecting seems to make people more desperate to connect, even if the connection is off, way off.” I think some times people get so caught up in wanting to be a part of something, that they don’t stop to think about what they might be becoming a part of.

      Thanks for reading!

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  4. One thing I always think about when I watch Jesus Camp is that I could completely re-score the movie and it would have a totally different message. I take away many things from that documentary, one of which is being wary of extremism. But the others are a mix of positive and negative. Rachel was bullied at school, but her faith kept her strong through it. Tori found friends and a community based around her faith. And Levi found a voice… if you believe it’s his. But it also raises questions like “Is Becky Fischer abusing her power?” I always feel weird at the end of Jesus Camp when she explains that she couldn’t die knowing that she didn’t help spread her faith, I just don’t think she’s going about it the right way, mainly because she told the children they were at war.
    The movie also pointed out issues of faith with that one little blond boy, whose name I obviously forget, who admits he doesn’t always believe in God. He has a struggle that must be much harder given that he is submerged in the Evangelical culture.

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    • Jess, again, another insightful comment. You bring up some really good points that appear to have come from a nuanced understanding of the film. I think I may have been in such a state of shock after the first viewing that I couldn’t drill down and see the good.

      Maybe I should watch it again to see if I can see more of those good things.

      If anything though, Becky Fisher is a good example of good intentions and troubled execution.

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