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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