Editor’s Note: iAffairs has recently launched an ‘Arts, Culture, and Entertainment’ section. Within this section, contributors explore the intersections of international affairs and arts and culture, giving readers a fuller, more nuanced view of what’s going on in the world. This second piece is from former associate editor Reda Zarrug himself, who looks at the misleading interpretation of orthodoxy in Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox.’ We hope you enjoy.
Loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s best-selling autobiography, ‘Unorthodox’ is the story of 19-year-old Esther Shapiro, or Etsy, who frees herself from the chains of Williamsburg’s Hasidic Satmar community.
She leaves behind an arranged marriage, a restrictive lifestyle, and the only community she’s ever known. Etsy is a hero who fights through mental and physical hurdles to seek liberation and meaning to life.
However, her story is not an isolated one. Though Etsy’s situation supports her extreme journey of liberation and condemnation, this is not a fair light to shed on an entire community; rather an entire religio-cultural community that exists outside the confines of Judaism.
The series paints the Williamsburg Hasidic Satmar community as a ruthless, misogynistic, and out of touch community. This is a discriminatory narrative being painted about a community of more than 200,000 individuals.
Recognizing that I am speaking from outside the Hasidic community as a Muslim, I would like to shed light on the more unifying issue within this program. Its attack on orthodoxy in general is unfair, discriminatory, and perpetuates a morally destructive narrative that is a driver for institutionalized racism against orthodox communities in the West.
For example, in the case of Islam, on a fundamental level the Quran pioneered rights for women in communities where this type of social equity was unprecedented. I would go as far as to say that feminist philosophies were pioneered by early Islamic thought and are therefore absolutely in line with orthodox Islamist groups. Every organized religion has orthodox sects, and only recently with the extreme “progression” of the Western world has this been seen in a negative light.
There can be multiple, disagreeable groups in an organized religion, who claim the others to be expelled from the mercy of god, and there can exist secular communities alongside ultra-orthodox communities, as long as there is a sense of humanity that flows between them.
To be progressive should not be connected to the destruction of other communities. To be progressive is to ascend in morality—so let’s ensure the battles we choose are those which feed universal morality as opposed to feeding our subjectivity.
As you have probably noticed in any newspaper printed in the last decade, this rhetoric is especially apparent towards and even within Muslim communities.
This is fuelked by the media’s fetishization of ultra-orthodox communities like “Wahabis” or “Salafis”. Salafism has been characterized as a pro-war, anti-coexistence, morally broken, religious orthodox sect. However even the most critical of writers including Raphaël Lefevre has explained that Salafism comes with a scale of orthodoxy within itself. Their defining feature is that they are literalists who believe in anthropomorphisms and are highly against the idea of divine metaphorical meaning.
In other words, this has nothing to do with their belief system of social justice. These groups are portrayed as evil, barbaric, and out of touch with modernity, however in reality they are sects that call for peace and mercy. One of the main fears regarding Islam is that of “Jihad”. In Islam the word Jihad is translated as struggle.
Sometimes Jihad is used to refer to the struggle of war, however, it does not by any means mean “holy war” as there is no such concept in the entirety of Islam. Modern media is much more connected to the idea of a “holy war” because divine war is a much sexier story. The machinery of the media relies on its ability to increase readership, however the effect that it ends up having on society can be detrimental. Power exists at least partially in the hands of the media and unfortunately sometimes they decide to put fair journalism aside for a good story. The media has gone so far as to create (or at least popularize) concepts to feed this discriminatory narrative.
For example, “Islamist” is a poorly designed word (and frankly just creatively nauseating) which has been created to attack orthodox Muslims. Fundamentalist etymologically means someone who fastens themself to the strict, literal interpretation of a religion. Islam is a verb meaning submission which is derived from the Arabic root word for peace. Progressive communities have hijacked “fundamentalism” because it doesn’t conform to their idea of progressive inclusivity.
Frankly, this high horse that we have all bought into is one that should be sacrificed in the name of God. Selective inclusivity is not a morally suitable attribute of social progression. It represents an elitist mentality which breeds a sense of false higher morality that’s feeding a nasty new age form of discrimination.
Canada is home to a wide variety of religiously orthodox communities and this narrative of “evil orthodoxy” does nothing to increase the safety, acceptance, or inclusion of these communities. For example, Canada’s orthodox Muslim community is viewed rather negatively by the average Canadian, who seems to be easily manipulated by the media’s obsession with Muslim aggression. According to survey findings:
- 46% of Canadians have an unfavourable view of Islam – more than for any other religious tradition.
- 56% of Canadians believe that Islam suppresses women’s rights
- 42% of Canadians think discrimination against Muslims is “mainly their fault”
Through an assessment of access to media coverage, the Quebec Mosque shooting which claimed the lives of 6 innocent Muslim worshippers by Alexandre Bissonnette received a total of approximately 5 minutes of airtime on CBC’s flagship news program, “The National”, while in contrast the London Borough attacks received several hours of coverage.
Let me clarify: I do not believe this show is attempting to purposely discredit orthodox religious groups, however I do believe that it unintentionally supports the narrative that religious orthodoxy is evil. This is not to claim that orthodox communities do not have individuals who believe in problematic principles. The verbal, sexual, and physical abuse portrayed in Etsy’s story is not related to a specific community, rather it is related to individuals within that community that are destroying its reputation.
When attempting to tell stories of pain and triumph, such as in the case of Danielle Feldman we sometimes forget the larger impact of our actions. We forget that we have to take responsibility in properly framing the message. Telling our stories is therapeutic, it allows for us and others to grow and heal together as a community. I am not calling for the shutdown of the show, nor am I protesting its broadcast. I am not taking an immoderate stance notoriously used by the progressive extremist community, instead I am asking the creators of the show to be cautious of their involvement in their attack on orthodoxy. I am asking for viewers of the show to understand the larger issue and ensure that they don’t allow it to frame their ideas of orthodoxy.
To the reader, I hope the next time you run into a Hasidic Jew or a burqa wearing Muslim you remember that the humanity that connects us is much deeper than any ideology will separate us.
Reda Zarrug is a former associate editor at iAffairs Canada. He is currently pursuing his MA at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where his main research interests are conflict analysis and conflict resolution, specifically surrounding the MENA region. Previously, he attended Carleton University and completed a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. He is also a public servant working in a strategy capacity with the Government of Canada.