This filmmaker spent months interviewing neo-Nazis and jihadists. Here’s what she learned.
Deeyah Khan, a Muslim woman, met her enemies — and came away more hopeful than ever.
What’s the best way to fight racism and extremism?
The impulse to dismiss extremists as unreachable fanatics is strong and at times justifiable. But perhaps it’s not always the most effective means of combating them. Deeyah Khan, a journalist and filmmaker, has decided to engage them directly as human beings.
In two documentary films, White Right: Meeting the Enemy and Jihad: A Story of the Others (both of which are currently streaming on Netflix), Khan sits down with white supremacists and jihadists (respectively) and tries to understand what’s really motivating them. It’s an attempt to cut through the rhetoric and the ideological trappings and find out why so many young men — and yes, it’s primarily young men — are drawn to extremist movements.
The results are stunning. At the beginning of White Right, for example, she says to Jared Taylor, a prominent white supremacist, “I am the daughter of immigrants. I am a Muslim. I am a feminist. I am a lefty liberal. And what I want to ask you is: Am I your enemy?” Taylor is an old hardliner and so he doesn’t buckle, but Khan’s interactions with other white supremacists go in surprising directions, and you learn quite a bit about who these people really are.
I spoke with Khan about her experience making these films, what she discovered about the nature of extremism, and how her thinking has evolved after sitting down face to face with her “enemies.”
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
You’ve made a decision to engage, rather than dismiss, the most extreme characters you can find, people who have insulted and threatened you. Why?
They want to instill fear in people, and it was important for me to not succumb to that, to not react in the way they wanted me to react. I’ve received death threats and rape threats and some of the most awful things you can imagine from people, but I will not let that dictate what I say or write or what films I make.
The second reason was that I’ve been an anti-racist campaigner pretty much most of my life, having experienced racism from childhood. It’s personal to me, and I’ve responded in all sorts of ways — being angry at racists, shouting at them, confronting them, protesting against them, self-righteously shunning them. I’ve done all that, and I’m not sure what difference it made.
So I wanted to do something I’ve never done before, which is try to see if I could sit down with people who hold views like that and see if it is possible for us to move somewhere from that point, from sitting face to face. Because it’s really, really easy for everybody involved to hate each other from afar, to judge each other from afar, but it’s much more difficult to hate up close and personal.
For you, it’s also about not feeding their persecution mania, right?
Absolutely. Part of the reason people subscribe to these movements is that they feel shunned in their lives, in their personal lives or in wider society. These movements are deeply rooted in a sense of victimhood, real or imagined. So if we exclude them, if we shout at them, if we condemn them, that completely feeds into that. And then the monster gets bigger, not smaller.
I still see the social utility in stigmatizing racists and extremists as much as possible, but I also see how taking that too far, or relying on that alone, can increase the transgressive appeal of extremism.
A lot of people misunderstand me when I say that I believe in engagement and dialogue. I’m not saying this is the only way to counter extremism. What I’m saying is that this has to be an option on the table if we actually care about reducing extremism. I understand why people want to get angry or violent — I understand the entire spectrum of feelings and reactions that people have.
People can decide for themselves how they want to challenge these things. This is what I’ve chosen to do, and I never in a million years would dream of telling other people how they should feel or how they should fight racism and extremism.
And I want to be clear: I don’t think it’s the responsibility of persecuted people, or abused people, or oppressed people, to have to “reform” extremists. I don’t think it’s their burden. I don’t think it’s people of color’s job to have to do that. What I’m saying is this is something that I wanted to try. I was personally curious, and I am really surprised and heartened by how it went.
You’ve sat down with both neo-Nazis and jihadists — you’ve befriended them, gotten to know them, broken bread with them. What’s motivating them? Where does all this hate come from?
Much of it doesn’t come from hate. It comes from a lot of other basic human needs that are not being met. To be sure, there are political and social and economic factors involved on both sides, but if you dig deep, you find that it’s about much more than that.
I tried to understand the core psychological draw of these movements. I found that a sense of belonging or purpose was a major factor. These people join these groups and suddenly they have a sense of meaning in life, a belief that they matter, that their voice matters. It’s as though they were once invisible and now they’re seen.
Most of these men get so much attention once they do something horrible, or once they say something horrible. Before that, they’re invisible. And I think there is something really powerful in that, and perhaps that says more about us as a society than it does about them. But it ought to give us pause when we shower extremist groups with constant media attention.
That reminds me of something one of the former jihadists in your film said: “Fighting in defense of Allah was an almost transcendental emotion.” I thought this was so revealing, because it speaks to the primal, metaphysical urges driving a lot of these people on both sides — there’s an almost spiritual need for some higher purpose, and the ideology itself is just a prop.
In many ways, the ideology is just window dressing. Many of the jihadists I’ve spoken to, other than the recruiters and the leadership side of it, are not particularly religious, are not particularly well versed in their faith at all. For them, it’s about feeling righteous and believing that they’re doing something important and meaningful in life.
They also do it because they know it scares you. They put on this front, take on this image, and suddenly they get all this attention. They’re on magazine covers and newspapers and on TV, and the most important leaders in the world have to look at them, have to worry about them. That’s incredibly intoxicating for these young men.
It’s startling to watch you connect in real time with some of these white supremacists. They have these cartoonish ideas about black people or brown people, they hate them in the abstract, and then by the time they’re done speaking with you, they admit to liking you and even thinking of you as a friend.
How shocking was that?
I usually have a lot to say about everything, but I’m still at a loss for words on this. I was touched and confused and put off at the same time. To be honest with you, as much as I set out to make the film about engaging with my enemies, I never thought it would actually prove productive.
I was actually very pessimistic when I began these projects. I just wanted to try something I had never tried before. It was never a consideration or a possibility that what happened would actually happen — that any of them would like me and that I would like them, that we would actually get along, that somebody would use the word “friend” for me.
I never believed I would remain friends with any of these white supremacists, that some of them would walk away from their movement after we interacted. But that’s what happened, and I still can’t quite believe it. If you would’ve told me that when I started, I would’ve laughed at you, but here we are.
Can you say a bit more about Ken, one of the white supremacists you became friends with during the film?
Sure. Ken Parker was the guy in the film with the swastika on his chest who was posting neo-Nazi flyers in a Jewish neighborhood when I met him. He was saying the most vile things I’ve ever heard. He actually marched at Charlottesville as well.
Well, he called me up a few months after the film aired and he said, “I’ve left.” He said he left because he used the word “friend” to describe me. Now, this was one of the most extreme people I met. But his experience with me opened him up to speaking to other people who are different from him.
So he actually became friends with the pastor of a mostly black church who lived in his apartment complex. The pastor invited him and his fiancée to his church, and Ken basically stood in front of everyone there and said, “I used to be in the Klan, now I’m in a neo-Nazi organization, these are the views I hold …”
And after he was done, people came up to him and hugged him and said, “Look, we detest what you stand for, but it takes a lot of courage for somebody like you to come in here and share what you have shared.”
That was the last straw for him, where he realized that the people he hated so deeply are showing him nothing but kindness and compassion and an open heart, and are showing it to him even though he doesn’t deserve it. His whole ideology fell apart.
I’ve maintained my friendship with Ken and I’ve connected him with other former neo-Nazis because I know how hard it is to leave these groups, whether you’re a white supremacist or a jihadist. These movements become your identity, your life, your whole network of friends, and when you leave, you’re completely shunned. So we have to support people who want to get out.
Absolutely, and I’m grateful that you’re doing this work. I do, however, think it’s important to restate that empathy has its limits, and there are many, many people in these movements who cannot be reached and have to be confronted and, frankly, defeated.
I agree 100 percent. There were several moments in which I discovered the limits of empathy and was genuinely concerned about my own safety. I remember traveling to a white supremacist training camp somewhere in Tennessee and there were two or three ex-military guys following me around and telling me right to my face, “I’m going to put a fucking bullet through your camera. I’m going to put a fucking bullet through your head if you turn that camera toward me.”
There was another guy who wouldn’t talk and just kept staring at me the whole time, with his gun on his lap, and he just kept holding on to it. Then he just stares at me and goes, “You know what was the best part about being in Iraq?” I said, “No, what’s the best part about being in Iraq?” He said, “Getting paid to shoot ragheads like you.”
I was actually pregnant while shooting the film about white supremacists, and something they all agree on is that people like me should not be having children. I wore baggy clothes and tried to hide it as much as possible. And my child is mixed-race, so that was extra unnerving for me.
One guy came up to me after Charlottesville, blew cigarette smoke in my face, got right up to my nose, and said, “Are you fucking pregnant?” And I just had to look him dead in the eyes and say as calmly as possible, “No, no, I’m not.”
So as much as I say human connection is important, engagement is important, I fully understand that the danger a movement like this presents should not be underestimated.
Watching your two films back to back, it’s so apparent how complementary these extremisms are, how reciprocal they are. They’re actually invested in the success of each other. Is that how you see it?
Absolutely. They need each other, and when it comes to the recruitment of jihadists in the West, for example, you can see this quite clearly. The more somebody is shunned and pushed away from the country they live in, the more you are actually pushing them into the arms of extremists, of people who wish these kids, and the rest of us, harm.
ISIS is quite explicit about this in their recruitment. They admit that their biggest enemy is actually not white supremacists or anything like that. Their enemy is people like me, and people who want to get along, who want our societies and our various communities to coexist. That’s the gray zone that needs to be destroyed.
They desperately want people to pick a side.
I’d like to know what you think we can do to solve this problem of extremism. As you put it in your film, what is the way out of this madness?
It’s to not become hysterical, it’s to not dance to their instructions, it’s to not behave how they want us to behave. They want us to become really afraid; they want us to become divided; they want us to join their “us and them” thing. On a larger scale, I think we have to resist that. It’s an argument for celebrating and nurturing our diversity and nurturing our multicultural society, and our pluralism.
But on a more concrete, practical level, I think we need to support people who want to leave these groups, because we often underestimate how many people, once they’re in it, actually want to leave but find zero support, because everybody is so busy condemning these guys that nobody really wants to extend a hand to them and let them get out. I think that’s really, really important.
Are you more or less optimistic after spending all this time with your “enemies,” as you call them?
I’m optimistic but also afraid because I’ve seen it up close and personal now. I see that they — the white supremacists and the jihadists — are becoming very organized, and I see that they are using the internet and social media very well. So these movements are spreading faster than they did in the past.
And yet I still feel positive and hopeful, because I do think change is possible, and I think it’s going to require us not giving up. All of these extremists want us to give up, to fear each other and them, to become more divided. And they don’t want us to be kind, or to show empathy, or to organize, or to vote, or to do any of that.
So we have to become active citizens and active human beings, and no matter what happens, we cannot afford to give up on each other. That means even people that we disagree with and people that we dislike. In fact, it matters more. It’s easy for me to like you. It’s easy for me to be nice to you because we probably see the world fairly similarly. That’s easy. That’s not when our principles really matter.
It matters when you are able to extend it to somebody who might not deserve it, or who you might not like or might not agree with. Otherwise, we become just like them — and, in the process, do their bidding.
This story was originally published on January 14, 2019.