Confronting Extremism: A Discussion with Director Deeyah Khan

The auditorium of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum is packed with New Yorkers holding the same objective, to comprehend the increasing levels of extremism plaguing America. Eighteen years ago, on these very grounds, thousands of fellow New Yorkers perished at the hands of “extremists” (or so the government claims).

The atmosphere feels tense as the audience waits for the discussion to begin. Deeyah Khan—a  child of immigrants, a Muslim woman, and an Emmy award-winning film documentarian—has flown here from Norway to discuss her firsthand experience with neo-Nazis.

Khan has produced and directed documentaries on the roots of extremism, she battles racism through this artistic medium. Khan screens a few clips from two of her latest documentaries, Jihad, and White Right: Meeting the Enemy. Both films contain intimate interviews with Jihadis and neo-Nazis that explore the motivating factors behind joining these hate groups. Khan’s objective is to go behind the glamorization and mass media news of extremism by focusing on the people who are directly involved. Going straight to the source.

Khan believes that “Judging and condemning jihadists and white supremacists feels great, but yields little.” She continues, “I picked up my camera to understand why people do the thing that they do.” During her youth, Khan attended anti-fascist protests where she yelled at bigots, flipped them off, and threw things at them. She recalls feeling proud at the moment but nothing was changing. Seeing no results in fighting aggression with aggression led Khan to change her approach. The members of these hate groups are accustomed to having heated arguments about our ideology of equality versus theirs. Moreover, the beliefs neo-Nazis hold are well known. What is not covered by the media is their individual stories that lead them to hate.

Khan has learned to interview objectively by leaving her ideologies at the door and approaching these dialogues with the mindset of listening and understanding. This nonjudgmental approach to interviewing sets the stage for vulnerable confessions, which the majority of these stereotypically tough men have not been able to express beforehand. Khan confronts hate by giving many of these people real-life exposure to a Muslim who is willing to listen, rather than attack back.

This amount of compassion, portrayed stunned me. To be a Muslim woman who has faced extreme amounts of hate and racism, death threats, rape threats, and speak to “the enemy” with wanting to understand them, is a powerful approach to say the last. It creates a real dialogue.

Khan’s films reveal the neo-Nazis strong sense of self-hate and invisibility which made them susceptible to extremism. Hate groups target vulnerable men who need an outlet for their hurt and rage. They provide them with a sense of power and belonging. Even more significant than belonging, they present them with a sense of purpose.

In White Right: Meeting the Enemy, former neo-Nazi and leader of a skinhead heavy metal band, Arno Michaelis discusses his inner feelings of inadequacy behind his hate. Michaelis states, “When I see guys still active in the movement, I see suffering. I see individuals that have been through hell and that have been through all sorts of trauma that they don’t know how to process, that they don’t know how to react to.  It is so much easier to say I hate Jews and Blacks than to say I’m afraid. I’m afraid nobody’s gonna like me. I’m afraid I’m not worthy of being loved.”

By the end of the documentary, a few of her interviewees question their own racism after having exposure to a Muslim like Khan. She gathers information about their childhood, their family or lack of family, and questions them in a way that forces them to reflect upon their choices. Neo-Nazis revealing their history and private lives to Khan begins to create a bond between interviewee and interviewer.

At the end of one of her interviews with neo-Nazi Ken Parker, Khan asks “Why are you nice to me?” He replies, “You’ve been completely respectful to me. I actually consider you to be a friend. My opinion on Muslims since I’ve been interacting with you has gone up significantly.” After the film, Khan tells us that Ken Parker has left the Klan and now spends time with his black neighbor and interacts frequently with Muslims from a local mosque.

In the face of prejudice, Khan’s work has an overarching theme of hope. Seeing the change in her interviewees provides evidence and proof that people can allow their moral compass to outweigh past traumas and fears. Khan concludes that “much of their motivations don’t come from hate. It comes from a lot of other basic human needs that are not being met.”

Under the surface of the neo-Nazis Khan interviewed are fundamentally broken people who never felt a sense of self or belonging until they were recruited by hate groups. Their whole ideology about minority communities falls apart when they finally have exposure to a Muslim, Black, or Jew who does not attack them but tries to understand them as a person.

Khan confronts hate by strongly resisting fear and the “us vs them” rhetoric that these hate groups want us to participate in.

Sitting here in the 9/11 Memorial Museum, Khan decides that to oppose hate as a collective we must become active citizens who are benevolent to those who may not deserve it. Khan does not want anyone by any means to “hug a Nazi and makeup.”

She wants us to question the underlying core of the problem rather than respond with the same animosity. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

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