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.
Quotes from Deeyah Khan:
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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 came away stunned here... & she's right -- my reaction when I see people who hate is to hate them. Is this another turning point in human evolution -- are we brave enough to see MLK's "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."