Deeyah Khan (http://deeyah.com)
This was a truly astounding work of humanity, and Deeyah Khan is an incredible exemplar of the better angels of our nature. While it is natural and easy to simply identify and attack those who hate, it is equally unnatural to meet them, understand them, and love them enough to dignify their humanity. Yet, this is precisely what Khan does, and with truly amazing outcomes. This approach is reminiscent of Daryl Davis in Accidental Courtesy, and quite wise to this quote:
Be careful how you choose your enemy, for you will come to resemble him. The moment you adapt your enemy’s methods your enemy has won. The rest is suffering and historical opera.―Michael Ventura
Perhaps most captivating is that Khan courageously―and perchance unknowingly―is exemplifying one of the most complicated but highest ideals in religious thought; to love your enemy. This teaching is not just for the pious, but for the human who wishes to see redemption occur in the places of greatest darkness. I am truly awe-struck by Deeyah Khan’s work toward that end. Poetically, a camera captures light. In watching this film, we are projecting light. May more darkness be dispersed through the showing of this film.
Below is the transcript with my highlights of an interview with Deeyah Khan, providing even more amazing story developments and insights.
July 3, 2019 // White Right: Meeting the Enemy (Apple Podcasts)
SEAN: There’s this palpable sense that hateful views are gaining mainstream acceptance. That the internet is fostering hatred. That our divisions are growing deeper. And it’s within this context that a Norwegian-British documentary filmmaker and human rights activist of Punjabi and Pashtun descent went to hang out with some neo-Nazis. The film is White Right: Meeting the Enemy. The filmmaker is Deeyah Khan.
DEEYAH KHAN (filmmaker): Well, I’ve had experiences with racism…= pretty much most of my life on an off in various forms. Growing up in Oslo, Norway as a brown girl you know I was exposed to racism very very quickly. When I was younger, it was very overt. You know we used to have neo-Nazis that would be marching in the streets. We had neo-Nazis that would attack businesses and homes of people from minorities And I remember at the time like my dad used to say that you know these things are really complicated right now and they’re very heated right now, but really what’s required is time. So just by the time that you know you’re grown up all of these things will sort of disappear.
As a teenager and you know as I was growing up I was very active in terms of antifascist anti-racist campaigning even at that point I used to go to protest, I used to flip these people off, used to shout at them, used to throw stuff at them. And none of it really particularly helped. I have to say it felt great at the time but wasn’t particularly productive.
SEAN: It didn’t nudge the needle in any direction on white supremacy.
DEYAH: No. Or my understanding of it, either.
DEEYAH: A few years ago ended up doing an interview with the BBC.
<CLIP> DEEYAH: The fact of the matter is the UK is never going to be white again. It’s just not going to happen. People can wish it but it’s not realistic. We’re together going to have to find out what does it mean to be British moving forward. What does it mean to build a society that includes all of us where it means looking like me and looking like you.</CLIP>
DEEYAH: And the context of that was I was saying that for people in England or in any of these countries to think that their societies can go back to what they used to be pre large groups of people of color coming here it’s just, it’s delusional to think that that time is coming back. And similarly our parents who’ve come from you know various parts around the world for them to think that they can re-establish those countries and those ways of living within the West is also sort of delusional.
DEEYAH: I thought that that was a fairly bland fairly reasonable statement to me.
SEAN: And I’ve heard from my own father who used to live in London and Wales that he misses how much it used to be more Anglocentric and now it’s there’s far more immigrants. So if my father would say something like that I can’t even imagine how let’s say some white Britons might have felt about you saying that white Britain is kind of over.
DEEYAH: Right. And so this interview ended up going viral and it ended up on several violent racist websites in this country. Who actively started campaigns against me and I was flooded with death threats.
SEAN: Because they thought you were saying White Earth is over?
DEEYAH: Yeah yeah. They thought that I was articulating what they have always been fearing. Which is that white people are being replaced by people like me and people like you. The term that they used for it was that I confirmed that there is a white genocide going on that we are actively trying to replace white people.
SEAN: Like there’s a plan.
DEEYAH: Right. They really do believe this. I mean the shooter in New Zealand actually believed this as well and he articulated that in his manifesto. These people believe that the white race is actively being replaced and the design of this replacement is created by Jewish people. And that’s where these caravans you know are coming on the border of your country here in America, and you know similarly all the refugees that are flooding into Europe, all of this is an act of design.
Anyway so my interview ends up going viral. I am flooded with death threats. I kind of laughed it off at the beginning, but the BBC got back in touch with me and said look what we’re getting for you is really really dark. We’ve not experienced anything like this before. You really need to get in touch with the police.
So I did. I remember sitting down thinking, well, I sort of have two choices here I can be afraid or I can try and see if I can understand this… and if I can find the people behind the rhetoric the human beings behind it. So I picked up my camera and started contacting every group, every white supremacist activist in this country to see if any of them would be willing to sit down and speak with me, and they were not.
SEAN: Yeah. What’s your pitch to a white supremacist? Hi, I’m a Muslim woman.
SEAN: Who said this thing that white Britons coming to an end.
SEAN: I’m also a filmmaker and an activist, I flip people off and throw stuff at people like you, like can I come film you. What did you say?
DEEYAH: Almost that what I said is that I am a woman of color. I am a Muslim. You know I come from this in this background, I make films these are some of the topics that I’ve handled in the past. These are my personal experiences and obviously I don’t agree with you and we’re not going to see eye to eye on your world view. But nonetheless I’m interested in trying to understand why you think some of the things that you think and I’m willing to sit down and have an open and honest dialogue if you are.
And the vast majority of them were not. So it took me months and months and months and months to try and find anyone on that side that would be willing to sit down with somebody like me. Finally finally after months and months of just harassing people pretty much, ne of the leaders of the largest neo-Nazi organization in America, one of the oldest ones as well. Fine said he said okay fine you can come. You get one hour you come to this and this motel in Detroit, one hour and after that basically you piss off you disappear. And I said okay that’s fine. That’s one hour that’s great.
SEAN: When a white supremacist says fine you get an hour meet me in this motel in Detroit, are you afraid in that moment do you text your family your friends and say this is where I’m gonna be just in case this doesn’t work out.
DEEYAH: No no no. Which is… looking back on it now that’s incredibly foolish of me to not have done a lot of those things. My mindset at the time was finally somebody said yes, I finally get to sit down with somebody like this and see if we can have a conversation face to face if it’s possible for them to hate me in person. And is there any point of connection in terms of our humanity.
SEAN: You’re just excited to have booked the interview.
DEEYAH: But all these thoughts started happening once I’m in the motel room. It’s just me and my producers is just the two of us had no security no nothing like that. And so we’re sitting there the cameras are set up and we’re waiting and suddenly I start thinking oh my goodness what if he doesn’t come alone? My goodness what if he’s armed?
DEEYAH: What if they come and they just beat us up and take our stuff and you know what if what if what if he starts running through my head. But of course at that point it’s too late. And then you know he does knock on the door. I was nervous at that moment because I was thinking you know while this this is it this is I’ve never done this before.
<CLIP> DEEYAH: Hello
JEFF SCHOEP: Hello
DEEYAH: I’m Deeyah
JEFF: Nice to meet you
DEEYAH: Good to meet you too.
JEFF: I’m Jeff.
DEEYAH: Come on in. </CLIP>
DEEYAH: And he came alone. With no weapons, no nothing like that.
<CLIP> JEFF: Well I’m Jeff Schoep, commander of the national socialist movement. You know, we’re a white civil rights organization here in America, we’re white nationalists. </CLIP>
DEEYAH: Instead of speaking for one hour we spoke for five hours.
<CLIP> JEFF: We feel that the white race in general and in fact Western civilization in general is under a full assault. </CLIP>
DEEYAH: But what I also did is I shared with him my experiences of what it was like to be on the receiving end of somebody like that. I would read him some of the threats that I’d received.
<CLIP> DEEYAH: Hey Swamp N*****. You’re going back. Get out of whitey world. You leeching slag, shit-skinned cunt. What does shit-skinned mean?
JEFF: Just what it says I… I guess.
DEEYAH: Your fellow travellers would they call me a mud person?
JEFF: Some might, might say that. </CLIP>
DEEYAH: And he started squirming. I mean he he visibly looks uncomfortable.
<CLIP> JEFF: Why do you keep saying that?
DEEYAH: <long pause> You don’t like it? You don’t like me saying that?
DEEYAH: No? </CLIP>
DEEYAH: And I remember asking him going, you know, this is not the first time you’re hearing this type of language. You know you probably use this language yourself or your fellow travelers most certainly do, so why are you so uncomfortable? And he couldn’t really answer. And then I kept saying it, I kept referring to myself in some of the terms that they use about people like me.
SEAN: Was that a plan you had going in? Or did that come out of the moment?
DEEYAH: No, it just came out of the moment. The reason I wanted to sit down with people like him is I wanted to connect on a human level. I don’t want to understand what Nazis and racists believe. I already know that. What I want to understand is why people do the things that they do so. I wanted to see if I can find the human being behind the rhetoric. And I wanted to see if he’s able to see that with me as well. If he’s able to see that I am just a human being and that there are real life consequences to the type of rhetoric and the type of actions that these people take.
The minute it’s connecting to this is affecting another human being. You know you start seeing it crumble a little bit. I didn’t expect that.
SEAN: Another amazing moment in that interview is when you ask him why as a 13 year old, he read Mein Kampf.
<CLIP> DEEYAH: What would attract a teenager to the ideology of Mein Kampf? </CLIP>
SEAN: And then there’s just this epic silence.
<CLIP> JEFF: Hmm. </CLIP>
SEAN: And then ultimately he says…
<CLIP> JEFF: My mind is wandering… right now. Like I think I’m kind of getting burned out on the questions.
JEFF: Or something. </CLIP>
SEAN: But he had no idea why he read Mein Kampf when he was 13 years ol
DEEYAH: That he wasn’t able to articulate it to my face. These moments were not a possibility in my mind when I started making the film. So to start seeing these moments happen in front of me drew me and of course even even further and find more of them and speak more about all of this.
SEAN: An amazing thing happens over the course of the documentary. You watch Jeff and you see him be empathetic towards you. And then you move to Peter and then we start feeling empathy for white supremacists. Tell me a bit about Peter Tefft and what you got out of him.
DEEYAH: I get goose bumps you mentioning his name for some reason but Peter Tefft as a young man from North Dakota. He’s a member of the same neo-Nazi organizations called the National Socialist Movement. He’s very young. He seems very very bright, why would somebody like him want to be a part of this? And so I went and sat down and talked to him. He was a little bit reluctant as well to sit with me initially and we sat down and he started sharing with me experiences that he’d had in his life growing up.
<CLIP> PETER TAFT: You know I felt like a ghost at the school like a nerd or or a freak or something. </CLIP>
DEEYAH: And he starts speaking about feeling invisible and feeling like he doesn’t matter.
<CLIP> PETER: I might have had you know, body dysmorphia, I felt like I was either too too big or too fat. </CLIP>
DEEYAH: You know he talks about trying to make people like him in his school and in his life and and in him trying to make all the kind of changes to himself in order to accomplish that.
I remember asking him you know…
<CLIP> DEEYAH: And did they?
PETER: Uh, no no <laughs> no. </CLIP>
DEEYAH: And he kept talking about you know there’s just so much wrong in the world or so much this and there’s so much that and then I was like well like specifically you know what what do you think it is. And then he just sits there and again it’s that long pause again.
<CLIP> PETER: I guess looking back what bothered me the most was, uh… I don’t know, I guess myself. You know. </CLIP>
DEEYAH: It’s so heartbreaking for me to sit there and look at this young guy who has his entire life in front of him, who is so bright, so brilliant, and so so so very sad and doesn’t really know how to deal with it.
SEAN: And he says when he finds white supremacy and meets white supremacists, he feels like a superhero. He feels like the Green Lantern?
<CLIP> PETER: It does kind of feel like I’m in like a league with like superheroes and these guys I mean they’re so smart you know I feel like I’m the Green Lantern and they’re my Watchers. You know there’s guys at church that you know pat me on the back and say way to be a warrior for Christ. </CLIP>
DEEYAH: That says more to me about us as a society than it does about this movement or him in a way. It says something to me about the fact that there is something we’re not able to provide for a lot of our young people.
DEEYAH: Extremist movements or any kind of violent groups in fact are very actively providing a lot of these types of feelings, the kind of vulnerabilities that some people have you know people who are seeking a sense of identity a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging brotherhood the fact that you know we as a society aren’t really providing that. And we’re all sort of retreating into our bubbles and our own little corners and our own kind of identity groups. And that’s what extremist movements thrive on.
SEAN: After the break, what empathy can and cannot accomplish.
SEAN: Deeyah, there’s so much empathy in this movie and you get drawn in deeper and deeper into the lives of these white supremacists. And then there’s one last remarkable moment I want to talk about where you’re in Ken Parker’s living room.
<CLIP> DEEYAH: So that’s the Klan…
KEN PARKER: Yeah this is the Klan tattoo. </CLIP>
SEAN: You’re asking him like why am I here right now why are you talking to me.
<CLIP> KEN: You’ve been completely respectful to me. I actually consider you to be a friend. You know my opinion about Muslims since I’ve been interacting with you has gone up significantly. </CLIP>
SEAN: And his girlfriend’s in the room…
<CLIP> CRYSTAL: His mom will be happy. He’s realizing that not everybody’s bad. I mean there is some good people out there that aren’t white. </CLIP>
SEAN: And then you’re just like look, these white supremacists, like it’s all falling away. And then he says:
<CLIP> KEN: I will never break bread with a Jew, though.
DEEYAH: You had to go and say something didn’t you.
KEN: Oh I don’t want this to turn into something like oh well this big badass Nazi is this little teddy bear.
DEEYAH: But he is.
KEN: Yeah but I would never break bread with a Jew. Ever.
DEEYAH: So maybe that should be part two of this film.
KEN: <Laughs> What, send a Jew over here?
KEN: No. <Laughs> </CLIP>
DEEYAH: But he has since broken bread with a Jewish person.
SEAN: Oh really?
DEEYAH: Yeah. Several months after the film. So he watched it. I didn’t send it to him.
SEAN: He watched it on his own.
DEEYAH: And apparently watched it many, many, many, times.
DEEYAH: And then he called me and I was like huh, so what did you think. You know it’s like oh, you know I think you were fair. He was really disturbed by how he came across.
SEAN: So he didn’t think you were manipulative in your editing?
DEEYAH: No no no.
SEAN: He was just saying look the things I said are problematic.
DEEYAH: And the things that I do, yeah, were uncomfortable for him.
SEAN: But not like problematic. The white supremacists are gonna be mad at me. Problematic my views don’t make sense.
DEEYAH: Yeah. With all of these guys none of them have had any real firsthand experience with the other whoever their target of hate is whether it’s Muslims or Jewish people or black people or whoever. They haven’t actually had any kind of meaningful interactions with them. So yes for Ken this was the first time because I asked him, “Have you ever spoken to a Muslim before?” He’s like ‘No.’
Several months after the film he called me to tell me that he’s left the movement. Which is why he also broke bread with a with a Jewish woman eventually. And I asked him look what happened. And he said listen. He said even though I was really obnoxious, and even though I behaved in the way that I did and I said the things that I said, he said you didn’t give up on me. And he said you were still nice to me and you still treated me like a human being. And he said people don’t do that. And he said so that was hard for him to reconcile. I’m supposed to be a monster. I’m supposed to have a suicide vest underneath my clothes and blow him up any moment. So none of his kind of views of people like me were correct. Because when I left him I said, Look what does this mean. The fact that you know you think of me as a friend now. He said well maybe it kind of opens me up to speaking to other people who are also different from me. And he actually honored that.
There’s an African-American pastor in his apartment complex that he then start speaking to after I’d left. And then that man said, “Why don’t you come to my congregation?” which is an all black church in Florida. And Ken said ‘OK.’ And Ken went and Ken stood up there apparently said that he used to be in the KKK and that now he was an active member of a neo-Nazi group. And all the views that he holds. He he openly said it in this all black church and at the end apparently people came up to him and people hugged him and people shook his hand and said you know obviously we completely disagree and dislike and you know have a problem with what you’re saying but it takes a lot of courage for you to come in here and say some of those things; basically showed him compassion, even though he didn’t deserve it. And so that was the last straw for him that made this entire picture that he had built in his mind for all these years fall apart because it doesn’t make any sense to him. Here are these groups of people that I despise so much that I am dehumanizing but who are refusing to dehumanize me in return. What does that make me then? Once a crack has appeared that can only get deeper and wider.
Having said that though I mean I do not want to underestimate or underplay the danger that this movement poses. So. So I don’t want to say that all Nazis and racists can be reformed. I chose to engage with these people because it is what I wanted to do. I’m not at all suggesting that that is what other people of color should do or have to do or are obligated to do at all. It’s just something I wanted to do because I’ve tried everything else. And none of that’s been satisfying for me personally for my curiosity… whereas this was.
SEAN: There are a lot of people who would rather take the approach that you used to take. They’d rather flip off a white supremacist, punch a Nazi, throw something at a Nazi. And they’d probably be upset to hear that you came in wanting to listen and discover. Have you heard from those people who objected to your approach?
DEEYAH: Yeah yeah a lot of people say well you know are you just normalizing it or are you just justifying it.
SEAN: Giving them a platform.
DEEYAH: Well first of all I think it’s completely understandable that people feel that. However I am not justifying what these guys are doing. I’m not interested in winning an argument against a racist. I want there to be less racist to begin with. So I don’t need to feel pat myself on the back and feel really self-righteous, for holding all the correct opinions, having all the correct politics and all the correct friends and all of that. That’s not enough. This is a problem that has been here for a really long time. Hate was not invented with Donald Trump or with Steve Bannon. Hate has been there for a really long time. The systemic racism is there. To me empathy is actually part of a very strategic very practical approach in trying to first of all understand what makes these guys tick, why they believe the things that they do, so that we can interrupt some of it, so that we can prevent more young people being exploited by extremist movements of whatever stripe. I’m not saying this is the only way. I’m saying that engagement and human interaction and connections should be one of the tools in our larger toolbox of how we confront racism.
I understand it feels great. It’s very satisfying to flip them off and to shout at them. I really wanted to sometimes when I sat there and some of these people would say the things that they said. I wanted to react aggressively in return. But the problem with that kind of a response is that’s exactly what they want. They are saying the things that they’re saying and behaving the way that they are because they are inviting out in me the worst in me and I refused to give them what they want. They’re looking for me to become afraid. They’re looking for me to become aggressive or pushy in return because then that justifies in their mind their behavior.
Now some people will say look we need to make sure that these opinions become unacceptable. And I agree with that there’s a place for that. But just by making them publicly unacceptable don’t make the feelings and opinions go away. I want them to go away.
SEAN: Deeyah Khan’s documentary film, White Right: Meeting the Enemy is out now. It’s actually one of two films she recently made that confronts hatred. The other one’s called Jihad and we’ll discuss it in our next episode.
I’m Sean Rameswaram, this is Today, Explained.