In one of her most terrifying moments, activist and film-maker Deeyah Khan was told that she would end up with a bullet in her head.
At the time, Khan, a Muslim woman of Pakistani and Afghan origin who was brought up in Norway, was visiting a far-right training encampment in America, where hundreds of men were sat drinking, with military-grade weapons by their side.
As Khan filmed members of the group, some of them followed her around, threatening to kill her if she made one wrong move.
“In my mind I was just thinking if anything happens right now, which it probably will, they could just bury me right here and nobody would ever know,” says Khan.
It was an extraordinary risk to take for someone so likely to be distrusted and disliked by the neo-Nazis, but Deeyah Khan was on a quest for the truth. Why do some men hate so much?
The origins of hate
Khan is the director of two Netflix documentaries which explore that very question.
The first, Jihad, A Story of Others, met some of the leading figures in the British jihadi movement. The second, White Right: Meeting the Enemy, brings her to America to meet the white supremacist movement.
When we first see Ken Parker, a member of the National Socialist Movement, the biggest white supremacist organisation in the United States, he is filling hundreds of plastic bags with anti-semitic flyers.
His bare torso reveals a swastika tattoo on the right of his chest and a Klan tattoo on the left. He is planning to distribute the messages in a Jewish neighbourhood by throwing them out of a car window. Khan goes with him.
“Does it matter to you that I think what you are doing is wrong?” she asks.
“No”, says Ken. But as Khan’s questions continue, he becomes increasingly agitated and anxious. Admitting that he knows this will hurt people’s feelings, he says that he is “not responsible” for others’ feelings, that they are “thin-skinned” and that “it’s just a piece of paper”.
Khan ends up spending a great deal of time with Ken, and others like him.
The men are confronted – through Khan’s gentle, probing questions – with the consequences of their actions, as she seeks to unpick their motivations. She spends time in their homes, goes out with them on rallies and car journeys, and listens to their backstories. Time and time again she hears the same story, one of abandonment, of not fitting in, a sense of hopelessness, shame and humiliation, of longing to belong.
And she hears how when the men joined their hate group the story changed to one of feeling like a hero, having a sense of purpose, a feeling of belonging.
Former neo-Nazi Frank Meeink grew up in an impoverished family in Philadelphia.
“Every day I would walk home more dejected and felt more like a loser, and I had to go home and face my stepfather who was either going to tell me what a loser I was or beat the s*** out of me,” says Meeink.
More or less left to his own devices in his early teens, Meeink started hanging out with a far-right group. One night an altercation took place, and it cemented his place in the movement.
“He had fear in his face for us, and I loved that,” recounts Meeink. “I was a broken human being. I feared my parents, I feared my step-parents, I feared my school, I feared if I was going to have enough food to eat today, and now someone fears me.”
It was the camaraderie, the numbers, the safety, that drew him further into the group, and into a world of extreme violence. “They told me that God chose me to be one of the angels that ruined Sodom and Gomorrah. That was powerful,” he says.
It’s the same story that permeates Khan’s previous film, Jihad, A Story of Others, for which she spent two years talking to Islamic extremists, convicted terrorists and former jihadi.
“I was really struck by how there were so many similarities between the experiences and the type of people that I met both within the white supremacist movement, but also within the jihad movement as well,” says Khan. “It's almost as if it's the same guy, and it's almost as if some of the deeper reasons are either the same or incredibly similar.
“They’re rejected for various reasons in other aspects of their lives,” she explains. “So whether it’s feeling rejected by women, or by the job market, by society at large, feeling as if you don’t quite measure up, that you’re not good enough, feeling shame, feeling humiliated, feeling emasculated.”
A lack of human connection is a huge driver of the people in both movements, says Khan, and the hate groups and religious extremists deliberately set out to woo members by filling the gap.
“These movements satisfy the basic human needs that we all have, and obviously for very cynical reasons, because they’re wanting to build the sense of loyalty, the sense of brotherhood and camaraderie with these men, so that they can be directed towards whatever political aims the various movements have,” she says.
Ironically, while these are hate groups, Khan says their actions are driven by love – a love for the fellow members of the group that have given them a sense of family, a love for the leaders of the group that have given them a sense of purpose.
A common cause
Some of the members of both groups also feel left behind economically and politically.
For instance, many of the far-right believers Khan meets compare their struggle to that of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. While she finds this shocking, she also recognizes that many truly believe they are fighting for their place in society. Although some of their grievances stem from a loss of status, many are based on a lack of access to basic services such as education and healthcare.
“I would say that a lot of the issues that many of these guys are talking about, if you put aside the race thing, there is truth in it. Without any doubt there is an underclass in America that is absolutely struggling, that is white, or that is also white, I should say. To ignore that fact is another trap where we’re going to continue losing people like this.”
In fact, their concerns have more in common with the very immigrants they are protesting against than with their fellow financially privileged whites, argues Khan.
“If you think about it, the lack of job opportunities, the lack of access to housing, access to health, access to decent education for their children, all of these are fundamentally important issues in our society that are legitimate, and they are losing in that sense; they are struggling.”
She posits this idea to Jeff Schoep, leader of the National Socialist Movement.
“Well, actually nobody has really said it to me like that before,” he tells her.
“But does it make sense?” Khan asks.
"Yeah,” Schloep replies, “it does, but ... ”
“There is always a but,” says Khan.
Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the film is how some of the men begin to change their minds after having spent time with Khan.
Ken had been looking forward to his hate-filled evening throwing anti-semitic flyers, but as Khan’s camera rolls and her questioning continues, his resolve seems to wane. “I kind of ruined his day,” says Khan. “He was kind of a little bit down the whole night.”
On several occasions, she reads out some of the hate messages she has received online. On each occasion, the white supremacists squirm and become uncomfortable at the level of vitriol sent her way. While these particular men didn’t send the messages, it’s clear that it’s exactly the sort of messages members of their movements would happily support.
“Obviously this cannot be the first time you’re hearing words like this,” she says to Schoep. He replies, “No, it isn’t.”
“So what is it [that is making you feel uncomfortable]?” asks Khan. He is unable to answer.
Khan believes it’s down to the “magic” of sitting down face to face. “Everything becomes real. Your words and the impact of your words. The weight of those words becomes real,” she says.
“Why are you nice to me?” she asks Ken at one point. “Because I respect you,” he replies. “I actually consider you my friend.” Despite making a recent journey throwing other flyers out of the window targeting Syrian refugees, Ken admits to Khan that she is the first Muslim he has ever met.
Brian Culpepper, head of public relations for the Nationalist Socialist Movement, and dedicated supporter of a white ethno-state, struggles with the question of what he would do with Khan if his idea ever became reality. “I would hate to see you go,” he says. “I consider you a friend at this point”.
“You know, these guys that I sat with, their entire worldview is shaped by everything other than any real interaction with the people that they feel all these things about,” says Khan. “If we only surround ourselves with people who we agree with and who agree with us, and if we protect ourselves from people who challenge our views, or people who disagree with us, then we never have the opportunity to learn or to grow. You know?”
Is Ken her friend?
“Yes, absolutely,” asserts Khan. “He forced me to challenge my own prejudices against guys like that as well. I was able to see his humanity.”
Reasons for hope
Khan was six years old when she first attended an anti-fascist rally with her father. She was also present at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 that spilled into violence and led to the death of an anti-racism protester.
How does it feel to be confronting the same issues, three decades later?
“It’s tiring to endlessly fight the same or similar battle. It feels that we were on a positive trajectory, it seemed very much to me like diversity was becoming accepted. But we’re seeing the backlash to that all across Europe and America.”
Politicians, she says, need to stop shying away from having difficult conversations. “We don’t talk about the difficulties and the challenges of living together, and that it’s hard, it is really hard. It’s hard even when you like each other, never mind when you know nothing about each other. But we have to connect to this and we have to be open and honest, and we have to have the unpleasant conversations to try and make our diverse society work. We need to decide that we want the outcome to be positive, that we want and need to root out racism and xenophobia.
“What I’ve realized is that shouting at them, and throwing bottles at them, and booing them and all of that – as satisfying as it is – it’s not working. So where I feel hopeful and what I feel like doing about it is exactly what I’ve just done. The film is my personal gesture in trying to do something differently, which is to try and seek them out and to try and sit with them and to listen and to see if they’re able to listen to me.”
It’s not just governments and policy-makers that need to change; we can all do something on an individual level, says Khan.
“We all have the capacity to effect change,” she says. “Just being human beings with each other, treating each other with respect and dignity. You know how we feel when someone smiles at us or says something nice, it makes us feel great. The same if someone gives us a dirty look, it shifts how we feel.”
A few months after filming, Ken called Deeyah to tell her that he had left the movement. Meeting Khan had left a lasting impression. He had taken the film-maker’s advice to speak to those outside of his community, and had reached out to a black preacher that lives in his apartment complex and had begun to attend his church.
“This is a really hard thing for him to do,” she says. “He’s turning his back on his entire community. Now he really does need a friend because now he has none, he’s left them all behind based on a principle, based on these ideas that he no longer wants to subscribe to any more.”
This August, Ken is having his tattoos removed. Khan is flying over to be with him.
It sounds like the sort of thing a friend would do.
Deeyah Khan is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and the first UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for artistic freedom and creativity.