Meeting the enemy in a world of war

Two documentaries by the Norwegian-British filmmaker Deeyah Khan show a path forward in times of ideologically-motivated verbal and physical violence

We could be nationalists, communists, liberals, or Islamists. Sooner or later, we will all leave this world. And we will no longer have any of these forms of identity. Could we make our time together on this planet a better one? Could we keep the door of communication open and allow for certain changes to trespass through our individual and group walls?

Two recent events made me ask myself these questions. In the first one, a friend of mine from Western Europe spent one hour on Whatsapp and also sent emails during the pandemic and emergency situation with just one focus: How evil Putin and Russia are as they destabilise Europe. Indeed, Russia has been trying to revise the regional and global balances, but I didn’t want to demonise the nation. I was looking for ways to keep the door open for communication with anyone – “Russophile or Russophobe, Judeophile or Judeophobe”. I thought that this is what my profession and my civilian status require me to do.

The second event was my online acquaintanceship with two documentaries by the Norwegian-British filmmaker and musician Deeyah Khan. In the first film, she meets with former jihadis from Great Britain, while in the second one she spends time talking with American white supremacists. The documentaries were kind of mindblowing – she speaks with people who are generally considered dangerous, aggressive and intolerant, but they all behave in a gentle manner; they are respectful and tame. She asks thoughtful questions, which reveals her emotional intelligence and excellent understanding of the soul of her interlocutors and of the situation they are in. What is more interesting is that Khan’s youth was marked by threats and danger, instilled both by white islamophobes and Muslim fundamentalists. They both had reasons to consider her an outsider who needed to be suppressed. So by doing these movies, she also overcame the traumas from her youth.

Khan impresses with her courage, intelligence, sensitivity and powerful messages. There are other Muslim women who excel in that as well. What they might have in common is that they have had to overcome a large number of obstacles and prejudice in their efforts to make a career and have a decent life in the West. So they have to be strong-willed. 

Khan herself likes to say how her father told her at the age of 7 that there were only two career paths that would save her from discrimination: sports and music. So she became a great musician while in school. But when her family could no longer provide her security in Norway she left for London. Then threats forced her to leave London for the USA. But a moment came when, in her own words, she decided she could no longer flee and needed to confront her traumas and fears. So she became a filmmaker who opens doors and is admitted to communities which are on the margins.

“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,” she says in an interview for Vox about her emotions when “meeting the enemy”, as her documentary on white supremacists is called. And she adds: “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.”

In both documentaries, she discovers that her Muslim and white supremacist interlocutors have had emotions similar to hers in their childhood. They had felt threatened and insecure and by joining these violent communities, they found purpose and a sense of belonging. So she certainly didn’t approach them from a position of authority or as a preacher, but neither did she allow herself to be intimidated. She was eager to sincerely learn something about them and about herself as she approached them. She did. Nobody knows what it cost her. But what is curious is that after Khan made her documentaries, some of her interlocutors quit their violent circles. Evidently, talking with her made them change their minds. She also changed, overcoming her barriers. They became friends. 

The Norway-based TRANSCEND Peace and Development Network has long been promoting conflict resolution through established methods. An important part of overcoming any walls is talking and engagement, where words are not used as weapons. I can only wonder whether Deeyah Khan has created her own method for overcoming conflicts and bringing about change through them or if she has learned from the experience of people such as Johan Galtung, who gave an interview with the Barricade in 2018 on conflict resolution and peace journalism.

Now that Deeyah Khan has done her job, I can’t help thinking how her example could inspire similar efforts. There has been a lot of Russia-bashing, Iran-bashing, China-bashing and a similar anti-American, anti-European and anti-Israeli fixation in the media and on social media networks. It has never been easier to reproduce stereotypes and to condemn the enemy. In this situation there are people like Khan who stand out and show us that there is still power in dialogue. What could happen if our hatred towards the Other were transformed into creative activity and engagement? It is probably easier said than done. But once a person assumes such a mission, then an insistent search for ways and learning takes place. This is what Deeyah Khan did and this is what can been seen in her two movies below:

Photo: Deeyah Khan (source: YouTube)

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