What Muslim extremists and rightwing racists have in common

Extremists love to have a demonised enemy, says film maker Deeyah Khan, but it doesn’t have to be inevitable that we give them one

Each of us handles dozens of interactions every day: buying a bus ticket, acknowledging an acquaintance in the street, drinking coffee with friends, a quick hello to a neighbour – and these have emotional and psychological effects. A well-meant compliment from a stranger can put a spring in your step; but an unwelcome or aggressive sexual approach can leave you grinding your teeth for hours. In many ways, these small interactions represent our experiences of the society that exists beyond the sanctuaries of our homes and families.

One of the former extremists I interviewed for my latest documentaryJihad writes out three words on a sheet of paper: “PAKI GO HOME”. These three words were a phrase that formed the backdrop of his childhood. I, too, recognise the unnerving power of these three words, which I heard myself growing up as a young woman of South Asian ancestry in the streets of Oslo. All of my interviewees in this documentary seemed to have grown up in this hostile ambience, from regularly facing racist violence in their communities to the chilly rejection of the middle-class parents who warned their daughter off a relationship that they feared would result in ‘mongrel children’.

There is an African saying: If the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth.

Where young men and women are constantly made to feel they are not part of society, when they see themselves as pushed out, and harassed in various ways, it creates a societal wound in which the infection of Islamic extremism can fester.

This is, in fact, how extremisms of all kinds propagate themselves. Muslim extremists and right-wing racists share more than the fantasy of their own cultural supremacy: they are, in a sense, interdependent – predicated upon the existence of a demonised enemy. Both seek to recruit people to their own side through creating narratives of fear, hate, and resentment, of ‘us and them’. By tearing the wound ever wider, they seek to grind the infection of their world view even deeper into the flesh. It’s a vicious circle of mutually reinforcing hatreds.

Former extremists like Abu Muntasir have learnt the contradictions in their worldview. From Jihad: A British Story
Former extremists like Abu Muntasir have learnt the contradictions in their worldview. From Jihad: A British Story FuuseFilms Photograph: Deeyah Khan FuuseFilms

I also learned that this is not inevitable. The extremist worldview is irrational, fragile and inconsistent, and thus can be vulnerable. Just as the sense of otherness builds from interactions which are felt as exclusionary, unjust and humiliating, interactions which are inclusive, fair and respectful can introduce a contradiction in their stark worldview and provide a reminder of our shared humanity. For instance, Ken Ballentells the story of Ahmad, a naive young Saudi radicalised by the grotesque tortures uncovered in Abu Ghraib, and manipulated into an attempted suicide bombing in Iraq. With an odd symmetry, the badly burned Ahmad was slowly nursed back to health by American nurses and doctors who treated him with greater respect and kindness than he had received in Al Qaeda, creating a profound change in his worldview.

Images of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad in late 2003, obtained by the Special Broadcasting System in Australia.
Images of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad in late 2003, obtained by the Special Broadcasting System in Australia. Photograph: AP/AP

De-radicalisation needs more than programmes and projects it will require changes in the everyday interactions between people – in smiles, favours, and acts of kindness; in actions which are rooted in a refusal to accept the ‘us and them’ narrative peddled by extremists on all sides. We need to make greater efforts to combat injustice and exclusion through all means, from the highest level of government to our own everyday behaviour, to make sure we all share in a sense of belonging, justice and feelings of respect within our society. This will reduce the appeal of the extremist narrative. Wounds this deep need stitches: but we can all be a part of the healing process.

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