Feature article: Deeyah Khan – using friendliness as a method

November 27 2021

On Tuesday, 23 November 2021, Deeyah Khan was awarded the Fritt Ord Foundation Prize for 2020. This feature article is an abridged version of the speech delivered by Grete Brochmann, chair of the Fritt Ord Foundation’s Board, at the awards ceremony held at the Opera House in Oslo.

Deeyah Khan is the filmmaker who approaches hardened extremists with candour and empathy. At a time characterised by polarisation and echo chambers, this makes her one of today’s most important documentary filmmakers.

As 2020 ended, we realised that we had been through an extraordinary year. While the pandemic was accompanied by health-related concerns and constraints on our day-to-day activities, the year also included other noteworthy events. The Black Lives Matter movement, the powerful manifestation of deep-seated racial issues in the USA, with the ensuing ramifications across large parts of the world, was one of the most significant. Schisms in many societies due to social, religious and ethnic differences became starkly evident, resulting in political polarisation. Towards year end, the US election was rife with apprehension. There was a lot at stake, and the election itself occasionally bordered on extremism. Freedom of expression and the culture of freedom of expression have become volatile topics in the public sphere. Yet the polarisation has developed over time. Jihadism and right-wing extremism have been on the rise in recent decades, testaments to the most deep-seated, obstinate conflicts of our times, while discussion and communication between the fronts are rare occurrences.

Grete Brochmann
Grete Brochmann. Photo: University of Oslo

On Tuesday, 23 November 2021, Deeyah Khan was awarded the Fritt Ord Foundation Prize for 2020 for her artistic and journalistic endeavours. Owing to the pandemic, the ceremony had to be postponed for more than a year after the prize was announced. Journalism and documentary film are among the most consequential areas to receive support from Fritt Ord as an organisational advocate for freedom of expression, and Deeyah Khan’s films bear witness not only to the fearless use of language and cameras, but also to the fearless use of compassion. As a documentary filmmaker, Khan makes exceptional contributions, not least through her open, investigative and enquiring approach to the types of people and organisations she claims to fear most: obsessive Islamists, aggressive white right-wing extremists, and Christians who are fanatically opposed to abortion. Khan says that she aspires to figure out where the hate comes from, i.e. what it is that is hidden inside of people who belong to extremist movements. She wants to find out what is behind the polarising rhetoric, the echo chambers and the self-absorbed identity politics, and what it will take to get the activists to talk with an outsider.

It started with ‘Banaz. A Love Story from 2012’, about the honour killing of the young British woman Banaz Mahmod in London in 2012. She was brutally murdered by her own family, with the help of several others from the Kurdish community, because she wanted to follow her own path in life and love. The film includes video clips of Banaz before she was murdered, and then it follows the police constables who spent four years solving the case.

2015 brought ‘Jihad. A Story of the Others’, in which she tried to understand why young people from the West are captivated by the Jihad. She spent two years with leading individuals from the British Jihad movement who had fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Chechnya, and she coaxed several former extremists into talking about what it is like to be radicalised and to have one’s life destroyed by extremism and violence.

In 2018, Khan directed the film ‘White Right. Meeting the Enemy’. This film deals with American right-wing extremism, the riots in Charlottesville, the racial wars, fascism, racism and the alt-right in today’s USA. The director sat down face to face with right-wingers, trying to delve more deeply into the human reasons underlying such extremist attitudes. When talking with a leading neo-Nazi, she showed him an old photo of herself at age 5, along with her father, attending an anti-racism rally. “The things that you and your group stand for caused anxiety in this six-year-old. People who share your beliefs made the six-year-old Deeyah feel hated, unwanted, unwelcome, and ugly. How does it make you feel when I tell you this?” The neo-Nazi concedes: “I don’t like it. No one should feel that way.” It is striking to see how several of the interviewees changed personalities during the interviews.

At the very end of 2020, in connection with the US presidential election, Khan released two films: ‘America’s War on Abortion’ and ‘Muslim in Trump’s America’. These two films thoroughly examine two issues that were actively introduced into mainstream debates about the US to create noise and fuel conflicts on sensitive topics.

The film on abortion familiarises us with life on the inside of abortion clinics in the US, where physicians are constantly threatened by Christian fundamentalists and demonstrators. The film is based on meetings with women who chose to have abortions under exceedingly difficult circumstances, and with Christian activists who resort to extremist actions as a form of protest.

In the most recent film, Khan investigated what is like to be Muslim in a country in which hostility is on the rise. The film gives the public insight into the Muslim experience of alienation, a lack of belonging and rejection. The film also devotes attention to anti-Muslim hate groups and hate crimes, and right-wing militia who believe conspiracy theories that accuse Muslims of wanting to take over the US. Both films take place prior to and during the Covid-19 pandemic, and parallel to the process in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.

The simple, but uncommon method Deeyah Khan uses is to start with friendliness and interest, demonstrating her willingness to communicate through calm but confrontational conversation and presence. The method is fundamentally empathic. She gains access to thoughts and feelings, and gives the interviewees an opportunity to think through their own ideological position. She investigates and challenges the very reason for their opinions and attitudes.

It is important to emphasise the importance of Khan’s method in public space that is coloured by polarisation and uncompromising, intransigent fronts, where people refuse to speak to each other. The right and left sides alike have pursued such a line in Norwegian public discourse in recent years as well. We do not understand each other, and we are not interested in doing anything about it. The most controversial topics often end up in debate patterns that undermine free public discourse.

Deeyah Khan delves deeply into groups that have demonstrated their willingness to use violence against people who have different opinions, or a different skin colour or religion from themselves. She has given us as viewers insight to communities to which we would not otherwise have had access. She has entered the most conflict-filled rooms with compassionate candour, calm opposition and a matter-of-fact approach.

Given the current state of the climate for debate, it is valid to ask what might qualify to be called brave today. Those who have seen Deeyah Khan’s films will definitely be in no doubt.

This text was published in Norwegian in the newspaper VG on 27 November 2021. An unabridged version was delivered at the ceremony for the Fritt Ord Foundation Prize that was awarded to Deeyah Khan on Tuesday, 23 November.