TEDxExeter

Deeyah Khan: What we don't know about Europe's Muslim kids

Filmed:

As the child of an Afghan mother and Pakistani father raised in Norway, Deeyah Khan knows what it's like to be a young person stuck between your community and your country. In this powerful, emotional talk, the filmmaker unearths the rejection and isolation felt by many Muslim kids growing up in the West -- and the deadly consequences of not embracing our youth before extremist groups do.

- Filmmaker
Deeyah Khan is working to create intercultural dialogue and understanding by confronting the world's most complex and controversial topics. Full bio

When I was a child,
I knew I had superpowers.
00:13
That's right.
00:18
(Laughter)
00:19
I thought I was absolutely amazing
because I could understand
00:21
and relate to the feelings
of brown people,
00:25
like my grandfather,
a conservative Muslim guy.
00:27
And also, I could understand
my Afghan mother, my Pakistani father,
00:31
not so religious
but laid-back, fairly liberal.
00:36
And of course, I could understand
00:40
and relate to the feelings
of white people.
00:41
The white Norwegians of my country.
00:44
You know, white, brown, whatever --
00:47
I loved them all.
00:49
I understood them all,
00:51
even if they didn't always
understand each other,
00:53
they were all my people.
00:55
My father, though,
was always really worried.
00:57
He kept saying that
even with the best education,
01:00
I was not going to get a fair shake.
01:03
I would still face discrimination,
according to him.
01:06
And that the only way
to be accepted by white people
01:10
would be to become famous.
01:13
Now, mind you, he had this conversation
with me when I was seven years old.
01:15
So while I'm seven years old, he said,
01:20
"Look, so it's either got to be sports,
or it's got to be music."
01:23
He didn't know anything about sports --
bless him -- so it was music.
01:26
So when I was seven years old,
he gathered all my toys, all my dolls,
01:31
and he threw them all away.
01:35
In exchange he gave me
a crappy little Casio keyboard and --
01:37
(Laughter)
01:41
Yeah. And singing lessons.
01:43
And he forced me, basically, to practice
for hours and hours every single day.
01:45
Very quickly, he also had me performing
for larger and larger audiences,
01:49
and bizarrely, I became
almost a kind of poster child
01:54
for Norwegian multiculturalism.
01:58
I felt very proud, of course.
02:00
Because even the newspapers at this point
02:02
were starting to write
nice things about brown people,
02:05
so I could feel
that my superpower was growing.
02:08
So when I was 12 years old,
walking home from school,
02:12
I took a little detour
02:15
because I wanted to buy
my favorite sweets called "salty feet."
02:17
I know they sound kind of awful,
02:20
but I absolutely love them.
02:23
They're basically these little
salty licorice bits in the shape of feet.
02:24
And now that I say it out loud,
I realize how terrible that sounds,
02:29
but be that as it may,
I absolutely love them.
02:36
So on my way into the store,
02:38
there was this grown white guy
in the doorway blocking my way.
02:40
So I tried to walk around him,
and as I did that, he stopped me
02:45
and he was staring at me,
02:51
and he spit in my face, and he said,
02:54
"Get out of my way
02:55
you little black bitch,
you little Paki bitch,
02:57
go back home where you came from."
03:00
I was absolutely horrified.
03:03
I was staring at him.
03:06
I was too afraid
to wipe the spit off my face,
03:07
even as it was mixing with my tears.
03:11
I remember looking around,
hoping that any minute now,
03:13
a grown-up is going to come
and make this guy stop.
03:17
But instead, people kept hurrying past me
and pretended not to see me.
03:21
I was very confused
because I was thinking, well,
03:25
"My white people, come on!
Where are they? What's going on?
03:30
How come they're not
coming and rescuing me?
03:33
So, needless to say,
I didn't buy the sweets.
03:36
I just ran home as fast as I could.
03:38
Things were still OK, though, I thought.
03:41
As time went on,
the more successful I became,
03:44
I eventually started also
attracting harassment from brown people.
03:47
Some men in my parent's community
felt that it was unacceptable
03:53
and dishonorable for a woman
to be involved in music
03:56
and to be so present in the media.
04:01
So very quickly, I was starting
to become attacked at my own concerts.
04:05
I remember one of the concerts,
I was onstage, I lean into the audience
04:10
and the last thing I see
is a young brown face
04:15
and the next thing I know is some sort
of chemical is thrown in my eyes
04:18
and I remember I couldn't really see
and my eyes were watering
04:23
but I kept singing anyway.
04:26
I was spit in the face in the streets
of Oslo, this time by brown men.
04:28
They even tried to kidnap me at one point.
04:34
The death threats were endless.
04:37
I remember one older bearded guy
stopped me in the street one time,
04:39
and he said, "The reason
I hate you so much
04:42
is because you make our daughters think
04:44
they can do whatever they want."
04:47
A younger guy warned me to watch my back.
04:50
He said music is un-Islamic
and the job of whores,
04:53
and if you keep this up,
you are going to be raped
04:56
and your stomach will be cut out so that
another whore like you will not be born.
04:59
Again, I was so confused.
05:05
I couldn't understand what was going on.
05:07
My brown people now starting
to treat me like this -- how come?
05:09
Instead of bridging the worlds,
the two worlds,
05:13
I felt like I was falling
between my two worlds.
05:16
I suppose, for me, spit was kryptonite.
05:19
So by the time I was 17 years old,
05:24
the death threats were endless,
and the harassment was constant.
05:26
It got so bad, at one point
my mother sat me down and said,
05:29
"Look, we can no longer protect you,
we can no longer keep you safe,
05:32
so you're going to have to go."
05:35
So I bought a one-way ticket to London,
I packed my suitcase and I left.
05:37
My biggest heartbreak at that point
was that nobody said anything.
05:43
I had a very public exit from Norway.
05:47
My brown people, my white people --
nobody said anything.
05:50
Nobody said, "Hold on, this is wrong.
05:54
Support this girl, protect this girl,
because she is one of us."
05:57
Nobody said that.
06:01
Instead, I felt like --
you know at the airport,
06:03
on the baggage carousel
you have these different suitcases
06:06
going around and around,
06:09
and there's always
that one suitcase left at the end,
06:11
the one that nobody wants,
the one that nobody comes to claim.
06:13
I felt like that.
06:16
I'd never felt so alone.
I'd never felt so lost.
06:18
So, after coming to London,
I did eventually resume my music career.
06:24
Different place, but unfortunately
the same old story.
06:28
I remember a message sent to me
saying that I was going to be killed
06:32
and that rivers of blood
were going to flow
06:36
and that I was going to be raped
many times before I died.
06:39
By this point, I have to say,
06:43
I was actually getting used
to messages like this,
06:44
but what became different was that
now they started threatening my family.
06:47
So once again, I packed my suitcase,
I left music and I moved to the US.
06:52
I'd had enough.
06:58
I didn't want to have anything
to do with this anymore.
06:59
And I was certainly not
going to be killed for something
07:02
that wasn't even my dream --
it was my father's choice.
07:04
So I kind of got lost.
07:10
I kind of fell apart.
07:13
But I decided that what I wanted to do
07:14
is spend the next
however many years of my life
07:17
supporting young people
07:20
and to try to be there in some small way,
07:22
whatever way that I could.
07:25
I started volunteering
for various organizations
07:26
that were working
with young Muslims inside of Europe.
07:30
And, to my surprise, what I found was
07:35
so many of these young people
were suffering and struggling.
07:38
They were facing so many problems
with their families and their communities
07:44
who seemed to care more
about their honor and their reputation
07:47
than the happiness
and the lives of their own kids.
07:51
I started feeling like maybe I wasn't
so alone, maybe I wasn't so weird.
07:55
Maybe there are more
of my people out there.
08:00
The thing is, what most people
don't understand
08:03
is that there are so many of us
growing up in Europe
08:05
who are not free to be ourselves.
08:09
We're not allowed to be who we are.
08:12
We are not free to marry
08:15
or to be in relationships
with people that we choose.
08:19
We can't even pick our own career.
08:22
This is the norm in the Muslim
heartlands of Europe.
08:23
Even in the freest societies
in the world, we're not free.
08:27
Our lives, our dreams, our future
does not belong to us,
08:31
it belongs to our parents
and their community.
08:35
I found endless stories of young people
08:38
who are lost to all of us,
08:42
who are invisible to all of us
08:45
but who are suffering,
and they are suffering alone.
08:47
Kids we are losing to forced marriages,
to honor-based violence and abuse.
08:51
Eventually, I realized after several
years of working with these young people,
08:57
that I will not be able to keep running.
09:00
I can't spend the rest of my life
being scared and hiding
09:02
and that I'm actually
going to have to do something.
09:07
And I also realized
that my silence, our silence,
09:11
allows abuse like this to continue.
09:14
So I decided that I wanted to put
my childhood superpower to some use
09:17
by trying to make people on the different
sides of these issues understand
09:22
what it's like to be a young person stuck
between your family and your country.
09:27
So I started making films,
and I started telling these stories.
09:32
And I also wanted people to understand
the deadly consequences of us
09:36
not taking these problems seriously.
09:41
So the first film I made was about Banaz.
09:43
She was a 17-year-old
Kurdish girl in London.
09:47
She was obedient, she did
whatever her parents wanted.
09:51
She tried to do everything right.
09:54
She married some guy
that her parents chose for her,
09:57
even though he beat
and raped her constantly.
09:59
And when she tried to go
to her family for help, they said,
10:03
"Well, you got to go back
and be a better wife."
10:06
Because they didn't want
a divorced daughter on their hands
10:08
because, of course, that would
bring dishonor on the family.
10:11
She was beaten so badly
her ears would bleed,
10:15
and when she finally left
and she found a young man that she chose
10:19
and she fell in love with,
10:24
the community and the family found out
10:25
and she disappeared.
10:28
She was found three months later.
10:30
She'd been stuffed into a suitcase
and buried underneath the house.
10:33
She had been strangled,
she had been beaten to death
10:39
by three men, three cousins,
on the orders of her father and uncle.
10:44
The added tragedy of Banaz's story
10:49
is that she had gone to the police
in England five times asking for help,
10:51
telling them that she was
going to be killed by her family.
10:57
The police didn't believe her
so they didn't do anything.
11:00
And the problem with this
11:04
is that not only are so many of our kids
facing these problems
11:06
within their families
and within their families' communities,
11:10
but they're also meeting misunderstandings
11:13
and apathy in the countries
that they grow up in.
11:18
When their own families betray them,
they look to the rest of us,
11:23
and when we don't understand,
11:28
we lose them.
11:30
So while I was making this film,
several people said to me,
11:32
"Well, Deeyah, you know,
this is just their culture,
11:36
this is just what those people
do to their kids
11:38
and we can't really interfere."
11:40
I can assure you
being murdered is not my culture.
11:43
You know?
11:48
And surely people who look like me,
11:49
young women who come
from backgrounds like me,
11:51
should be subject to the same rights,
the same protections
11:53
as anybody else in our country, why not?
11:57
So, for my next film,
I wanted to try and understand
12:02
why some of our young
Muslim kids in Europe
12:06
are drawn to extremism and violence.
12:09
But with that topic,
12:12
I also recognized that I was going
to have to face my worst fear:
12:13
the brown men with beards.
12:18
The same men, or similar men,
12:22
to the ones that have hounded me
for most of my life.
12:25
Men that I've been afraid of
most of my life.
12:29
Men that I've also deeply disliked,
12:32
for many, many years.
12:34
So I spent the next two years
interviewing convicted terrorists,
12:36
jihadis and former extremists.
12:40
What I already knew,
what was very obvious already,
12:43
was that religion, politics,
Europe's colonial baggage,
12:46
also Western foreign policy
failures of recent years,
12:52
were all a part of the picture.
12:56
But what I was more interested
in finding out was what are the human,
12:58
what are the personal reasons
13:01
why some of our young people
are susceptible to groups like this.
13:03
And what really surprised me
was that I found wounded human beings.
13:08
Instead of the monsters
that I was looking for,
13:15
that I was hoping to find --
13:18
quite frankly because
it would have been very satisfying --
13:19
I found broken people.
13:22
Just like Banaz,
13:25
I found that these young men
were torn apart
13:26
from trying to bridge the gaps
13:30
between their families
and the countries that they were born in.
13:32
And what I also learned
is that extremist groups, terrorist groups
13:37
are taking advantage
of these feelings of our young people
13:40
and channeling that -- cynically --
channeling that toward violence.
13:44
"Come to us," they say.
13:48
"Reject both sides,
your family and your country
13:49
because they reject you.
13:52
For your family, their honor
is more important than you
13:54
and for your country,
13:57
a real Norwegian, Brit or a French person
will always be white and never you."
13:58
They're also promising our young people
the things that they crave:
14:05
significance, heroism,
a sense of belonging and purpose,
14:09
a community that loves and accepts them.
14:13
They make the powerless feel powerful.
14:17
The invisible and the silent
are finally seen and heard.
14:19
This is what they're doing
for our young people.
14:26
Why are these groups doing this
for our young people and not us?
14:29
The thing is,
14:34
I'm not trying to justify
14:36
or excuse any of the violence.
14:39
What I am trying to say
is that we have to understand
14:43
why some of our young people
are attracted to this.
14:46
I would like to also show you, actually --
14:51
these are childhood photos
of some of the guys in the film.
14:53
What really struck me
is that so many of them --
14:59
I never would have thought this --
15:02
but so many of them
have absent or abusive fathers.
15:04
And several of these young guys
15:08
ended up finding caring
and compassionate father figures
15:10
within these extremist groups.
15:14
I also found men
brutalized by racist violence,
15:17
but who found a way
to stop feeling like victims
15:21
by becoming violent themselves.
15:23
In fact, I found something,
to my horror, that I recognized.
15:25
I found the same feelings that I felt
as a 17-year-old as I fled from Norway.
15:30
The same confusion, the same sorrow,
15:37
the same feeling of being betrayed
15:41
and not belonging to anyone.
15:46
The same feeling of being lost
and torn between cultures.
15:50
Having said that,
I did not choose destruction,
15:54
I chose to pick up a camera
instead of a gun.
15:57
And the reason I did that
is because of my superpower.
15:59
I could see that understanding
is the answer, instead of violence.
16:03
Seeing human beings
16:08
with all their virtues and all their flaws
16:09
instead of continuing the caricatures:
16:13
the us and them, the villains and victims.
16:15
I'd also finally
come to terms with the fact
16:18
that my two cultures
didn't have to be on a collision course
16:20
but instead became a space
where I found my own voice.
16:24
I stopped feeling
like I had to pick a side,
16:27
but this took me many, many years.
16:30
There are so many
of our young people today
16:33
who are struggling with these same issues,
16:35
and they're struggling with this alone.
16:37
And this leaves them open like wounds.
16:41
And for some, the worldview
of radical Islam
16:44
becomes the infection
that festers in these open wounds.
16:47
There's an African proverb that says,
16:52
"If the young are not
initiated into the village,
16:57
they will burn it down
just to feel its warmth."
17:00
I would like to ask --
17:05
to Muslim parents and Muslim communities,
17:07
will you love and care for your children
17:10
without forcing them
to meet your expectations?
17:12
Can you choose them instead of your honor?
17:15
Can you understand
why they're so angry and alienated
17:18
when you put your honor
before their happiness?
17:21
Can you try to be a friend to your child
17:24
so that they can trust you
17:26
and want to share with you
their experiences,
17:28
rather than having
to seek it somewhere else?
17:31
And to our young people
tempted by extremism,
17:34
can you acknowledge
that your rage is fueled by pain?
17:38
Will you find the strength
to resist those cynical old men
17:43
who want to use your blood
for their own profits?
17:46
Can you find a way to live?
17:50
Can you see that the sweetest revenge
17:53
is for you to live
a happy, full and free life?
17:55
A life defined by you and nobody else.
17:59
Why do you want to become
just another dead Muslim kid?
18:02
And for the rest of us, when will we start
listening to our young people?
18:06
How can we support them
18:12
in redirecting their pain
into something more constructive?
18:13
They think we don't like them.
18:18
They think we don't care
what happens to them.
18:20
They think we don't accept them.
18:22
Can we find a way
to make them feel differently?
18:24
What will it take for us
to see them and notice them
18:29
before they become either the victims
or the perpetrators of violence?
18:32
Can we make ourselves care about them
and consider them to be our own?
18:37
And not just be outraged when the victims
of violence look like ourselves?
18:40
Can we find a way to reject hatred
and heal the divisions between us?
18:45
The thing is we cannot afford
to give up on each other or on our kids,
18:50
even if they've given up on us.
18:54
We are all in this together.
18:56
And in the long term, revenge and violence
will not work against extremists.
18:58
Terrorists want us
to huddle in our houses in fear,
19:05
closing our doors and our hearts.
19:09
They want us to tear open
more wounds in our societies
19:11
so that they can use them
to spread their infection more widely.
19:15
They want us to become like them:
19:18
intolerant, hateful and cruel.
19:21
The day after the Paris attacks,
19:26
a friend of mine
sent this photo of her daughter.
19:28
This is a white girl and an Arab girl.
19:32
They're best friends.
19:35
This image is the kryptonite
for extremists.
19:36
These two little girls
with their superpowers
19:43
are showing the way forward
19:46
towards a society
that we need to build together,
19:47
a society that includes and supports,
19:51
rather than rejects our kids.
19:56
Thank you for listening.
19:59
(Applause)
20:01
Translated by Crawford Hunt
Reviewed by Joanna Pietrulewicz

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About the Speaker:

Deeyah Khan - Filmmaker
Deeyah Khan is working to create intercultural dialogue and understanding by confronting the world's most complex and controversial topics.

Why you should listen

Deeyah Khan is an Emmy and Peabody award-winning documentary film director and founder of Fuuse, a media and arts company that puts women, people from minorities and third-culture kids at the heart of telling their own stories. In 2016, Khan became the first UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for artistic freedom and creativity. She has received many honors for her work supporting freedom of expression, human rights and peace, including the Ossietzky Prize, the University of Oslo's Human Rights Award and the Peer Gynt Prize from the Parliament of Norway.

Born in Norway to immigrant parents of Pashtun and Punjabi ancestry, Khan's experience of living between different cultures, both the beauty and the challenges, shapes her artistic vision. Her 2012 multi-award winning documentary, Banaz: A Love Story, chronicles the life and death of Banaz Mahmod, a young British Kurdish woman murdered by her family in a so-called honor killing. Khan's second film, the Grierson and Bafta award-nominated Jihad, involved two years of interviews and filming with Islamic extremists, convicted terrorists and former jihadis. One of Fuuse's recent initiatives, born of Deeyah’s own experiences, is sister-hood, a digital magazine and series of live events spotlighting the voices of women of Muslim heritage. Khan has also produced a number of critically acclaimed albums, including Listen to the Banned, a compilation that brought together musicians from around the world who have been subject to persecution, 'censorship and imprisonment.

The focus of Khan's work and access to voices that are often overlooked and misunderstood has led to increasing demand as a speaker at international human rights events and platforms including the United Nations. She was described by The Times of London thus: "To say Deeyah Khan is an inspiration is an understatement. She is one of the bravest, most indomitable women … facing down bullies and extremists with intelligence and unflinching spirit."

(Photo: Geir Dokken)