Four former members of right wing extremist groups sharetheir stories of how they overcame their hate-filled pasts and are now helpingturn others’ lives around
Robert Örell: radicalised when barely a teenager, now abridge from neo-Nazism back to Swedish society
Robert Örell (pictured) is director at Exit Sweden, anorganisation helping people disengage from radical groups. After becominginvolved in neo-Nazi groups when he was very young, Örell became disillusionedwith the movement. He co-chairs the Exit working group of the EuropeanCommission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network
“I had a lot of trouble at school and was searching forsomething to explain why I had all these problems. The white power movement hada simple and easily digestible answer: it was due to our multicultural society.I had my first contact when I was 12 or 13 and I started engaging when I was14. I directed all my rage there.
“Initially it was a lot about being a tough macho man:drinking and fighting a lot. But then I started to read more about theideology, too. I began exercising lots, trying to become this elite kind ofperson we were always talking about. But the movement was full of broken soulswho drank a lot and got into trouble.
Do we really want to exclude people because they’ve donewrong? Is it because they’re evil, or because of circumstances?
“I started to rethink who I wanted around me. Is thisreally the ‘Aryan elite’ that’s going to rule the country after the revolution?I think this comes to a lot of the extremist groups: they have utopian ideasbut they are never called to reality-test their vision for society. What typeof people will you have around? How will you organise society without all ofthe people you want to exclude?
“We started Exit Sweden in 1998. Because of my ownexperiences, I can identify with a lot of the stories I hear. I also know it’spossible to change. We call formers credible messengers – we are able to bridgethe gap between neo-Nazi groups and society.
“Why should society help these people? It’s a relevantquestion. But who are we to decide that somebody is unchangeable or that theydeserve to be completely excluded? I know just how powerful the process ofradicalisation is. It’s a moral value to me: do we really want to excludepeople from society because they’ve done wrong? Is it because they’re evil, orbecause of circumstances?
“Now, I want to put my experiences to good use. I getsuch satisfaction from seeing people leave these movements and build totallynew, healthy lives.”
Tony McAleer: the former white supremacist who realisedthe power of compassion
Tony McAleer used to be a skinhead recruiter and anorganiser for the White Aryan Resistance. As well as committing acts ofviolence, he was found to have contravened the Canadian Human Rights Act byspreading messages of hate. But becoming a father in his 20s changedeverything. He is executive director of US-based non-profit Life After Hate andalso works as an inspirational speaker.
“When I was 10, I walked in on my dad with another woman.It was very confusing and made me incredibly angry. I went from being astraight-A student to getting Cs. My parents and teachers decided they wouldtry to beat the grades into me.
“The bullying strategy I’d devised was ‘befriend thebully: become the bully’. And so I became friends with two guys I met at a punkconcert and we started to build up the skinhead scene. Being able to walk downthe street and generate fear was intoxicating.
“Someone asked me once: ‘Tony, how did you lose yourhumanity?’ But I didn’t lose it: I traded it for acceptance and approval untilthere was nothing left. Part of my great shame is not only the violence I did,but that I should have known better, having experienced powerlessness myself. NowI believe that the level to which we’re willing to dehumanise others is amirror to how disconnected from our humanity we are inside.
The level to which we’re willing to dehumanise others isa mirror to how disconnected from our humanity we are inside
“At 23, I found myself in a delivery room, being handed ababy girl. She hadn’t yet opened her eyes and I knew that my face was the firstpicture her brain would ever take. Suddenly, I had to make decisions forsomeone else. Kids don’t see self-loathing; they see us for the magnificenthuman beings that we all are. I was able to open up my heart and allow it tothaw over time. Now, I carry healthy shame. I loathe the things that I did butI don’t loathe me.
“There was nothing available for me when I left: I stumbledthrough the wilderness and luckily found a way out. Now, I can help somebodywho is a few steps back to be less lost. It’s about compassion and forgivenessbut it’s important to have both with boundaries.
“The pain and the loneliness when you’re in the void,having left but not yet re-entered mainstream society, is huge. As MartinLuther King said: ‘Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.’”
Angela King: from violent skinhead to rehabilitatingother Americans
Struggling for a sense of identity as a teenager growingup in Florida, a group of skinheads made Angela King feel welcome for the firsttime. After receiving a six-year prison sentence for her part in the armedrobbery of a Jewish-owned shop, she went on to leave the movement and achieve amaster’s degree. King is co-founder and deputy director of Life After Hate.
As a young person, I faced bullying, had low self-esteemand was socially awkward. A girl three times my size started a fight with me,ripping my shirt open in front of the entire class. From that point on, I feltthat if I was the one doing the bullying, I could never be humiliated like thatagain. Neo-Nazi skinheads seemed the perfect fit because they were often angryand often violent, just like me. I’d been taught racism and homophobia as achild and felt that I had finally found the place where I belonged.
I felt that if I was the one doing the bullying, I couldnever be humiliated again
Sometimes women follow a romantic partner or relativeinto the movement. And then they are placed in conflicting roles: they’reexpected to take on traditional women’s roles but also to be strong activistsand willing to carry out violence. I’ve seen and, experienced, abuse andviolence within these movements: domestic violence, sexual violence andemotional abuse.
When the Oklahoma City bombing happened, I realised itwas done by someone with the same beliefs as me. I couldn’t see myselfcommitting that level of violence, especially against children, so I made adecision at that time to leave the group and the lifestyle.
Stefan: after being part of violent clashes with farleft, homosexual and immigrant groups, Stefan (not his real name) decided theneo-Nazi movement was ultimately devoid of meaning and left it behind
Grappling with complex social questions, Stefan foundunderstanding and belonging in the Swedish far right movement. But it wasn’t tolast. The non-judgmental ethos of Exit Sweden helped him to renounce his views,and turn his attention to contributing to society instead.
“I was active for nine years, from 2006 and 2015. Atfirst, I was active in the movement but I wasn’t a member of an organisation.Later, I joined the group which was the largest of its kind in Sweden at thetime: the National Socialist Front. I was quickly given more responsibility,and more of a role.
“I’ve always been someone who has thought a lot aboutsocietal issues. When I was at school, aged 16-18, there was a lot of interestin political alternatives. But I didn’t find anything in the mainstream partiesthat explained how we could build society in a new way: on a new foundation. SoI searched outside of the mainstream.
“My ideas didn’t feel like they were ‘against’ otherpeople – it wasn’t built primarily on hate – but more on preserving the idea ofa Swedish social foundation. I wanted a strong society, and I think it’s a deephuman response to be fearful about things – or people – that are ‘new’ ordifferent.
“Violence was not the primary drive for me, but it wasalways present. We ‘legitimised’ it by the idea that we must be prepared inself defence. I was involved in about 25 confrontations within two years:stabbings and assaults. These were usually with extreme left wing groups butimmigrant groups too and homosexuals: anyone that we considered a threat to‘core family values’.
“I was busted for having a knife on me which is illegalin Sweden. But violence is what strengthens the group: it makes you feeltighter together, and then this sense of strength escalates into new fights.
I want people to be able to be part of society together:to find a sense of community, togetherness and belonging
“At first, my ideological commitment to the group wasvery strong. But in about 2013, I started to feel a shift. I realised that therace issue simply wasn’t as important as I had previously thought. I alsostarted studying and while at university, came into contact with two elderlymen. One was a political activist from Uruguay, and the other was from Somalia.
“As we got to know each other, I realised there were lotsof similarities in what we identified in society as problems. I started toaccept that if people are facing these similar problems in three very differentparts of the world, this is probably more of a global challenge, not related tothe previous explanation I had formed.
“By the time I got in touch with Exit Sweden, I hadalready left the movement. But I wanted to make a definite shift in order todisengage and reflect on what I’d done and been part of.
“There were no demands: it didn’t feel like attendingExit was a punishment. It felt open and non-judging. I was able to adjust at myown pace. I felt listened to, and that helped me to change. Talking openlyabout my experiences has helped me to make the shift.
“My personality had been very linked to the politicalideological environment of the Nazi group. I learned that ‘this was good’ and‘this was bad’. But now I’m open to thinking about things in new ways. I talkedto my former history teacher about perhaps coming into the school to talk to hisclass about my experiences. I want to help people understand. I want people tobe able to be part of society together: to find a sense of community,togetherness and belonging.”
Read our feature Leaving hate behind: the global movementof former neo-Nazis who are helping others renounce extremism