“I went from the hater to the hated overnight”: Why is it so difficult to leave the far right?

Disengaging from an extremist group is a long and difficult process - that’s why two former extremists are helping others turn their back on the far right.

Credit: Creative Commons License via Wikipedia

In a packed synagogue on the outskirts of Chicago, Jeff Schoep prepares to address the crowd.

Public speaking is nothing new to Jeff, he’s done it for over 25 years, and to crowds much bigger than this. But this time is different… and he’s nervous.

Jeff is the former leader of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), the largest Neo-Nazi organisation in the USA.

The National Socialist Movement is a militant, racist, antisemitic group, known for holding public rallies dressed in Nazi-styled uniforms. They are accused of planning and carrying out the violence at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.

This event at the synagogue was a watershed moment in Jeff’s long road towards de-radicalisation.

“Coming out of an environment where you’re always right, to getting up there in front of a crowd of people — people I had dehumanised — and admit I was wrong was so, so hard.”

He has since set up Beyond Barriers, a charity who provide support for individuals fleeing extremism.

But disengaging from an extremist group is difficult.

Those who flee face threats from current members, a lack of employment prospects, possible arrest, and an uphill struggle to reintegrate into society.

However, the process of disengagement and deradicalisation has been largely ignored in academic circles.

“This continuing neglect is ironic”, writes John Horgan for the online journal Perspectives on Terrorism.

“Only in the analysis of disengagement, can practical initiatives for counter-terrorism become more apparent”, he said.

“It’s so complicated to try and understand why people join these groups, but it’s equally as complicated to ask why they leave them”, says Dr Steve Hewitt, an extremism expert at the University of Birmingham.

Data from the Home Office reveals that, in the year ending 31 March 2020, referrals to Prevent (part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy) were up 10% from the year before, and terrorism experts are worried this number will continue to rise due to the effects of lockdown.

Chief Superintendent Nik Adams, national coordinator for Prevent, warned that COVID-19 may ‘exacerbate grievances that make people more vulnerable to radicalisation.’

However, many of those who do end up joining extremist groups during the pandemic, will at some point think of leaving.

Exit UK are one of a number of groups who provide practical support to members of the far right hoping to disengage from the movement - they’ve experienced a surge in inquiries over lockdown.

“People often join these groups at a young age and many will reappraise that choice at some point”, says Dr Hewitt

“It’s easy to endorse something when you’re sitting behind a computer, but when you have to go out in the street and engage in violence or demonstrations, and your facing counter demonstrations of people calling you fascists or racists, that might make you rethink.”

But Jeff knows that disengaging from the far right isn’t easy — it permeates every aspect of your life.

“My business was heavily involved in the movement, I had a lot of reasons — or excuses — to stay”, said Jeff.

Stepping out of a world in which one has a sense of purpose — to one in which you will once again be seen as an outcast — requires strength, support, and encouragement.

“It’s so lonely — I went back to square one again”

Ivan Humble joined the English Defence League (EDL) in 2009. Today he is a campaigner with Me & You Education, working with communities around the UK to tackle hate and extremism.

The EDL is a far-right, racist, Islamophobic organisation in the United Kingdom. Before their gradual decline after 2011, the group held violent rallies across England — particularly in highly diverse areas.

“Leaving was easy, its adapting to a normal life on your own that’s the hard part”, said Ivan.

“People needed me. That sense of belonging takes over. Losing that was the hardest bit.”

Shiraz Maher, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, believes “a lack identity and belonging” are two of the most important factors driving radicalisation.

Jeff Schoep compared being the member of the NSM to being in a cult.

“You can’t see beyond the barriers in your own mind. Its like an echo chamber. It’s who I was, it was my personality. It became all encompassing.”

Tore Bjørgo and Hanna Munden of the Centre for Research on Extremism label this bond of intense loyalty a “barrier factor” — something that make disengaging from an extremist group psychologically harder.

“A sense of belonging to the group motivates an individual to continue both their membership and radical behaviour. Leaving the group may mean breaking ties of loyalty and close friendships, but also to lose protection against external enemies and opponents.”

“I was Ivan, I wasn’t dad anymore”

Once former members begin the messy process of disengagement, the even harder process of reintegrating into society begins, and Ivan’s past would nearly cost him the chance to walk his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day.

“I didn’t give my family enough of my time growing up”, he says.

“If I was going away with the EDL, I would dump my kids with my mum and dad for the weekend. In that time away I’d never ring my kids up, not realising until I left that this instilled a bit of anxiety in my younger daughter”.

Charity group Safe Together write that many families of extremists experience a degree of “emotional turmoil”.

“[There exists an] overwhelming and complicated interplay of confusion, anger, guilt, shame, agony as they try to make sense of what has happened”, they write.

“Me and my eldest daughter had a big bust up and didn’t speak for a couple of years until I left the EDL”, said Ivan.

“She made a point of calling me Ivan, I wasn’t dad anymore.”

After a lot of grovelling and charity work with Me & You Education, Ivan “earned his right as a father” to walk his daughter down the aisle. While Ivan’s story has a happy ending, many don’t, and the inability to re-build those bridges with family and friends could see a person re-join an extremist group.

“Everyone has a different story and different problems. For some it is quite straightforward, for others it is a much more complicated journey” — Hope not Hate.

“I went from the hater to the hated overnight”

This process of disengagement is made all the more difficult by the torrent of abuse many former members receive from remaining members of the group.

“I went from the hater to the hated overnight”, Ivan said.

The day after he left the EDL, Ivan awoke to 400 messages in his inbox calling him a “race traitor” and “Muslim convert”.

A new approach to countering extremism?

Ivan Humble thinks more needs to be done to help potential defectors at a government level.

“Prevent is a good scheme but there’s an important part of it missing”, he says.

“When someone gets referred and is deemed to no longer be a threat, they are signed off the books. From that point on they need a mentor. Because the hardest part is that transition.”

Both Ivan and Jeff know that de-radicalisation doesn’t happen overnight — it is an arduous process and many don’t succeed first time around.

At the synagogue in Illinois, much to Jeff’s surprise, the crowd respond warmly to his honest and open admissions of guilt.

“The people were more loving and accepting than I ever would have imagined”, he said.

“These people should not have shown me any compassion, but they were so forgiving. At the end of the talk I had more people come up and hug me than at any other point in my life.”

Many will not forgive Jeff and Ivan for their past, they know that, but they’ve both vowed to continue to tackle hatred and help others turn their back on extremism.

“Nobody likes to admit their own faults, but you have to take yourself out of that comfort zone”, says Ivan.

“And from that point on, the future is endless”.

Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism student at Birmingham City University

Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism student at Birmingham City University