As I watched the storming of the US Capitol, one sentence kept coming to my mind.
“Evil can only be conquered through kindness between people. Kindness takes courage. “
The words were told to me by Ozlem Cekic, a former member of the Danish Parliament, who after years of daily abuse and death threats just for being a Muslim in public life began to meet her attackers for coffee.
Kindness may seem strange at this dangerous moment. But how we respond is perhaps more important now than ever.
The anarchy in the US was not an end point in a culture war, but a focal point of the tensions that are building around the world. The Trump uprising in itself repolarized.
We are hurt. We are angry. We’d like to say we told you.
Ozlem Cekic, born in Ankara, Turkey, came to Denmark as a child of Kurdish immigrants and overcame the difficult chances of becoming a member of the People’s Socialist Party.
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Denmark’s first Muslim MP started keeping her racist hatemail to help the police when someone eventually injured her. But in 2010 she started looking through them.
“There were hundreds of them,” she says. “Emails that started with words like terrorist, rat, whore.”
One signature appeared more than others – “Ingolf”. Ozlem checked it in the phone book and, to her shock, answered the phone.
“I blurted out,” Hello, my name is Ozlem, “she says.” ‘You’ve sent me so many hate mail. You do not know me. I don’t know you I was wondering if I could come over and we can have a coffee and talk about it. “
Ingolf’s answer shocked her. “I have to ask my wife.”
Ozlem’s decision to visit Ingolf about the Danish institution for coffee and cake – while her husband sat at home waiting to call the police if she didn’t return – changed her life.
“All of my assumptions have been challenged,” she says. “I was disappointed because I thought he was going to have a dirty, messy house. He had the same coffee set as my parents.
“We still had so much in common. Even our prejudices were the same. When the bus stopped 10 meters away from me I thought it was because the driver was a racist. Ingolf thought it was because the driver was a Muslim. “
The result was that eight years ago Ozlem started something called Dialogue Coffee – regularly visiting and talking to trolls and haters.
Often these visits were terrifying. A man who had already confessed that he thought rape was the victim’s fault asked, “If we were naked, would something happen?” When she looked up at a display of 17 kitchen knives.
“I said to him,” I’m scared, should I be? “My question really shocked him.” I would never dream of harming you, “he said.” I was the one who was scared of you. I thought you were going to bring your Muslim cousins with you to destroy my house . “
“We were the same age, we spoke the same language, we were from the same church, but we were afraid of each other.”
These visits became the basis for a Ted Talk, and then for a book published this month: Overcoming Hatred Through Dialogue. “
We think we are the “good” people, ”she smiles. “We think the ‘monsters’ have to change. We think you have to come to me, but we have to meet you on the bridge. “
She adds, “No one has ever become less racist by being labeled a racist.”
Ozlem began to admit that she hated people too. As a teenager, she flirted with ideas of extremism after ending up in a hateful act.
“I was walking with a headscarf when a Dane spat in my face. I couldn’t bring myself to clear the mucus. I started throwing up badly.
“I hated him and all the other Danes. I decided that all Danes are racist. “
It was one of hundreds of acts of racism.
She also had prejudices against the Jewish people.
“When I was a child I had seen footage of terrible things in Palestine. A Jewish girl started at my school. She asked me to play basketball. I thought I can’t play basketball with a Jewish girl if I support the Palestinian people. “
One day the girl invited her to lunch. “I found out that I could eat anything in their house. There was no pork. “
Ozlem now sees itself as an adopted part of the Jewish community in Denmark. “This friendship vaccinated me against anti-Semitism.”
Her fear and hatred of Danes ended when she got a job in a supermarket after school. “My boss was so nice. It was hard to tell that she was racist.
“I thought at the time that she must be the only Dane in Denmark who is not racist. Then I kissed a guy who was not racist.”
Again she was vaccinated against prejudice through kindness.
Ozlem admits that some of the hardest bridges to build are home. “Dialog coffee is easier with people you don’t know,” she laughs.
Her father voted for the right-wing nationalist President Erdogan in Turkey. “I’m on a blacklist in Turkey because I criticized Erdogan.”
She watched the recent election with her father, neither spoke.
“Finally my dad said,“ We won. ”I said,“ We didn’t. We couldn’t talk about what we saw on TV. So in fact we’re losing together. “
When scenes in America remind us of – and reinforce – our divided world, it can be daunting work.
However, dialogue does not mean accepting or legitimizing fascism. Instead, as a direct opposite, it may be the only way to challenge it.
On Thursday, Ozlem’s message to the United States was: “Dear American friends, it is possible to take people from the edge of an abyss. And every time we save someone, we save part of the world too. “
- Overcoming hatred through dialogue by Ozlem Cekic is shown in the
UK by Mango Publishing.