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They send her hate mails, she visits them bringing food

by - 23 November

How would you respond if your email inbox is full of hate mails and you often receive death threats? The last thing you'll do probably is to call their authors suggesting them to meet for a coffee. This is exactly how Özlem Cekic approached the hateful commentaries, harassment and threats online she  received since 2007, when she became a Danish MP. She visits not only people from the ultra-right, but also extreme Muslims and people who hate democracy.  
Özlem Cekic is born in Turkey from Kurdish parents that moved to Denmark when she was a young child. She qualified as a nurse in 2000 before entering politics in 2005.

How do you share a table with people who hate you and how do you find a common language with themI talked with Özlem Cekic, a former Danish MP, about her project "Dialogue Coffee".

Özlem, how did it happen that you become a bridge builder?
It's not something I've planned - that I will be a bridge builder. I started visiting people who have sent me hate mails. And after a while I could see that it was not them that have a problem. But me too. Because I demonize them like they demonize people like me. And they were afraid of people they don't know as I was afraid of them before I started the dialogue coffee.
For me it started because of the discussion about the minorities and about the human rights and how we demonize each other. A lot of people want to dig trenches but I want to build bridges.

How did you end up in the politics? You are a Kurdish woman born in Turkey which later becomes one of the first female Muslim Danish MP. How long was the path from Ankara to TED stage? And what were the biggest challenges?
I am from Turkey but I have Kurdish background. My parents come to Denmark in the beginning of the 80's. They were migrants and they want to find a job so they can earn their own money and go back to Turkey. But they never go back because their children had life here.
So at the beginning it was very difficult with the language. Language is the best way to build bridges. If you can speak other languages it is much easier for you. I was so angry that all I was doing, was wrong. I was not good at my homework at school. I come from a working class family, so my parents couldn't help me with the homework. But I was so lucky to meet a lot of Danish people who helped me.
It was much later that I became active in the politics. Because I was a nurse and they wanted a representative in the union for the nurses. That was reason that I got involved in politics. At the beginning it was not my goal that I'll be part of the party politics. I wanted to make a change for the children who have psychological problems. But after that I wanted more power. So I became part of a party and was elected into the Danish Parliament in 2007 and I was MP for eight years.

Have you as a child or later faced discrimination or hate speech?
Yes, I can remember a very short time in my life when I have worn a scarf. And there was a man who tried to take it off from me. It was very discriminating. I can remember also that we had a German teacher and he always said that it was so impressing that we try so much to get an education when he knows that it won't be possible for us. So it was very hard. And many times I had this experience that people called me very bad things - monkey and other things.

Did these experiences make you resilient to hate speech?
This experience makes me more racist. Because when I was young I hated Danish people, I hated Turkish people because I have Kurdish background. And as a child I hated Jewish people because of Palestine. But my friendship with Turks, with Danish people and with Jewish people vaccinated me against my prejudices. So these friendships make all the difference for me.

You promote building bridges and dialogue in a time of growing nationalism, isolationism, border control, anti-migrant movements. Do people perceive you as a naïve or idealistic? How do you convince them in the need of conversation?
People who criticize the conversation have forgotten to believe in democracy. The most important thing in democracy is the conversation. This doesn't mean that the conversation is easy. It is not easy to talk with people who send your hate mails or people who don't want you to live in their country. But it is necessary because you can't find solutions without a conversation. Look of all the peace processes - they start because two persons sit down and have a conversation. So for someone it's very naive. But I always ask back: "What is the alternative? If we cant's speak with each other what should we do - to fight each other?" I don't want to fight. The conversation is necessary.

What kind of people were the haters? There are stereotypes – that they are uneducated, poor ….? Is that true?
No, it's a myth. A lot of people think that it's because they aren't educated and they are living in villages or that they don't have a knowledge. It's not like that. A lot of the people I visit who hate other groups, they are people like you and me. A lot of them are husbands, wives, parents and they have the same dreams for their children that I have.
I visited a man three weeks ago and he is living in a very big villa, he has two children, studying in a high school. His wife is a nurse and he is working in IT company. So he is an educated man and we have so many things in common. But after a while I said to him - "I have a reason to sit here in your house because you are so upset about the Muslims". And he said to me: "You can never be Danish because your parents believe in an ideology called Islam. It is the opposite of democracy". I know it is very difficult to continue such conversation. But after a while I asked him: "Do you know any Muslims? Because you have so many opinions about them". He doesn't know anyone. And that is the problem. And I talked with Muslim people who have very strong opinions about the Danish people. And they don't know anyone. So when you don't know each other you have so many prejudices. That is the reason that friendship is so important.

How do you usually start the conversation?
I always start by acknowledging their courage. Because it's not me who is courageous by visiting them, but the one who has opened the door and inviting me in their homes - he is very courageous too. People love when you acknowledge their courage. And I always start with the positive things that we have in common. I am very interested about who they are. What kind of person are they married. Do they have children or a job. And how they use their free time. I talk about myself too. Because when we laugh together it is much easier to cry together. And I always bring food because. It is easier to talk about what we have in common when we eat together. And then I always ask about the reason that I am there. But I always stop the conversation in a very positive way because I have to come back and continue the conversation. Because you can't build the bridge after just one day.

What happens after the conversations? Do you see a change in their behavior?
A lot of people are misunderstanding the reasons for the conversation. It's not only about changing them, but it's also about changing you. Because we always think that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. Everyone is demonizing the others with different views. So everyone has to take the responsibility on their shoulders and try to find out why they demonize too.

Are Islamic Extremism and The Far-Right Two Sides of the Same Coin? Do they nurture each other? No, but their mindset is the same. Their logic is the same. And their hate is the same. The way they look at the world is the same - very black-white. When I talk to people who are in the extreme right  their arguments are exactly like the arguments of the very extreme religious people. They are against the homosexual people, against the Jewish people, against the diversity. They always said that they have the right. That they know the truth. But I try to convince them that no one has the truth. Everyone has part of the truth but not all the truth.

What are the most important lessons from your initiative?
In the conversation I'm very focused on my own behavior - how I react, which words I use. Because I have a responsibility for the dialogue. So if I demonize and the conversation is closing, it is my responsibility. The most important lesson for me is the role that I have in this conversation. It is not about the others but how I react.
Other thing that really surprises me is when I talk with people - they can be racist or humanists, women or men - they all say that other people have to stop demonizing them. They always think that  other people have to do something but not themselves. That other people have the responsibility but not them.

You are now out of politics. Was it easier to have your voice heard when you were MP? How do you convince now others in the power of dialogue?
I am not out of politics, I am out of party politics. I'm not a member of any party so I'm independent. And now it is easier for me to talk about dialogue. I have much more influence now. Because I am much more independent and I am closer to people. I try to mobilize and motivate them to dialogue. Because they have to talk to as many people as possible, as long as possible, while being as open as possible. And this is the only way we can prevent hate and violence.

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