Özlem Cekic: Why I have coffee with people who send me hate mail
Özlem Cekic's email inbox has been full of hate mail since 2007, when she won a seat in the Danish Parliament -- becoming one of the first female Muslims to do so. At first she just deleted the emails, dismissing them as the work of fanatics, until one day a friend made an unexpected suggestion: to reach out to the hate mail writers and invite them to meet for coffee. Hundreds of "dialogue coffee" meetings later, Cekic shares how face-to-face conversation can be one of the most powerful forces to disarm hate -- and challenges us all to engage with people we disagree with.
My inbox is full of hate mails and personal abuse and has been for years. In 2010, I started answering those mails and suggesting to the writer that we might meet for coffee and a chat. I have had hundreds of encounters. They have taught me something important that I want to share with you.
I was born in Turkey from Kurdish parents and we moved to Denmark when I was a young child. In 2007, I ran for a seat in the Danish parliament as one of the first women with a minority background. I was elected, but I soon found out that not everyone was happy about it as I had to quickly get used to finding hate messages in my inbox. Those emails would begin with something like this: "What's a raghead like you doing in our parliament?" I never answered. I'd just delete the emails. I just thought that the senders and I had nothing in common. They didn't understand me, and I didn't understand them. Then one day, one of my colleagues in the parliament said that I should save the hate mails. "When something happens to you, it will give the police a lead."
I noticed that she said, "When something happens" and not "if."
Sometimes hateful letters were also sent to my home address. The more I became involved in public debate, the more hate mail and threats I received. After a while, I got a secret address and I had to take extra precautions to protect my family. Then in 2010, a Nazi began to harass me. It was a man who had attacked Muslim women on the street. Over time, it became much worse. I was at the zoo with my children, and the phone was ringing constantly. It was the Nazi. I had the impression that he was close. We headed home. When we got back, my son asked, "Why does he hate you so much, Mom, when he doesn't even know you?" "Some people are just stupid," I said. And at the time, I actually thought that was a pretty clever answer. And I suspect that that is the answer most of us would give. The others -- they are stupid, brainwashed, ignorant. We are the good guys and they are the bad guys, period.
Several weeks later I was at a friend's house, and I was very upset and angry about all the hate and racism I had met. It was he who suggested that I should call them up and visit them. "They will kill me," I said. "They would never attack a member of the Danish Parliament," he said. "And anyway, if they killed you, you would become a martyr."
"So it's pure win-win situation for you."
His advice was so unexpected, when I got home, I turned on my computer and opened the folder where I had saved all the hate mail. There were literally hundreds of them. Emails that started with words like "terrorist," "raghead," "rat," "whore." I decided to contact the one who had sent me the most. His name was Ingolf. I decided to contact him just once so I could say at least I had tried. To my surprise and shock, he answered the phone. I blurted out, "Hello, my name is Özlem. You have sent me so many hate mails. You don't know me, I don't know you. I was wondering if I could come around and we can drink a coffee together and talk about it?"
There was silence on the line. And then he said, "I have to ask my wife."
What? The racist has a wife?
A couple of days later, we met at his house. I will never forget when he opened his front door and reached out to shake my hand. I felt so disappointed.
because he looked nothing like I'd imagined. I had expected a horrible person -- dirty, messy house. It was not. His house smelled of coffee which was served from a coffee set identical to the one my parents used. I ended up staying for two and a half hours. And we had so many things in common. Even our prejudices were alike.
Ingolf told me that when he waits for the bus and the bus stops 10 meters away from him, it was because the driver was a "raghead." I recognized that feeling. When I was young and I waited for the bus and it stopped 10 meters away from me, I was sure that the driver was a racist.
When I got home, I was very ambivalent about my experience. On the one hand, I really liked Ingolf. He was easy and pleasant to talk to, but on the other hand, I couldn't stand the idea of having so much in common with someone who had such clearly racist views. Gradually, and painfully, I came to realize that I had been just as judgmental of those who had sent me hate mails as they had been of me.
This was the beginning of what I call #dialoguecoffee. Basically, I sit down for coffee with people who have said the most terrible things to me to try to understand why they hate people like me when they don't even know me. I have been doing this the last eight years. The vast majority of people I approach agree to meet me. Most of them are men, but I have also met women. I have made it a rule to always meet them in their house to convey from the outset that I trust them. I always bring food because when we eat together, it is easier to find what we have in common and make peace together.
Along the way, I have learned some valuable lessons. The people who sent hate mails are workers, husbands, wives, parents like you and me. I'm not saying that their behavior is acceptable, but I have learned to distance myself from the hateful views without distancing myself from the person who's expressing those views. And I have discovered that the people I visit are just as afraid of people they don't know as I was afraid of them before I started inviting myself for coffee.
During these meetings, a specific theme keeps coming up. It shows up regardless whether I'm talking to a humanist or a racist, a man, a woman, a Muslim or an atheist. They all seem to think that other people are to blame for the hate and for the generalization of groups. They all believe that other people have to stop demonizing. They point at politicians, the media, their neighbor or the bus driver who stops 10 meters away. But when I asked, "What about you? What can you do?", the reply is usually, "What can I do? I have no influence. I have no power." I know that feeling. For a large part of my life, I also thought that I didn't have any power or influence -- even when I was a member of the Danish parliament. But today I know the reality is different. We all have power and influence where we are, so we must never, never underestimate our own potential.
The #dialoguecoffee meetings have taught me that people of all political convictions can be caught demonizing the others with different views. I know what I'm talking about. As a young child, I hated different population groups. And at the time, my religious views were very extreme. But my friendship with Turks, with Danes, with Jews and with racists has vaccinated me against my own prejudices. I grew up in a working-class family, and on my journey I have met many people who have insisted on speaking to me. They have changed my views. They have formed me as a democratic citizen and a bridge builder. If you want to prevent hate and violence, we have to talk to as many people as possible for as long as possible while being as open as possible. That can only be achieved through debate, critical conversation and insisting on dialogue that doesn't demonize people.
I'm going to ask you a question. I invite you to think about it when you get home and in the coming days, but you have to be honest with yourself. It should be easy, no one else will know it. The question is this ... who do you demonize? Do you think supporters of American President Trump are deplorables? Or that those who voted for Turkish President Erdoğan are crazy Islamists? Or that those who voted for Le Pen in France are stupid fascists? Or perhaps you think that Americans who voted for Bernie Sanders are immature hippies.
All those words have been used to vilify those groups. Maybe at this point, do you think I am an idealist?
I want to give you a challenge. Before the end of this year, I challenge you to invite someone who you demonize -- someone who you disagree with politically and/or culturally and don't think you have anything in common with. I challenge you to invite someone like this to #dialoguecoffee. Remember Ingolf? Basically, I'm asking you to find an Ingolf in your life, contact him or her and suggest that you can meet for #dialoguecofee.
When you start at #dialoguecoffee, you have to remember this: first, don't give up if the person refuses at first. Sometimes it's taken me nearly one year to arrange a #dialoguecoffee meeting. Two: acknowledge the other person's courage. It isn't just you who's brave. The one who's inviting you into their home is just as brave. Three: don't judge during the conversation. Make sure that most of the conversation focuses on what you have in common. As I said, bring food. And finally, remember to finish the conversation in a positive way because you are going to meet again. A bridge can't be built in one day.
We are living in a world where many people hold definitive and often extreme opinions about the others without knowing much about them. We notice of course the prejudices on the other side than in our own bases. And we ban them from our lives. We delete the hate mails. We hang out only with people who think like us and talk about the others in a category of disdain. We unfriend people on Facebook, and when we meet people who are discriminating or dehumanizing people or groups, we don't insist on speaking with them to challenge their opinions. That's how healthy democratic societies break down -- when we don't check the personal responsibility for the democracy. We take the democracy for granted. It is not. Conversation is the most difficult thing in a democracy and also the most important.
So here's my challenge. Find your Ingolf.
Start a conversation. Trenches have been dug between people, yes, but we all have the ability to build the bridges that cross the trenches.
And let me end by quoting my friend, Sergeot Uzan, who lost his son, Dan Uzan, in a terror attack on a Jewish synagogue in Copenhagen, 2015. Sergio rejected any suggestion of revenge and instead said this ... "Evil can only be defeated by kindness between people. Kindness demands courage." Dear friends, let's be courageous.