Özlem Cekic, author of Overcoming Hate Through Dialogue, was recently profiled for the Dare to Be Grey website where she opened up engaging with her haters.
MEET THE WOMAN WHO DECIDED TO SIT DOWN WITH HER HATERS FOR A COFFEE
Özlem, who was born in Turkey and immigrated to Denmark at a young age, comes from a Kurdish background. Due to her upbringing, she understands first hand where prejudices can arise from, be it between Turks and Kurds, or Muslims and Jews. She describes her experiences from when she was a young girl, making generalisations of ‘others’; thinking that she couldn’t be friends with Turkish people, or that she couldn’t talk to the Jewish girl at school because she was Muslim.
She found that once she got to know them however, not only were they nice people, but they also had similar traditions to her. Özlem says “my friendship with this [Jewish] girl vaccinated me against my own prejudices”.
“The real question is, did he change my views?”
It is this lesson from her youth that provided crucial insights later in her life. As Özlem was one of the first women with a minority background to be elected into Danish parliament, she suddenly faced a huge backlash. She started receiving numerous amounts of hate mail, asking what a ‘terrorist like her’ was doing in their parliament, and telling her how ugly and disgusting she was.
After being harassed by one particular person for months on end, a colleague suggested to her that she should do something about the hate mail, and visit these individuals. Although apprehensive at first, and worried that they might kill her, Özlem thought it was “important to visit these people to make them ‘good’ again”. Her initial view was that she was the ‘good’ person, and they were the ‘bad’, but when asked if she managed to change their racist views towards her and Muslims, she said: “everyone asks the same. But the real question is, did he change my views?”.
“We create those in-groups and out-groups ourselves.”
This initial coffee conversation showed her that “polarisation is not coming from the outside, it’s coming from us”, and that in order to have a good dialogue with an individual, you must be willing to listen to each other and allow your point of view to be challenged. Özlem soon felt that this meeting affected her so much that she didn’t just want to leave it there. She decided to continue the effort by establishing an initiative known as ‘Dialogue Coffees’.
Özlem was pleasantly surprised that she learnt so much: “it doesn’t matter if it’s a man, a woman, a person in the U.S, in Denmark, Muslims, Christians, they all have one thing in common. They all think that the other is the problem, and that it’s the ‘others’ that have to do something to fix it”. However, according to Ozlem, you cannot wait for the other person to make the first move, rather begin the conversation yourself and trust that the other person will too: “if you really want to do something with polarisation, [you] have to let people meet each other, because something miraculous happens in these meetings”.
“The most important thing is understanding the differences.”
But polarisation will always be our own problem. After all, we create those in-groups and out-groups ourselves. We choose to remain separate from those who are different to us. Özlem explains that, in a democratic society; “it’s not a problem that we all have different views, but the most important thing is understanding the differences, learning how to live with them, and how to tolerate them. And the more we can tolerate the differences, the more we can be free”.
Once we accept that we are all part of the problem, we can begin to do something about it, because we can begin to change ourselves. By talking and listening to others, we can learn to understand them and we can build bridges with them.
Özlem ends our call by saying “if I really want to change the world, I have to start by changing myself. If I am really against war, then I have to actively work for peace. And you can’t make peace with your friends, you have to make peace with your enemies… And you can’t make peace without conversation”.
We live in a world made up of different groups. We have in-groups and out-groups, ‘us’ and ‘them’. We are constantly generalising, and talking about ‘the others’ as if they were our enemies. But we forget how alike these ‘others’ can be to us; we tend to ignore the things we might have in common, the similar experiences we could have been through, and the prejudices of each other that we may actually share.
We sat down for a Skype call with Özlem Cekic, a former member of the Danish Parliament, to talk about the unique way she tries to reduce polarisation — not through politics or large sized events, but by having one-on-one conversations over a cup of coffee.
You can watch the interview here, or read the story below.
Confronting Prejudice, Racism, and Bigotry with Conversation—and Coffee
Learn how to change the world—and change your life. We’ve all heard the expression “be the change you want to see in the world.” But how do you actually do that?
When Özlem Cekic became the first Muslim MP in the Danish Parliament, her email inbox was inundated with hate mail and threats, and her gut reaction was to delete and ignore each abusive message. But eventually, she decided to take a risk. She started replying to each message and inviting the senders to meet and engage in dialogue over coffee. And with time, understanding, and patience, she began to make a difference, both in the lives of those who hated her before even meeting her, and in her own life.