Watching the storming of the US Capitol, a phrase kept turning over in my mind.
“Evil can only be defeated by kindness between people. Kindness demands courage.”
The words were said to me by Ozlem Cekic, a former MP in the Danish Parliament, who after years of daily abuse and death threats simply for being a Muslim in public life, began meeting her aggressors for coffee.
Kindness may seem a strange thing to talk about at this dangerous moment. But how we respond matters more now, perhaps, than ever.
Anarchy in the USA wasn’t an end point in a culture war, but a flash point in tensions building across the world. The Trump riot was in itself repolarising.
We are hurt. We are angry. We want to say we told you so.
Born in Ankara, Turkey, Ozlem Cekic came to Denmark as a child of Kurdish immigrants, overcoming tough odds to become an MP in the Socialist People’s Party.
Denmark’s first Muslim MP, she began keeping her racist hatemail to help the police when someone finally hurt 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 looked him up in the phone directory, and to her shock he answered the phone.
“I blurted out, ‘Hello, my name is Ozlem’,” she says. “‘You’ve sent me so many hate mails. You don’t know me. I don’t know you. I was wondering if I could come round, and we can drink a coffee and talk about it’.”
Ingolf’s reply shocked her. “I have to ask my wife.”
Ozlem’s decision to go to visit Ingolf for the Danish institution of ‘coffee and cake’ – while her husband sat at home waiting to ring the police if she did not return – changed her life.
“All my assumptions were challenged,” she says. “I was disappointed because I thought he would have a dirty, messy house. He had the same coffee set as my parents.
“We had so many more things in common. Even our prejudices were alike. When the bus stopped 10 metres 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 trolls and haters and talking to them.
Often these visits were terrifying. One man, who had already confessed he thought rape was the fault of the victim, asked ‘if we were naked, would something happen?’ just as she looked up at a display of 17 kitchen knives.
“I said to him, ‘I’m frightened, should I be?’ My question genuinely shocked him. ‘I would never dream of harming you’, he said. ‘I was the one frightened of you. I thought you would be bringing your Muslim cousins to smash up my house’.
“We were the same age, we spoke the same language, we were from the same community, but we were afraid of each other.”
These visits became the basis for a Ted Talk, and then a book published this month, Overcoming Hate Through Dialogue. “
We think we are the ‘good’ people,” she smiles. “We think the ‘monsters’ have to change. We think they have to come to me, but we must meet them on the bridge.”
She adds: “No one ever became less racist by being called a racist.”
Ozlem began to admit she had also hated people. As a teenager she flirted with ideas of extremism after being on the receiving end of a hateful act.
“I was walking wearing a headscarf when a Danish man spat in my face. I couldn’t bring myself to remove the slime. I started vomiting violently.
“I hated him and all the other Danes. I decided all Danish people are racist.”
This was one of hundreds of acts of racism.
She also held prejudices against 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 when I support the Palestinian people.”
One day, the girl invited her for lunch. “I found out I could eat everything at her house. There was no pork.”
Ozlem now considers herself 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 at a supermarket after school. “My boss was so nice. It was difficult to say she was racist.
“I thought then that she must be the one Dane left in Denmark who isn’t racist. Then I kissed a guy who wasn’t racist.”
Again, she found herself vaccinated against a prejudice by kindness.
Ozlem admits that some of the hardest bridges to build are at home. “Dialogue Coffee is easier with people you don’t know,” she laughs.
Her father voted for right-wing nationalist President Erdogan in Turkey. “I am on a blacklist in Turkey because I criticised Erdogan.”
She watched the recent elections with her dad, neither of them speaking.
“Eventually my father said, ‘we won’. I said: ‘We didn’t. We couldn’t talk about what we saw on the TV. So, in fact, we lose together’.”
As scenes in America remind us of – and reinforce – our divided world, this can feel like daunting work.
But dialogue doesn’t mean accepting or legitimising fascism. Instead, as its direct opposite, it may be the only way of challenging it.
On Thursday, Ozlem’s message to the United States was this: “Dear American friends – it is possible to move people away from the edge of a precipice. And every time we save one human, we also save a part of the world.”