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Özlem Cekic: How Can Kindness Disarm Hate?

Jan 18, 2019
Originally published on January 18, 2019 7:21 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Approaching With Kindness.

About Özlem Cekic's TED Talk

After being elected to the Danish parliament, Özlem Cekic—a Muslim immigrant to Denmark—began receiving hate mail. To counter it, she did the unexpected: she met her harrassers face to face.

About Özlem Cekic

Born in Turkey to Kurdish parents, Özlem Cekic and her family settled in Denmark in the 1980s.

In 2007, she became the first woman with a Muslim immigrant background to be elected to the Danish Parliament. She served until 2015.

Today she is a speaker, author, and social activist. Cekic's project, #dialoguecoffee, seeks to spark conversations between people who hold opposing beliefs in order to examine and understand prejudice.

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On the show today, ideas about kindness. And so far, we've heard stories of gratitude and appreciation for loved ones, or colleagues or people who have helped you, even in small ways. But it's a lot harder to respect, or acknowledge or be kind to people who actively hate you.

OZLEM CEKIC: I can remember when I was young, and I wear scarf. I can remember one day when I walk on the street, and young man, he spit on me. And I can remember a old man try to take my scarf off on the street. So I have lot of times meet the racism. I still do.


RAZ: This is Ozlem Cekic. She was born in Turkey, but her parents emigrated when she was a kid. And her family settled in Denmark in the 1980s.

CEKIC: And my parents don't want me to wear a scarf. And you know, when you are teenager, you want to do the opposite what your parents want you to do. So I wear a scarf, and it was the best time in my life because they were so angry (laughter). And...

RAZ: These days, Ozlem no longer wears a headscarf. But as an adult, she's had to deal with an entirely new level of harassment because in 2007, Ozlem actually became the first woman with a Muslim immigrant background to be elected to the Danish Parliament.

CEKIC: Everyone could see that I look different. My name was not Danish. I can remember the first time I get hate mails in the parliament was on my first speech. I came back to my seat and opened my computer, and I could see I have two email. The first one started with, what a terrorist like you doing in our parliament?

RAZ: Here's more from Ozlem Cekic on the TED stage.


CEKIC: Sometimes hateful letters were also sent to my home address. 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. 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.

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 suggests 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.


CEKIC: So it's pure win-win situation for you.


CEKIC: His advice was so unexpected. When I got home, I turned on my computer and opened the folder where I have saved all the hate mails. 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.

To my surprise and shock, he answered the phone. I blurted out, hello, my name is Ozlem. 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.


CEKIC: I was so nervous. I was so nervous about what he will say. And the first thing he said was, I have to ask my wife. And I think, wow, so he's like - he lives like my father. He always want to ask my mom before he decides something, (laughter) you know? So it was the first time that Ingolf get normal for me.

RAZ: So when you went to visit him - to visit Ingolf, what happened?

CEKIC: I went to Ingolf's house, and when he tried to shake my hand, I can remember I was - I felt so disappointed because I imagined that he had dirty nicks - negles - what do you call it?

RAZ: Nails - fingernails.

CEKIC: Nail - that he will have a dirty nails and his house will be very dirty. And it was not. I didn't expect that. I couldn't imagine that he will talk with me. He talked with me. He talked me about his childhood. I told about my childhood. And we laugh together, and we discussed thing.

And it was the first time I could see, OK, why did I have all this pictures in my own head about Ingolf and his house and his wife? And so that was the first lessons to me to understand - that I have to work with myself, too.

RAZ: I'm curious because after you met with Ingolf, I guess you decided that you wanted - something you wanted to do - that you wanted to have coffee with people who said horrible things to you. But I have to imagine that some of those conversations have not been pleasant - right? - like, haven't gone as well as that first coffee with Ingolf.

CEKIC: You know, the conversation is not easy. I pay for my own train ticket, and I take one day out from my work to do this. And sometimes - I visit a man, and he was so kind, you know? He asked me and said, you know, I want to know. Did you eat something? I want to make a sandwich if you're hungry. And we talk about lot of thing we have in common - our children.

And my big son is finished with high school, and his daughter was starting in high school. And we talk about tax system and health system. But you know, he said to me that, you will never be Danish because you believe in ideology Islam, and Islam and Muslims people are like bacterias.

RAZ: He said they're like bacteria?

CEKIC: Yeah. So I don't think that a lot of people can tolerate so much hate. It is difficult.


CEKIC: The vast majority of people I approach agree to meet me. Most of them are men, but I've 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's acceptable. But I have learned to distance myself from the hateful views without distancing myself from the person who's expressing those views. During these meetings, specific themes keeps coming up. 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 then I ask, what about you? What can you do? The reply is usually, I have no influence, I have no power.

I know that feeling. For a large part of my life, I also thought that I don't have any power and influence. But today, I know the reality is different. We all have power and influence where we are. So we must never underestimate our own potential. 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. Sergeot rejected any suggestion of revenge and instead said this. Evil can only be defeated by kindness between people. Kindness demands courage.


RAZ: Ozlem, I keep going back to this idea in my mind that a big part of me, like, I wouldn't want to be kind to them. Like, I would be angry. I would want an apology from them. And I am just wondering why you do it. I mean, do you think it actually changes people's minds?

CEKIC: I think it's changed the people's minds. A lot of those people, when I show them respect, they always respect back. You know? When I'm kindly, they are always kindly back. And I do it because I really, really love democracy. I think it's a very big problem that we talk so bad about the others. I love peace. You know, peace, we take peace for granted. But if you want peace, you have to do something for peace.

Peace is not something natural. It's because of that everyone try to tolerate each other. They try to give place to different mindset. You can't live in a democracy and take it granted, just sitting and think, OK, I don't have to do anything. You have to take responsibility with a conversation. And conversation is difficult, but it is the most necessary thing in a democracy.


RAZ: That's Ozlem Cekic. As of 2015, she's no longer a member of the Danish Parliament. But her project of meeting and talking with people, she calls it #DialogueCoffee, that continues. You can see Ozlem's entire talk at


MISTA COOKIE JAR AND THE CHOCOLATE CHIPS: (Singing) It's 'bout gratitude. Gratitude. Gratitude. Gratitude. Thank you, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. Gratitude.

RAZ: Hey. Thanks for listening to our show, Approaching With Kindness, this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out or the TED app. And don't forget to subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, please do give us a review.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye and J.C. Howard, with help from Daniel Shukin and Daryth Gayles. Our intern is Katie Monteleone. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading, right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


MISTA COOKIE JAR AND THE CHOCOLATE CHIPS: (Singing) And say, thank you, thank you, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.