Most people who receive vitriolic, racist messages and death threats on social media would rather do anything than come face to face with the person perpetrating the abuse, but Ozlem Sara Cekic takes a very different approach to the relentless harassment she has been subjected to.
Cekic, the first female MP in Denmark with a Muslim immigrant background, has met dozens of people on the Danish far right who have inundated her with furiously racist and violent abuse.
Since leaving parliament, the former MP for the Socialist People’s Party (SF) has made it her life’s work to open dialogue between the far right and mainstream Danish society and has set up the Bridge Builders organisation.
But unsurprisingly not all of the politician’s meetings have gone smoothly. On one occasion, Cekic, who is Kurdish but moved from Turkey to Denmark as a young child, took a three-and-a-half-hour train journey from Copenhagen to meet a neo-Nazi with whom she ended up having a deeply troubling encounter.
“I met him because he said he had a very good solution for all of these problems,” she tells The Independent. “I did not trust him. He said: ‘I don’t think we should deport people out the country: the black race is much more violent than the white race, and the best solution is to stop you having children.’
I said: ‘But I want children.’ He said: ‘I’ve found a solution, we can inseminate you with the white genes, so you can get the white children’.”
The campaigner has had a number of instances where she has been overwhelmed with emotion, and admits it can be difficult to engage with people with such angry and hateful views.
“I am a human – of course I get upset. I wish I did not cry,” she says. “It is very hard to talk with these people but someone has to do it. I no longer think that the right strategy is to ignore them.”
Cekic, whose address is kept secret, is in regular contact with the police to remain protected from people on the far right. She said she went to them half a year ago to inform them she had 31 new cases.
“I have a restraining order,” she says. “Twice a year I have contact with the police, where they try and find the people. I had a case against some people in the court.”
Cekic says that at one point things got so bad she was being stalked by a apparent Danish Nazi party member who she claims was thrown out for being too extreme.
“It was a horrible time,” she says. “The telephone would ring and ring and I would get paranoid and think ‘he’s in the house’. I was at the zoo with my children and the phone rang 20, 30, 40 times and I thought he was there,” she said. “He called me for eight months. He always called with a secret number and would say ‘you have to get out of my country’. My sons said, ‘But mum why does he hate you so much? He doesn’t know you.’ The police found him after that. He only threatened me on the phone.”
In spite of this experience, Cekic insists the overwhelming majority of meetings go smoothly and the people who send her hate mail are not who you might think they are. “I always imagine in my head who I am visiting and what their lifestyle is. Almost every time I am wrong,” she says.
“The people who send the hate mail are normal people. They have a job. A lot of them have a wife or husband. They have children.”
The campaigner, who receives hateful messages from trolls every week and has been subject to chants such as “go home!” on the street, decided to start engaging with the individuals on the other side of the computer screen after leaving parliament.
She first became an MP in the 2007 elections but lost her seat in 2015, as SF lost nine of its 16 seats in parliament. The mother-of-three left SF in March this year over the party’s decision to support preventing unaccompanied refugee minors from entering Denmark – a position on which the party later U-turned.
It was during her time in parliament that Cekic started receiving hate mail. According to the former politician, people would brand her a terrorist and ask what she was doing in parliament.
While she initially responded by simply deleting the messages, she changed her approach after speaking to Jacob Holdt, an internationally acclaimed Danish photographer who has spent time with the far right.
“Holdt said: ‘Visit them and try to understand them.’ And I said: ‘They will kill me.’ And he said: ‘Rule one, they will never kill you. Rule two, if they kill you, you will be a martyr. It’s a win-win situation for you.’ And that was the reason I started my dialogue coffee,” she says.
“I used to delete all my hate mail, but one of my colleagues said: ‘Don’t do that. If something happens to you, it’s good for the police to have something.’ So I made a hate-mail map in my Outlook and then I thought, ‘maybe Jacob’s right, maybe I should visit them.’
“It’s always in their house so they can see that I trust them. I always bring something we can eat. My philosophy is if you can have something to eat you can have peace.”
Cekic has invited hundreds of people who have sent her abusive messages to engage in an open civil dialogue over a slice of cake and a cup of coffee or tea. Nevertheless, she doesn’t meet only those on the far right.
“I not only visit neo-Nazis and people with a racist mindset. I also visit extreme Muslims, people who hate democracy, people who hate homosexuals, people who hate Jewish people,” she says. “I try to find a common language, to try to understand why we hate each other when we don’t know each other.”
But while Cecik has become a seasoned pro at coming face to face with people with extreme views, she still feels nervous before her visits.
“I was so scared before my first meeting,” she says. “I thought he would cut my throat. But Jacob said to me: ‘If you are afraid, then they will be afraid. You have to go in with an open mind.’ I had my telephone in my hand with a message saying ‘help me’ and the address ready to send to my husband.
“He had written so much hate mail to me. Each one would start with ‘you are a terrorist’ and end with ‘you are a terrorist’. So I called him, I googled his number, and I said ‘Hi, it’s Ozlem, you don’t know me, I don’t know you, but you have sent so much hate mail to me, maybe we can have breakfast together. Can I come and visit you?’
“He said, ‘I have to ask my wife’ and I thought, ‘What? this racist has a wife!’ So I visited him. My husband and I agreed that if he hadn’t heard from me after one hour he would call the police.”
Cekic was there for two-and-a-half hours and was surprised by how well it went. He made her coffee and breakfast and they ended up remaining friends for two years, although have since lost contact.
She says: “When I came home, it was so difficult for me to understand how I could like a man who had such horrible racist views. I wondered why I had so many prejudices about him. That was just the beginning.”
This raises the question of how Cekic manages to have amicable, civilised exchanges with people who hold such vitriolic views and have previously been so vile towards her. According to her, the aim of the meetings is to try and understand the person behind the troll.
“During the dialogue coffee, I want to learn about the other person as a human and I want them to know me as a human, because yes, I am Muslim, but I am so many other things too. I am a nurse, I am a daughter. My mum has cancer. I have three children. My husband works in the bank.”
Cekic says the purpose of the meetings was to try to tackle and overcome feelings of fear felt by either party and find a way to relate to each other on a human level.
“It is not about me being the good guy and them being the bad guy, it is about meeting each other,” she says. “I need them to listen and to understand where this hate comes from. I am afraid of people like them and they are afraid of people like me. We have to meet each other to know that we shouldn’t be afraid of each other.
“My advice for all the people I meet is, ‘please talk to each other, don’t just talk about each other’.”
Cekic admits bridge-building is by no means a fast or simple process and instead takes a great deal of time, effort and patience. Nevertheless, she has had great triumphs during her work and even took one far-right sympathiser to visit a mosque in Copenhagen.
“I went into the mosque and I could hear him laughing,” she says. “He said: ‘What a beautiful place’. After that, we met and he said: ‘I have to do something, I have to know that some of these people are very good. I can’t generalise’.”
Cekic, who has lived in Denmark for 31 years, says 90 per cent of the visits are positive experiences and the vast majority of people she approaches agree to meeting her. “They want to be heard,” she says.
She says there are many reasons why someone might hold xenophobic and racist views, but that the erroneous “fake news” they consume is a massive factor. The campaigner draws the line at people who use actively violent language towards her and is careful not to meet them, saying: “I only meet with people who don’t use violence in their letters. They use horrible language but not violence.”
Not all of the hate mail is venomous in its wording. “Once I got a message that said: ‘Dear Ozlem, Dear beautiful Ozlem with the beautiful eyes, you are so kind and you have so much energy,” she says. “But please can you go back to your own country and work for what’s happening in Turkey and not be in my country.”
Cekic says a lot of people who sent her hate mail hide behind their screen and forget there is a human on the other side of the computer.
“For them, it’s easier to send the hate mail because it is to a person they can’t see in front of them,” she says.