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Does Erdogan’s Hate Speech Fuel Hate Crimes in Turkey?

Political hate speech has been translated into serious hate crimes in Turkey in recent years. Inspired and motivated by the ongoing political hate discourse, a research assistant in Osmangazi University in the central province of Eskisehir killed four people in the Faculty of Education, including the assistant dean, a faculty secretary, a research assistant and an associate professor two weeks ago. This case has raised many questions about the devastating impact of the political hate speech and whether it fuels hate crimes among ordinary people in Turkey.

The political rhetoric by politicians and senior government members in Turkey since the outbreak of a corruption scandal that implicated some cabinet ministers and their family members in late 2013 has increasingly targeted opponents and critical figures. The harsh rhetoric took the form of outright demonization and vilification of certain segments of the society in the aftermath of the failed coup in July 2016.

According to a report of last year regarding the hate speech of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he used 240 different concepts to describe Gulen Movement, a faith-based civil society group with an organization at the global level, in mostly derogatory terms. The movement is accused by the Turkish authorities of orchestrating the botched 2016 coup and the previous 2013 graft probe, which tainted then-Prime Minister Erdogan’s close associates and family members. Both U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and his sympathizers unflinchingly reject any link to the attempted coup or the corruption investigation, which sparked an earlier phase of the purge by the Erdogan government within the police and the judiciary.

In the recent university shooting, the murder suspect accused the victims of being members of “FETO”, a derogatory term used by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government while referring to Gulen Movement. Volkan Bayar, the research assistant, previously lodged complaints about 102 academics with “FETO” membership accusations without offering any evidence, ruining lives of fellow academics.

According to Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a human rights lawyer who was dismissed by government decree during the state of emergency, authorities reviewed those accusations without a background check. Some of the accused academic staff even served time in prison after Bayar’s accusations. In his first statement in police custody, the suspect said he felt no repentance for his act.

The tragic incident has rattled the entire academia and brought the toxic culture of social witch-hunt into sharper focus. When the shocking murder took place in a peaceful city, Eskisehir, people were compelled to remember President Erdogan’s call to citizens in the aftermath of the coup. In his address to the nation, President Erdogan depicted informing on Gulen supporters as “patriotic duty,” encouraging citizens to become voluntary informants to spy on their workplace friends, neighbors, relatives and even family members.

Confirming how the witch-hunt wrought havoc in academia, Assistant Professor Yalcin Bay, who was working in the same faculty with suspect Bayar, was one of his victims. He told media that he was also dismissed by a decree upon the suspect’s allegations but later spared by the university administration. He also noted that 24 out of 45 faculty members faced investigations after the suspect’s reports.

The Dean of the Faculty Associate Professor Ayse Aypay exclaimed right after the incident that she was one of the potential targets but survived the shooting as she had not been in the office that day due to a court appearance. She echoed Bay’s remarks, expounded on how the university administration and Higher Education Board (YOK), a semi-autonomous government institution regulating universities and higher education affairs, repeatedly turned a blind eye on their festering complaints about the murder suspect’s endless false allegations about his colleagues and academic staff.         

The blaming culture, witch-hunt and some academics’ voluntary collaboration with authorities to curry the favor of the government has left a stain and indelible mark on academia. The ruinous effects of baseless allegations within academia are clearly not limited to the recent case. A report by BBC Turkce has shown that 23,427 academics have been affected by the dismissals and university shutdowns in the country since the coup attempt, and this shooting revealed how these decisions were made by the government.       

Politicians sometimes use their public power to disseminate their hateful thoughts to their proponents and this might mobilize ordinary people to commit hate crimes against the targeted group within the interest of the dominant group. When verbal attacks, including name-calling, group labeling and targeting the dignity or reputation of a given group, have become the elements of daily discourse of political leaders, their impact and harm may well exceed beyond the targeted group or individuals.

The daily conduct of hate speech, when it combines with the power of politicians with greater social reach and influence, may create devastating effects on the victims. The politically-driven hate speech against a certain group of people in public domain is, therefore, an entirely different case from an incident involving the display of hate at an interpersonal level.       

A recent study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino revealed that hate crimes reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)  reached the highest level during election times. A possible reason for this might be increasingly discriminating and targeting rhetoric used by candidates during election campaign period. The trend in Turkish politics, however, is much more different especially when the 16 years of AKP ruling is considered. Erdogan has won 12 elections (municipal, general, and referendum) since 2002, and he has reached the highest amount of support in recent elections.

The increasingly hate rhetoric used by the AKP government since the corruption probe in 2013 might have served to create an “us vs. them” ideology to keep their supporters together, cover the corruption allegations and legitimize the human rights abuses. In fact, the hatred towards opponents created by the political hate speech has been promoted by a recent emergency decree law.  The Article 121 of Decree Law No. 696 granted immunity from prosecution to both government officials and civilians for their actions to suppress the coup attempt and acts of terror. It is possible that the murderer in the university shooting was encouraged by and acted upon this decree law.

 The impact of Erdogan’s hate speech does not seem to stay within the borders of the country. Some recent violent events in Europe and the U.S., which involved some pro-AKP Turkish diaspora members, have raised the fear among opponents of Erdogan who live abroad. The call for hatred in the form of “reporting the terrorists to the authorities” and the recent decree law might facilitate legitimization of hate crimes among ordinary citizens as seen in the university shooting.

As the country becomes more divided with the “us vs. them” rhetoric and hate speech increasingly used by Erdogan and the AKP officials, it would not be surprising to see similar events and more serious consequences lurking around the corner.

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