Must Fight Hate Speech

Must Fight Hate Speech

June 21, 2014


A silly film lampooning the Prophet Mohammed, The İnnocence of The Muslims, stirred emotions in Turkey, as in the rest of the Muslim world, in September 2012. The government of Prime Minister Erdoğan took this opportunity to propose a “Hate Speech Law” that would effectively criminalize disrespect of Islam. I felt the urge to comment.

The immediate trigger was this article by Daniel Pipes published in Fox Newsa few days earlier. I disagree with Professor Pipes in most issues, but on this matter I felt he was right on target :

When someone abuses a vulnerable person or group, or questions their basic civic rights, or invites violence against them in a way that puts them in peril of aggression or serious fear of aggression, then we can talk about criminal hate speech.

What is criminal in hate speech is not the hate. People have the right to hate whatever and whoever they like. It may be ugly or unpleasant, or even a sin, but it is not a crime. What does make it a crime is when the speech actually leads to loss of life, limb or liberty on the part of the people it targets.

When I go on a street in Paris and shout “kill all French”, that is not criminal hate speech, because it is very unlikely to cause actual damage. But if I declare “all African street hawkers are thieves, they must be deported”, that may constitute criminal speech if it has the potential to incite hostility and violence, or it puts the targeted people in a position where they are unable to assert their most basic rights.

It is a classic case of criminal hate speech, in country X where Jews are a tiny minority, when every mosque preacher who grabs a microphone spews forthon how the Jews are a despicable race, how they are behind every evil, why and how much their Bible is a forgery. It is an indisputable case of criminal hate speech when the prime minister of the same country calls the supporters of an opposition party “terrorists”, and urges them to join criminal gangs, at a time of hyped-up public hysteria about terrorism.

On the other hand, there is no criminal hate speech when someone ridicules an Arab leader of many centuries ago who claimed contact with God and made political, financial and sexual profit as a result. It is an elementary-school-level case of freedom of speech.

People who have the least notion of the liberties of conscience and expression must take a strongand clear stand on this point without hiding behind flimsy excuses – that it was a poor film, that the script was bad, that the producer was a shady type.

Otherwise, I suspect, others are getting ready to deal a mortal blow to whatever remains of the freedom of speech and the internet in this country by using this film as a pretext.

The courts disagreed. On May 22, 2013, a court in Istanbul sentenced me to 15½ months in jail for “criminally insulting the religious beliefs of a section of the people” under article of the Penal Code.
The case now languishes at the Court of Appeals. I doubt that it will be upheld -Turkish justice is often a parody, but it is not that far gone yet. Instead, the government of Mr.Erdoğan found reason to jail me on some other silly infraction. By an amazing coincidence, it looks like I will be serving exactly 15½ months in a maximum-security jail- for improperly building a 65-meter-square stone hut in my own olive garden in the village of Şirince.