June 15, 2014

Hate Speech and Beyond: Targeting the Gülen Movement in Turkey

On December 17, 2013, a graft probe alleging corruption among some members of the cabinet became public. Immediately thereafter, the Gülen movement (a.k.a. Hizmet), one of the largest faith-based communities in Turkey, became the target of offensive statements by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The paper argues that from the standpoint of human rights law, there is little doubt that some of the prime minister’s statements are fundamentally incompatible with the principles underlying the concept of human rights. Some of these expressions, indeed, amount to prima facie hate speech as understood by the European Court of Human Rights, the jurisdiction of which is already accepted by Turkey.

According to the European Court of Human Rights, any language which spreads, incites, promotes or justifies hatred based on intolerance, including racial and religious intolerance, is considered to constitute hate speech and is unworthy of protection under the guarantees of freedom of speech. As a matter fact, if the element of hatred is detectable at first sight, the European Court of Human Rights defines such language as abuse of freedom of expression. In this regard, some of the language used by Prime Minister Erdoğan to describe the Gülen movement – i.e. “perverts”, “hashashins”, “traitors”, “spies”, “worse than Shiites”, “leeches” and “a terrorist organization” – do indeed constitute prima facie hate speech.

A government leader’s perpetration of hate speech is unprecedented for Strasbourg jurisprudence. In case law in the European Court of Human Rights, there is not a single case in which a High Contracting Party to the European Convention on Human Rights has been convicted for failing to sanction individuals using hate speech, let alone for perpetrating hate speech itself. However, the expressions of the Turkish prime minister exhibit so much seriousness and vehemence that they tend to extend beyond the already existing contours of hate speech as drawn by the European Court of Human Rights. Not only did Mr. Erdoğan blatantly insult the movement, but he also encouraged the masses to do the same, and actually succeeded in creating mass hatred towards the Gülen movement. In the process, he put out a boycott call to exclude the Gülen movement from the layers of social life that led to repercussions among his supporters. In tandem with the boycott call, he declared that he would use the powers of the government to discriminate against the Gülen movement and started a “witch hunt.” For these reasons, in light of ECtHR case law, it is hard, if not impossible, not to consider Prime Minister Erdoğan’s expressions targeting the Gülen movement as unprecedented prima facie hate speech.

Published on Rethink Institute, June 2014

PDF version of the full analysis