A new weapon of mass destruction: hate speech

Protestors gather in Cairo to demand the removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013. Sabah Hamamou witnessed a year of hate speech leading up to this moment and the massacres that followed. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

By Sabah Hamamou, a journalist during Egypt’s 2013 coup and a graduate of CDDRL’s Draper Hills Summer Fellowship Program. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies or Stanford University, both of which are nonpartisan institutions.

The war does not start with a bullet. It starts much earlier, with a predictable, evil equation, like an incurable cancer back for another round. Wars start with waves of hatred disseminated through mass media, against domestic “enemies” or international. Typically, this hate syncs with fear of a serious existential threat to the majority of citizens or to the nation.

It happened in Egypt in 2013, in the Balkans in 1990, in Rwanda in 1994, and it is happening now in Myanmar.

And the United States could be next.

Despite the variety of victims in Egypt, Rwanda and the Balkans, the same strategies were used in all three cases: hate speech disseminated through mass media, accusing a minority or opposition political party of threatening the majority of the nation. After dehumanizing this group, the “defenders” of the majority or nation start “eliminating” them.

In Egypt, the army ousted the elected president affiliated with the opposition, committed a massacre and declared the opposition group terrorists.

In Rwanda, extremists from the majority Hutu ethnicity set up mass media that broadcasted hate propaganda and convinced the public that the minority Tutsi ethnicity was posing a threat to national security. They urged the public to “weed out the cockroaches.” The result? 800,000 humans were killed over 100 days in 1994, even “priests and nuns have been convicted of killing people, including some who sought shelter in churches.”

According to a survivor from the Balkan war, “the Serbian TV had disseminated hate speech against Muslims for years, accusing them of plotting to kill the Serbs. ‘You know, the Muslims, they are just hiding. Your friend, he is just hiding who he really is. When you turn your back, he’ll slit your throat.’”

And now in Myanmar, the army has forced more than 600,000 of the Rohingya minority off their land. The majority of people supported the army. After years of hearing hate speech that was orchestrated by one of their most senior Buddhist monks, Ashin Wirathu, they believe these Muslims are dangerous.

In my own country, Egypt, I have experienced hate speech and what followed first hand. It was June 30, 2013. I was sitting in my sixth-floor apartment in the Dokki district of Cairo when the walls began to shake. Shouts came from the demonstrations. My heart was beating hard. I, like many others, was afraid of another mass killing, of more bloodshed. We had experienced almost a whole year of hatred and polarization in the Egyptian media, both mainstream and online in the social sphere.

The massacres happened a few weeks later, when security forces fired live ammunition on supporters of the ousted government.

This wasn’t new for me. I witnessed it all, starting with the political transition in 2011. In the beginning, the media directed hate toward the revolutionary forces, accusing them of betraying the country. Over the next few months, more than 800 people were victims of extrajudicial killings by the security forces. Sadly, no one was brought to justice.

Live ammunition was the second weapon the Egyptian regime used in the 2013 massacres. The first was the hate speech used by the regime-controlled mass media, which helped ensure public acceptance for the following massacres committed “all according to plan.” More demonstrators died on August 14, 2013 than any other day in recent history. On that day, Egyptian security forces forcibly dispersed two sits-ins in Cairo, in Rabaa square and Nahdaa square. More than 1,000 people, mostly supporters of the ousted regime, were killed that day.

From 2012 to 2013, the mass media in Egypt described the supporters of the ruling party as a “herd” threatening the national security of Egypt. Just as the mass media in Rwanda referred to Tutsi as “cockroaches” that should be wiped out, so when the mass killings happened in Egypt, the Egyptian people expressed their relief that security forces had removed this threat, or “wiped it out.”

The question is, if hate speech imposes an extreme threat used to harm a large number of humans, like a weapon of mass destruction, why can’t governments regulate and criminalize hate speech? Why can’t the world form a new declaration to fight hate speech?

There is no one answer to this question. In the USA where the First Amendment supports free speech, all speech is protected. As one scholar sees, “Regulation is more likely to contribute to genocidal events and major events of racial violence than to reduce them.” Others say it is impossible to categorize hate speech.

But I keep thinking of a clip I saw on VICE in which a white American woman actually calls for genocide to remove Jews “because they’re a poison.” She wanted to clear the way for her children “and all the other white children to have a chance in this world.” I think about the white nationalist movement, and how the rage and hate ended in violence in Charlottesville and Florida. This type of speech is how the massacres started in my country.

We need to do something about the “new weapon of mass destruction” of our time. We need to find a solution to eliminate hate speech.