It kills with pleasure. It instigates mass rape. It digs mass graves. It triggers genocide. It supplants humanity with animal instincts and justifies the pillaging and marauding of normal life. It fathers terrorism, mothers fascism and sires racism. Once unleashed very few escape its enveloping destruction. There is a reason why international law bans its promotion. There is a reason its purveyors are condemned in every great religion. Every civilised society makes unrelenting efforts to build dykes against is onslaught. It is a proven evil. It is hate speech.
For every Muslim in the world and those who believe in freedom of worship, the attack in the Quebec City mosque was a shock beyond description. The unspeakable sacrilege took six precious lives and injured several others and this in a country famous for adhering to the core values of liberalism. How could Alexandre Bissonnette, the man charged with the mosque shooting, do something like this?
This question is being answered partially with reference to radio poubelle (trash radio). In the studios of these outlets shock jocks sit and deliver day after day and night after night heavy doses of xenophobic narratives, building hatred and constructing despicable images about Muslims and other marginalised groups. This has provided fuel to the simmering fire of rightwing politics that recruits the young on the divisive agenda of racial purity and exclusion. Long before they were murdered in the house of Allah by a deranged shooter, they were marked by mike-abusing mad men.
The history of airwaves engendering aversion is long, and each turn is signposted in blood and horror. Modern examples of such hatred pushing communities and individuals into dangerous situations are too many to name. The unforgettable ones include the 1994 Rwandan massacre where in “just 100 days some 800,000 people were slaughtered by ethnic Hutu extremists who targeted members of the minority Tutsi community, as well as their political opponents, irrespective of their ethnic origin.”
A BBC report based on eyewitness accounts had summed it all up: “With meticulous organization, lists of government opponents were handed out to militias who went and killed them, along with all of their families. Neighbours killed neighbours and some husbands even killed their Tutsi wives, saying they would be killed if they refused. At the time, ID cards had people’s ethnic group on them, so militias set up roadblocks where Tutsis were slaughtered, often with machetes which most Rwandans kept around the house. Thousands of Tutsi women were taken away and kept as sex slaves.”
Hate speech played a major part in driving this madness to the point of mass manslaughter. The instruments of hate speech were the radio outlets and newspapers that the Hutus set up. These media outlets “broadcast hate propaganda, urging people to ‘weed out the cockroaches’ meaning kill the Tutsis. The names of those to be killed were read out on radio. Even priests and nuns …killed people, including some who sought shelter in churches.” Later, a UN tribunal convicted three former media executives of being key figures in the media campaign that incited murder.
The most prominent of these media platforms was Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines, or RTLM where drunk anchors churned out suggestions for death. Sometimes they openly told militias to raid towns and sometimes they used code words such as “get to work” to urge them to deploy their killing machines.
The same story was repeated (even though the number of victims is far less) in South Sudan when rebels seized the country’s oil paradise of Bentiu. Reports quoting the UN Peace Keeping Mission say that the killers “hunted down men, women and children who sought refuge in hospitals, mosques and churches.” The instigator-in-chief in this sorry episode was Radio Bentiu which constantly aired hate propaganda and at times urged men to commit “vengeful sexual violence” against the other group. In one instance, over 200 were killed and 400 wounded in a mosque.
A recent research into the killings has found that hate messages have “trigger words that are deliberately used to provoke conditioned response from the listeners and readers of radio and Facebook and YouTube”. Another research has identified ten words (including regular taunts like ‘coward’) as the base of hate speech.
The speed at which hate speech moves has baffled experts. As one researcher puts it: “Hate speech can originate through…a community…and very quickly cross borders and oceans through different platforms, from mobile phone calls on family calling another through WhatsApp.”
The most dangerous aspect of South Sudan’s killings and the role hate speech played in the tragedy is that hate speech still stays in the people’s minds even if now it does not come out of their mouths. The machetes of hate phrases and words continue to kill in the heads. Closer to home we have seen the effects of hate speech in occupied Kashmir, in Indian Gujarat, and in Myanmar.
Drivers of hate take many shapes: they don’t have to be anchors or RJs. They can be influential policymakers or even serious commentators. A recent profile of the Trump administration’s inner core by the New York Times identifies many names of writers and think tank heads who shape the administration’s negative view of Islam.
One of them believes that every act of Muslims, from saying prayers to talking to each other, is essentially an element that is akin to a “stealthy, subversive kind of a jihad.” President Trump’s chief strategist Stephen K Bannon has used his show on Breitbart News to demonise Muslims. Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael T Flynn has openly endorsed the view that fear of Muslims is rational. They all are associated with the demonisation industry in the US. And now they hold one of the world’s most important countries in the palm of their hate-filled hands.
All this is a rather long preface to a few fundamental points about the prevailing situation in our own country where hate speech has become a norm and the tendency to pronounce deadly provocative judgements is spreading like contagion. We have not just allowed but promoted and protected monsters who use religion and patriotism as guns to fire away at their designated enemies. Vile and loathsome, their words are no different from those spoken in Rwanda and Sudan. Or those that are used in Myanmar, Modi’s India and Trump’s America.
Using television as their mouthpiece, they spew poison and incite groups against one another. They pick individuals and mark the bull’s eye on them, endangering lives and destroying reputations in the process. They run fatwa factories and issue death warrants on a daily basis as the law and enforcers of the law stand by and watch them churn out combustible content at industrious proportions.
Because of the availability of mass media platforms their incitement and demonisation resonates across the land and foments animus. Worse than their deeds is the fact that they operate with impunity in the guise of freedom of speech and a weak-kneed judicial system that has been taken hostage. To sanction those who sow seeds of division and perpetual conflict on the basis of their warped ideas of religion and nationalism is suicidal.
Hate is like terrorism. It begets its own children. We have seen sectarian strife thrive on hate. We have witnessed minorities perish on the altar of intolerance. We have seen foul-mouthed, point-scoring politics destroy co-existence. Now we are at it again, patronising filthy characters who bark and bash endlessly, thinking this is so smart not knowing how dangerously stupid it really is.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.