One would assume that faced with such a severe threat as the coronavirus pandemic, political leaders would strive to unite people and do their best for their wellbeing. Yet examples from across the world abound showing that even in extreme times, populist and authoritarian leaders do not give up on hate speech. 

In the early stags of the outbreak, President Erdoğan directly ordered opposition municipalities to financially help residents in need. But there was a catch: donations should be handled by the state and the AKP only. Erdoğan regards the opposition and critical media as dangerous, if not more, as the virus itself. 

On May 4, as Erdoğan announced the gradual lifting of measures, he accused the Republican People’s Party (CHP) of “fascism”, “lying,” and “plotting a coup.” “Even if there are very of them left, we will not give in to terrorists, who are the leftovers of the sword,” he added vociferously. While this phrase is particularly offensive for the Armenian minority, it rings alarm bells for all of Turkey’s minorities. 

‘Leftovers of the sword’ is a demeaning expression used to refer to the Armenians who survived and carried on living in Turkey after the 1915 genocide. Some were forcibly converted to Islam and the survival of young women was made contingent on their marrying Muslims. But others were children who found refuge in orphanages. Many of these children were adopted by Muslim families and grew up unaware of their Armenian origins. Few could remember the events and recount them later on. 

Ohannes Kılıçdağı, a writer for the weekly Agos newspaper says that the expression Erdoğan used is highly derogatory. “It’s an insult for those who survived and for their children and grandchildren who are alive today. It reflects a hatred that has been institutionalised for generations. In other words, the killer boasts of his killings, renewing his threat to kill again,” Kılıçdağı said. 

‘Leftovers of the sword’ clearly belongs to the realm of hate speech. It is often employed by ultranationalists. Everyone in Turkey knows exactly what it means. 

Interestingly, President Erdoğan sent a letter to Turkey’s Armenian Patriarch on April 24, which marks the anniversary of the 1915 genocide in which he expressed his sorrow “for the Ottoman Armenians who died during World War I.” 

Two weeks later, the President used this somber expression. As he addressed the nation on Monday regarding the fight against coronavirus, 

Erdoğan again threatened his “enemies”:

“We won’t give in to malign forces, from FETÖ (the Gülenist organization) to the PKK and the Armenian and Greek lobbies as well as Gulf-related hostilities. We will surprise those who think they can destroy us economically by using foreign financial lobbies.”

If these words might shock any foreign observer, the public here is well accustomed to the hate speech of Erdoğan and his nationalist partner, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli. Analysts believe that Erdoğan is attempting to please his partner and consolidate his power through threats and polarization tactics. To me, it’s not clear how fearmongering and hate speech benefits the President. What’s more certain is that it fuels hateful and violent acts. 

Is it a coincidence that a man attempted to burn the entrance door of an Armenian Church in Istanbul just a few days ago? 

Is it a coincidence that a female AKP supporter could freely say on TV that her family is willing to execute up to 50 people in the event of a new coup attempt? 

Is it a coincidence that after the Grup Yorum guitarist Ibrahim Gökçek died from 323-long hunger strike, ultranationalists attacked his grave?  

While journalists, politicians and ordinary social media users are closely monitored, investigated and at times imprisoned for sharing their views, AKP and MHP supporters are free to say and do whatever they please, including making death threats and assaulting people. 

The President and his supporters probably believe they have every right to demean, attack and threaten others. Yet it remains unclear if they understand or care about the damage they are inflicting upon society.