MURAT YETKİN > Fazıl Say case is another shame

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Let me ask you a question.

First I’ll give the background. Yesterday, on April 15, Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Ömer Çelik joined the British Culture, Media and Sports Secretary Maria Miller in launching the London Book Fair, as Turkey is the “Market Focus” country this year. Ankara has been preparing for this particular activity for months, with Turkish Ambassador to London Ünal Çeviköz and British Ambassador to Ankara David Reddaway working to realize this project for over a year now. Çelik was escorted by Turkey’s European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış for the launch and a number of prominent Turkish publishers and authors, including Elif Şafak (or Shafak as she prefers) - who is a new rising star of Turkish literature abroad - were there. It should have been a big event for the cultural atmosphere in Turkey, and perhaps the government would like to be proud of the level of Turkish democracy that had led to the use of freedoms and the enrichment of cultural diversity.

However, it is as if an Istanbul court said yesterday morning, “Not so fast,” just a few hours before the launch of the London Book Fair.

The court sentenced Turkey’s world-renown piano virtuoso Fazıl Say to 10 months in jail, “guilty” of “insulting the religious values of a part of the population” because of a message that he retweeted from his account. The original tweet quoted a couplet from Omar Khayyam, a 12th century Persian poet (and mathematician and philosopher), questioning orthodox Muslims about the promise of divine wine and women in Heaven. This triggered a reaction among the conservative circles in Turkey, leading to a court case being opened following the complaints. Literary critics are divided as to whether Khayyam ever actually wrote the couplet and Say’s case was suspended anyway, but when the ruling came out it hit the wires of international news organizations as the major news story from Turkey.

So much for the background. Now the question:

Which story will be covered in the domestic and international media, having an echo in the political forum: The sentencing of Say because of a retweet, or the launching of the London Book Fair by Çelik?

Reactions from the Western world started to come shortly after the ruling went public. These included from the EU, which expressed its concern at the highest level.

It was interesting though, to see the Turkish media divided into two yesterday, too. While some saw the case as a violation of freedom of expression, some applauded the court decision, saying that Say deserved to be punished for insulting religious values. He is also a declared atheist and an outspoken opponent of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti).

The case is not too unfamiliar. Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s first and only Nobel Laureate in literature, was tried on the grounds of “insulting Turkishness” and “national feelings” not more than six years ago. The nature of the accusations has thus shifted from insulting nationalist feelings to insulting religious feelings, but their connection to the lack of freedom of expression are the same.

When the court case was opened, Say had said he might consider leaving Turkey if he was sentenced.

It is not clear whether he will actually be put behind bars, as some would like to see, which also demonstrates the dominant understanding nowadays. But the next question might be whether Say will stay or whether he will go into voluntary exile in order not to be put in jail for what he wrote, or rather forwarded.

Not something to be proud of, for sure.


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Notice on comments

cezer "çapulcu" skonore

4/17/2013 4:08:07 AM

While I am not a lawyer, I think, in Turkish law, there is a clause that "the international agreements signed by Turkey overrides the Turkish law". Actually, Turkey signed many agreements with the EU, which require the consideration of freedom of expression in this kind of cases. But, the prosecutors and Judges just don't care.

cezer "çapulcu" skonore

4/17/2013 3:57:34 AM

H-J Zierke: You are right. There are laws like that in some US states. Another example is the sodomy laws. Yet, no charges have been filed using these laws for a very long time. The states know if they charge anybody, the supreme court would strike these laws down for violating the constitution. The states keep them in the books but cannot use them against anybody. Conservative lawmakers object their removal from the books. Some want to use the sodomy laws against the acceptance of gay marriage.

Ameer Raschid

4/17/2013 12:55:54 AM

"World renown and "famous pianist" is given a suspended sentence for his silly comments insulting Islamic beliefs,and this is considered a shame for Turkey! What is a real shame is that atheists can claim the right of freedom of speech to ridicule and belittle and use their status to get public attention and notice by human rights defenders..Comments by those who are at least indifferent to the role of religious faith in society show a one sided critical approach in their defense of freedom.


4/16/2013 11:18:26 PM

With reference to the last sentence, it is most obvious and or tacit that if Mr. Say leaves Turkey, it will most certainly not be due to his avoidance of a jail term. It will however be due to his need to exist in a place where freedom of speech and freedom of expression are valued and respected rather than suppressed by an anachronistic and malicious judiciary system. Regards

Hans-Joachim "Terrorist" Zierke

4/16/2013 8:40:50 PM

US Obserer: "Whoever willfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God … shall be punished by imprisonment …" That's from the Massachusetts General Laws. Christian Churches have been as oppressive as Islam. The only difference is: We have won our fights and no longer allow it to happen.

ismail demir

4/16/2013 7:41:33 PM

Bible seems overconfident if it encourages investigation of evidence, and same time states the world was created BC 4000.

mara mcglothin

4/16/2013 6:07:09 PM

USOBSERVER And there are some Christian faiths where God is seen as "love", while other Christian faiths see God as the vengeful power. So faiths/doubts are different. To each his own, and no one has the right to tell others what to believe, OR enforce their particular brand of religion on others.

US Observer

4/16/2013 4:21:00 PM

The Bible encourages followers to investigate evidence for belief (many do not though) as Christians’ understand you can only have Faith once you overcome doubt. The idea is to have a relationship with God so he can truly impact you while on Earth and in Heaven. Muslims are asked to do numerous acts to prove themselves, much like Slave/Master. Heaven is a reward for service. That is why freedom of speech is feared in Muslim nations imho.

mara mcglothin

4/16/2013 4:10:27 PM

You are correct CEZER It is high time that the Penal Code is erased from the books. YOu shouldn't be able to sue someone for insult or honor anymore. It is a disgrace and an embarrassment for Turkey on the International stage.

Agnostic Turk

4/16/2013 3:27:46 PM

Say's sentence changed nothing except brought shame to the current establishment in Turkey. No political party can dare shutting internet down. And no internet software can censure free exchange of ideas on the internet. What can AKP establishment do, jail millions? Of course not. One way or another, now or a decade later, Muslims have to learn that people are free to express their views, even about Islam. The alternative is to live in a Taliban-like regime, which I am sure most do not want.
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