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.