Turkish pianist Fazıl Say, a world-renown musician, went on trial the other day before an Istanbul court on charges of insulting religious beliefs. The trial made international news, as many media outlets interpreted the affair as a case of “blasphemy.” It was also often reported that Turkey’s “Islamic government” is no big fan of Say and reports implied that his trial might have something to do with the “Islamization” of Turkey, which once used to be a beautifully secular country.
The facts, however, are a little more complicated. As someone who is also not a fan of Say, but who opposes him going to jail for what he said, let me try to explain the nuances here.
First of all, it is neither the current Turkish government nor any new law or regulation it enacted that put Say on trial. The Turkish penal code article that he is accused of violating, Article 216, has been in practice for decades. Its relevant part reads as follows:
“Any person who openly denigrates the religious beliefs of a group shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to one year if the act is conducive to a breach of the public peace.”
In fact, with an amendment in 2004, the “Islamist” Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, in line with EU suggestions, liberalized this law by adding the final clause — “if the act is conducive to a breach of the public peace,” — Before this, it was easier to accuse someone of “denigrating the religious beliefs of a group.”
Moreover, this law has recently led to other trials that would probably be welcomed by most liberal critics. In 2009, for example a group of Turkish men who put a sign on the door of their “cultural association” that read “Jews and Armenians cannot enter, [but] dogs are free to enter” was found guilty of violating Article 216. They were sentenced to five months in prison, commuted to 3,000 Turkish Lira.
Say too is being accused of “denigrating the religious beliefs of a group,” specifically that of Muslims, by likening the Islamic heaven to a brothel and calling Muslims (“Allahists” in his language) “pricks, low-lives, buffoons, thieves and jesters.”
This means that Say is not accused of “blasphemy,” which would be defined as “offending God.” No, he is rather accused of offending a group of people, by both denigrating their values and insulting their character.
This means that Say’s comment can indeed be considered as “hate speech” according to some European standards. (Calling Jews “pricks, low-lives, buffoons, thieves, jesters” would probably not be very welcome in countries like Germany.) So I have had a hard time in understanding some of the harsh European voices that have rushed to Say’s defense.
But personally speaking, my standards for free speech are higher than the European average. (Although I find Holocaust denial insane and irresponsible, for example, I find it unacceptable to criminalize it.) Hence I would not argue for the banning of racist rhetoric and even hate-mongering, as long as it does not come to the level of encouraging imminent violence.
Therefore, I think we Turks should further reform Article 216 and save people like Say from such court cases. The fact that I see Say as an illiberal, anti-democratic, military-coup craving, rude and arrogant Islamophobe does not change that.