MUSTAFA AKYOL > Is the Fazıl Say affair a case of ‘blasphemy?’

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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.


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US Observer

10/23/2012 2:16:26 PM

I wuill say this for Islam, the religion was designed better than any other to contain the masses. The fact Turkey has this law at all should be what is discussed.


10/23/2012 11:55:21 AM

"Article 216, has been in practice for decades". Mr. Akyol likes to hark back to the days before the AKP, to excuse them for current issues, but they have had 10 years in power to reform such absurd laws. Instead they have focused on 2 main areas: 1) economic growth, particularly for conservative Turks (Anatolian tigers) and 2) domination of all Turkish institutions to enable complete control of the country. The old days were bad, but the new days are no better.

Hasan Kutlay

10/21/2012 9:36:43 PM

Erdogan already promised that the government will make a blasphemy law for "insults" against islam and the prophet.Pity the "liberal' Turkish muslims who tought islamists would be better democrats and freedom loving than seculars,over 10 years their propaganda will be totally unworldly and hilarous.The ony argument that will be left over for them will be like the oft-cited argument of hardcore naieve communists:"Soviet-Union was not a real communist state and didn't enact communism properly'

vural korkmaz

10/21/2012 9:21:51 PM

Turks got in very big troubles with almost every nation on Earth, including Arabs who created it, just because of Islamism (not Islam) since Islamism was used as a weapon for imperialism under the rule of most radical Islamist Ottoman rule. The history is very clear about that. We the Turks have been suffering from that. Why then should we, the Turks, not talk about it?? Mustafa (Karayol) Akyol I am sure has no comments on that.

Engin Atik

10/21/2012 5:46:17 PM

@mara mcglothin: I agree with you, there should not be anything above the First Amendment. Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution corresponds to the First Amendment of the US Bill of Rights. Article 216 Mr Akyol mentions is not from the constitution but from the Penal Code which is about pogroms that took place in Turkey. This loose talk Mr Akyol is propagating is casting a fog over the reality.

Turkish Sal

10/21/2012 6:21:51 AM

Reminds one of the incident where Can Dundar was prosecuted for portraying Ataturk as a man who had a drinking problem. The prosecutor claimed that his cirrhosis was stress induced.

david coors

10/21/2012 6:14:41 AM

What if somebody in Turkiye insulted Christian, Jewish or any other religion (other than Islam), would the justice department go after that person? I really doubt it. Because secularism (equality in religion, and separation of religion and state) is in the name only in Turkiye. Deep down, at least in PM Erdogan's mind and heart, Turkish goverment is acting like a Moslem goverment and totally biased for his religion Islam.

mara mcglothin

10/21/2012 4:59:31 AM

ENGIN ATIK I don't believe in hate speech or hate crimes EVEn in the USA. As I recall the first hate crime I remember being labeled as such, was a young homosexual boy who was tied to the bumper of a truck by some rednecks and then set on fire while they drug him down the road. You don't have to know the reason for this heinous crime. It is still Murder 1 which will get you life in prison at least, and in some states the death penalty. Premeditated murder is murder period.

mara mcglothin

10/21/2012 3:40:55 AM

Exactly THESSALONIAN And any other "code" that has to do with freedom of speech! And they are busy defining "Turkishness"? MR AKYOL surely must have made those rude comments about Mr Say just to get a rise out of us. Surely he wasn't serious, and if he was, while I cannot stand his comments, I would defend his sorry butt to the death for his right to speak his opinion. The Turkish public should also have these rights. I think Sean Penn is a nutcase running around the World, but......

a. Johannsson

10/21/2012 12:13:07 AM

Dear Mr Karayol, pardon me, Mr Akyol. I find you interesting and I have learned a lot reading your article through the years. But I see you on some dark and strange path on this one, I have to say. I agree on Rimon tree comment. This case is somehow all wrong 2012. You are more on the 1220 track opinionating on this. Mustafa - keep on rocking in the free world. And I hope it does not sound as blasphemy when I quote Mr. Tom Waits who once sang:. "There is no devil, it is just god when he is drunk
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