MUSTAFA AKYOL > Why Turkey’s best pianist is on trial

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I am not a big fan of Fazıl Say, who is arguably Turkey’s best pianist. The 42-year-old musician is undoubtedly great at his work, but his political views have always put me off. Over the years, he has emerged as a spokesman for the ultra-secularist yet hopelessly illiberal Turkish elite, who have relied on the military to impose their worldview on the rest of society. He has insulted those who listen to “arabesque” music, and made fun of veiled women.

However, all of this is trivia these days, because Say is now about to be tried for “insulting religion” on Twitter. Back in April, he posted a few tweets which made fun of the Islamic description of heaven and likened it to a “brothel.” Soon afterwards, an Istanbul prosecutor prepared an indictment against him, asking for a prison sentence ranging from 9 months to 1.5 years. The court recently accepted the indictment, and Say’s trial will begin in Oactober.

As I said, this case makes my views on Say trivia, because I am with him when it comes to freedom of speech. He should simply not be prosecuted for his statements on Islam, no matter how distasteful they sound to me and other Muslims. Personally, I have two reasons for thinking that way. The first one is that if “insulting religion” becomes criminal, then “insulting” other things can become criminal too, and that could limit my freedom of speech as well (so, call me selfish on this).

Secondly, as I argued in my book, “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” the Quranic way to counter insults against Islam is not to silence people by force, but to boycott civilly. “When you hear God’s revelations disbelieved in and mocked at,” the Quran commands Muslims, “do not sit with them until they enter into some other discourse” (4:140).

As I reasoned in my book, modern-day Muslims can follow the “do not sit with them” commandment by “boycott[ing] anti-Islamic rhetoric by refusing to join conversations, buy publications, or watch films and plays that mock the values of their faith.” In the Fazıl Say case, the same principle can be applied simply by “unfollowing” his Twitter feeds.

But why are things not that way in Turkey? Why did a Turkish prosecutor put Say on trial? Is it because that Turkey is being “Islamized” day by day under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government?

Not really. The Penal Code article that Fazıl Say is accused of having violated, Article 216, has been in place for many decades, long before the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. In fact, the AKP government rewrote that article in 2005, so as to make it more in tune with European Union criteria, rewording it as follows:

“Anyone who openly denigrates the religious values of a part of the population shall be sentenced to imprisonment of from six months to one year, where the act is sufficient to breach public peace.”

Before 2005, the “where the act is sufficient to breach public peace” clause did not exist, so the article simply banned any “denigration of religious values.” That is why the prosecutor argued in this indictment that Say’s remarks had the potential to “breach public peace,” although he did not sound convincing at all to me.

The larger truth is that the Turkish Penal Code has numerous articles that ban “insults” against various things: The Turkish Republic, The Turkish Parliament, the Turkish Military, Atatürk, and also “religious values.” This is so because “honor” and “insult” are very sensitive issues in this part of the world, especially when compared with the West. And that is also why we not only need more legal reform, but also cultural change, in order to advance freedom of speech.


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Notice on comments

mara mcglothin

6/11/2012 11:46:19 PM

BEGUM Can you not see that the "defects" that you mention are broadening on a daily basis? The ball is steady rolling down the hill these days.


6/11/2012 8:21:21 AM

okay our thoughts r different but all of these differences r good if we respect one another.. people want stability and freedom and the AKP rule has provided that, but of course the party has defects too...

mara mcglothin

6/8/2012 5:45:43 PM

BEGUM The GDP has increased due to the implementation of MR Dervis' policies NOT something the AKP created. Polarization has kept the AKP in power! It is just like Mr Bekdil predicted long ago. It is a contest between the pious against the more pious and everyone is sitting around judging everyone else. Who ate during a fast-who is covered- who is not. The backward steps regarding freedom of speech are also an issue. for me. The EU laws and MONEY have helped Turkey, but....?

Murun Buchstansangur

6/8/2012 4:29:33 PM

@Begum. Your comments are generally 'sort of' balanced and thoughtful but if you believe that Turkey is secular then I can only presume that you don't live here.


6/8/2012 4:04:16 PM

@MARA, The GDP per capita has increased during the AKP rule, and the EU harmonization laws make a grerat deal of contribution to Turkish liberalism and democracy.. A political party which is in power, i think does NOT prefer a polarized society, because that doesnt serve their interests. lastly i can say that the EU reform process is the most important development, i think..

mara mcglothin

6/8/2012 3:30:27 PM

BEGUM They have only served to polarize society with their backward laws! It was Dervis' plan that improved the economy, so what exactly has the AKP done to "liberalize" Turkey? I can only see restrictive laws, not forward thinking democracy.


6/8/2012 8:23:17 AM

@Mara, there is a point that we must clarify, i think: in the 1990s, and also before that, the tutelary regime in Turkey ( in which the military and judiciary along with some media organs had had a major role) made "secularism" in Turkey a nightmare for millions of people. but in today's Turkey, secularism has started to gain a democratic colour and i treasure this experience. so despite not supporting all of the policies of the AKP, i think they have made Turkey a more liberal and plural place.

mara mcglothin

6/7/2012 5:51:41 PM

BEGUM Well said, but I wouldn't even talk about secularism within Turkish society since it has such a bad taste for many. it is democracy that you must support and the freedom to express your thoughts no matter how offensive to others.


6/7/2012 4:08:04 PM

@MARA, Yes... if the people do not feel free to think as they want to think and to speak the words that they wanna speak, then the meaning of secularism becomes a "zero". democratic values such as tolerance and civil liberties strengthen secularism, i think. and i strongly support these values...

mara mcglothin

6/7/2012 3:02:11 PM

BEGUM I believe that a stronger statement on your part is in order, such as: I do not agree with Mr Say, BUT I will defend to the death his right to speak his opinion. Now that would be democracy and has nothing to do with secular, simply democracy.
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