This week, yet another court decision underlined the limits of free speech in Turkey. Sevan Nişanyan, a Turkish citizen of Armenian identity, was sentenced for “openly denigrating the religious values held by a certain portion of the population.” According to the court, Nişanyan had committed this “crime,” by the following statement he put on his Internet blog while commenting on a similar “denigrating religious values” case opened against pianist Fazıl Say:
“It is not a ‘hate crime’ to poke fun at some Arab leader who, many hundred years ago, claimed to have established contact with the Deity and gained political, economic and sexual profit as a result. It is almost a kindergarten-level case of what we call freedom of expression.”
However, the court did not agree that this was “kindergarten-level of freedom of expression” and decided that Nişanyan should serve 13 months in prison. He is not in jail yet, but he might be.
Before commenting on this, it might be worthwhile to note who Nişanyan is. He is, by most definitions, a radical liberal who minces no words against any political camp in Turkey. He in fact made his fame partly by condemning Turkey’s Kemalist heritage, a stance which had gained him some sympathy among religious conservatives. In his 2009 book, “The Wrong Republic,” he defined Kemalism as the Turkish version of fascism, and was soon sued by a Kemalist lawyer for “insulting Atatürk.” He survived that, but now he is being targeted by the very religious conservatives he once defended against the Kemalists.
I was against Nişanyan’s prosecution then, and I am against his prosecution now. In fact, as a Muslim, I also found his words about the Prophet Muhammad a bit distasteful and disrespectful. Yet I think he did not even explicitly insult the Prophet, but only voiced the third of these three possible views one can have about the Prophet of Islam:
1) A true messenger of God who indeed received divine revelation.
2) A mystic who genuinely imagined that he received divine revelation.
3) A charlatan who dishonestly claimed that he had received divine revelation.
It is obvious that only religious believers, particularly Muslims, will believe in the first option. Others have to choose between the second and the third. In my book, “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” I argue that the second option – that Muhammad was honest in his convictions – is a much more credible theory even when viewed with secular eyes. But one can certainly assert the third option as well, and Nişanyan did in blunt, if not crude, language.
The question that pious Muslims need to think, in Turkey and elsewhere, is what they will achieve by banning (or getting infuriated at) such expressions of infidelity. Nothing really, I must say, besides their own mental comfort. Plus, there will be some big losses: Muslim societies will prove to be fundamentally at odds with freedom of speech, a cornerstone of democracy. Moreover, the same societies will be devoid of one of the greatest blessings of freedom of speech: The development of a rational, refined and nuanced discourse.
That is the case, because failing to counter the criticisms against Islam with argumentation, and rather resorting to bans on blasphemy or “insulting Muslimness,” has a downside: You will end up becoming intellectually feeble. It is sad to see these days that even in Turkey, the home of an arguably more liberal-leaning Islamic tradition, many believers fail to see that.