News from Turkey that you don’t hear much

News from Turkey that you don’t hear much

Last summer, a court in a Turkish city on the Mediterranean coast gave a “hate speech” verdict against a local bureaucrat. The people this man “insulted” were not conservatives, Sunni Muslims or AKP fans, though, as some might readily suspect. They were the Alevis, the members of Turkey’s largest non-Sunni sect. For the bureaucrat had said the following to his staff:

“There are many Alevis here. They are dangerous people. They don’t like me and every evil can really come from them. They all support each other.”

These words were taken to Mersin the Fifth Lower Criminal Court by an Alevi member of the same bureau. Adnan Gündoğan, a lawyer, who represents the Alevi Culture Society of Mersin, also joined the case on the side of the prosecution. After a months-long trial, the court sentenced the bureaucrat to five months in prison for violating the Turkish Penal Code Article 216, which reads:

“Anyone who openly denigrates a section of the population on the grounds of their social class, race, religion, sectarian, gender or regional differences shall be sentenced to imprisonment for six months to one year.”
It might be worthwhile here to note that Fazıl Say, Turkey’s world-renowned pianist, was also sentenced recently for violating the exact same article. Say’s “insult” was not to Alevis, but to “Allahists,” a derogatory term for Sunni conservatives. Yet you probably all heard about the prison term given to Say (and probably read comments about how it proves Turkey’s “Sunnization”), but not the prison term given to the Sunni bureaucrat who insulted Alevis. The latter just does not fit the Sunnization narrative.

You probably might not also have heard that Turkish Penal Code Article 216 was used in December 2012 to sentence another group of Turks: A group of ultra-nationalists who carried anti-Armenian posters during a rally that commemorated the Azeri victims of the infamous Khojaly Massacre of 1992. “You are all Armenians, you are all bastards,” read one of their slogans, which was obviously a shameless insult to Armenians. (The interior minister of the time, İdris Naim Şahin, a hawk within the ruling AKP, had also joined this rally, and was rightly criticized for doing so. But apparently his presence had not stopped the courts punishing the racist slogans at the event. Good for the courts.)

The reason why I am noting these less-noticed “hate speech” cases in Turkey is to dispute the narrative created by the Fazıl Say case: That it has become illegal in Turkey to insult Sunni Islam and Sunni Muslims, while all other faith groups are unprotected. That is really not the case. In fact, if there is an era in which Turkey’s non-Sunnis have done relatively better with regards to law, it is the past decade.

This does not mean that Turkey’s Sunnis lack prejudices against Alevis, non-Muslims, and especially atheists — they certainly have lots of them. In return, these minority groups have prejudices against the Sunni majority as well. This is a still very judgmental, if not outright bigoted society.

Yet those who were made to believe that Turkey is leaving an open-minded secular past for a dark era of Sunni Inquisition are wrong. One just needs to observe a more diverse set of facts to get a more nuanced perspective.