Why Turkey’s best pianist is on trial

Why Turkey’s best pianist is on trial

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.