The Fazıl Say case has nothing to do with justice

The Fazıl Say case has nothing to do with justice

The trial against Fazıl Say, Turkey’s piano virtuoso of international fame, on charges that he insulted religion (meaning Islam), has nothing to do with “justice” in the objective sense of the word. It has, however, everything to do with an attempt to protect an exclusive set of beliefs, by penalizing those who say things that are considered to be offensive to these beliefs.

In other words, the attempt here is to stop people speaking their minds, offensive as their remarks may be for some. This is not too different to trying to protect the memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk by law, as is the case in Turkey.

The legal justification of the prosecutor in the case of Say is to preserve “public order.” The assumption is that Say will disturb public peace through his “hate speech,” and push some to committing criminal acts. Say is being tried for “tweeting” messages considered insulting by Muslims.

In one example cited by the BBC, Say tweeted: “I am not sure if you have also realized it, but if there’s a louse, a non-entity, a lowlife, a thief or a fool, it’s always an Islamist.” Mr. Say can be vilified for such remarks, which are clearly offensive. That his words can also provoke violent reactions, especially by the lumpen elements of society, is also true.

If, however, there is such a threat, the job of any truly democratic system that believes in free speech is to take precautions against those who are threatening violence, and not against those who speak their mind.

It is true that the case against Say was not initiated by the government. Remarks by Prime Minister Erdoğan against those considered to be insulting Islam, however, clearly demonstrate that expecting “Voltairean tolerance” for Say, or anyone like him, from this government, or the present Turkish judiciary, is naïve.

If anything, Say has become a nemesis for most Justice and Development Party (AKP) followers and religious conservatives, who would be more than happy to see him receive a prison sentence, regardless of what this does to Turkey’s image abroad. As for his “virtuosity” and “international fame” these mean little for a large proportion of the conservative Turkish public, which has no appreciation of Western classical music – or any form of Western high culture – anyway.

So it will be an unexpected surprise if Say is acquitted in the end, on the grounds that he was merely exercising his freedom of expression, instead of receiving a punitive sentence, even if this is suspended due to some technicality or other. At any rate, this case will reveal just how committed to freedom of expression Turkey is, but expectations should not be raised too high on this score.

Both Erdoğan and key members of his party are quick to say in such cases that it is not just “Islam” but all religious beliefs that should be protected against insults. They often repeat that they would not tolerate insults to Jesus, or Moses or any other prophet for that matter, who people believe in and respect.

If only this were true. Take for example the speech of Prime Minister Erdoğan in Elazığ over the weekend, when he called on local Kurds to speak up against outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorism.

“They [the terrorists] do not consider you to be a human, but we love you due to the creator” he said going on to add:

“As for them [the terrorists], they have nothing to do with the creator anyway. They are Zoroastrians, and they are now saying this themselves. They are talking about Yazidism and engaging in this kind of worship.”

It seems that the same Erdoğan who considers Say’s remarks to be offensive “towards the beliefs and values of others,” has little respect for the beliefs and values of Zoroastrians, or Yazidis, two sets of beliefs that are still current in the Middle East and the Caucasus.

As was said at the outset, the case against Say has nothing to do with justice.