The Fazıl Say incident

The Fazıl Say incident

The sentencing of Fazıl Say to 10 months in jail should be examined both from the legal aspect and from the aspect of social responsibility.

From the legal point of view, I find the court’s verdict to be wrong. From the point of view of social responsibility, I find it wrong that Fazıl Say belittles those who think differently than himself.

Let’s establish the following: Fazıl Say was not sentenced because he “reweeted” Omar Khayyam’s poem. It was not Omar Khayyam who was on trial. It was not Omar Khayyam’s poem that was sentenced. Fazıl Say was also not tried and was not sentenced because he declared that he was an atheist. According to universal law and also according to our law, these, without doubt, fall into the field of freedom of thought and belief. As a matter of fact, İsmet Zeki Eyüboğlu published his book, “Those who Defy God in Turkish Poetry” in 1968; even in the mentality of the 1960s no procedures were brought against him, and several editions of the book have been printed up to this day. There are also many books defending atheism in bookstores. People are free to be a believer or an atheist.

Why was he sentenced?

Say has been sentenced mainly because of this sentence of his: “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but wherever you have an asshole, despicable, tabloid, thieving buffoons, all of them are followers of Allah. Is this a paradox?” In the general context of the text Say wrote, these words hold an even higher dose of insult.
What an artistic, elegant and refined style!

Now, all of us have a sense of “belonging” from the point of view of religion, sect, political and philosophical view, and we have values that we bless, right? But then somebody comes up and insults our choice of religion, sect or even philosophical choice of atheism in that way!

If all belief and identity groups insulted each other like this, what would happen to social peace? In order to protect public peace from such irresponsible hate speech, we have the following clause in our penal code:

“A person who publicly scorns the religious values adopted by a segment of the society, in the case that the act is directed toward disrupting public peace, will be penalized by a six-month to one-year prison term.” (Article 216/3)

Even if there were no such a clause, again, how can various segments insult each other with such ill-bred words as “asshole, despicable, thief, buffoon” because of the values they believe in? What is “hate speech,” if not this?

In the clash of freedom of belief and freedom of speech, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) set a milestone in its Sept. 13, 2005 ruling. The ECHR does not consider “humiliation and targeting of a religion that is highly admired and respected” to be a freedom in principle. In the specific case it was dealing with, the ECHR ruled that criminalization of a written piece “full of insults against the identity of the Prophet of the Islamic religion” was “appropriate for social needs.” (No.: 42571/98)

Of course it is our freedom to choose or criticize belief or atheism. But can we maintain the “public peace” by insulting each other’s values? The problem lies here.

In our “postmodern” era when identities are prone to clashing, this practice of the ECHR is the expression of care exerted to protect social peace.

Words can be “shocking, even annoying” but they should not contain “violence,” or “an open and imminent danger,” or feature “disruption to social peace.”

Say’s ill-bred words did not create such an influence. The people he insulted acted more maturely than him. His words were far from being a threat to social peace.

For this reason, if I were a judge, I would decide on an acquittal. I would not have wanted to cause new criticism of Turkey because of such an incident.

Say is indeed a world renowned esteemed pianist, but that is all. From now on, his words should not be overrated.

Taha Akyol is a columnist for daily Hürriyet in which this piece was published on April 17. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.