Court case pits blasphemy against freedom of expression
Religious belief collides with calls for protection of free expression on Twitter.
By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye -- 27/11/12
The pending trial against a Turkish pianist and composer on charges of offending Muslims and Islam in comments he made on Twitter is testing freedom of expression in Turkey, observers said.
Supporters of musician Fazil Say demonstrate outside an Istanbul court building in October. [AFP]
Fazil Say, noted Turkish pianist and composer, faces criminal charges for comments he made on Twitter. [AFP]
In April, Fazil Say, who has played with the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and others, has gotten in trouble for several comments he made on social networks. In one, he mocked a call to prayer that lasted only 22 seconds. In another post, he questioned if heaven, where, some interpretations of Islam say wine flows and virgins await the faithful, was a brothel or a bar.
Prosecutors in Istanbul investigated accusations made by a citizen against Say and in June, they charged the 42-year-old musician with insulting religious values, violating Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code. A prosecutor claimed Say's tweets could lead to a "collapse of public order."
A plaintiff in the case, Ali Emre Bukagili, said in a statement that he supports freedom of thought and speech, but said that Say's comments require a response.
"These words are statements that aim to insult our honour, dignity, personality and values that we deem sacred and degrade and abase us. In the face of such a situation, it is fully within our rights to result to jurisdiction," he said.
Say appeared in Istanbul court last month and denied the charges, saying his Twitter account was not public and that those who were offended by his posts could simply "unfollow" him.
The court adjourned the case until February 18th. Say faces a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison if convicted, although observers say any sentence is likely to be suspended.
Egemen Bagis, minister for EU affairs, criticised Say for "insulting people's faith and values," but he has urged the charges be dropped because the Twitter posts fall within "his right to babble." Another official, Turkish Youth and Sports Minister Sual Kilic, said Say is "a bad example for young people, who doesn't respect his nation's values."
An atheist, Say has long criticised Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's conservative-religious government and said he has considered emigrating.
Critics compare his case with previous high-profile cases against Nobel prizewinner Orhan Pamuk and novelist Elif Şafak.
"Say, Kemal, Şafak all are part of the intelligentsia created by the Kemalist system. AKP seeks to sideline and contain them via these legal cases," said Hamid Akin Unver, a former official with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who currently is teaching Turkish and Middle Eastern Studies at Princeton University.
"I grew up admiring Fazil Say and have massive respect for him," he told SES Türkiye. "The same can be true for all secularly brought up young people of my generation. Fazil Say was always a role model for us."
Professor Cenap Cakmak of the Eskisehir Osmangazi University said he is concerned that Say's trial "apparently, and unnecessarily, undermines Turkey's image." "As a devoted Muslim and as a true believer of democracy, I find Say's attitude extremely disturbing," Cakmak told SES Türkiye. "But this does not necessarily mean that he should be prosecuted."
Cakmark added, "I do not think he will be convicted in this case. But the damage has already been done. Consecutive mistakes have been committed during this process."
The first mistake, Cakmak said, was made by the person who filed a criminal complaint against Say. The prosecutor should have dismissed the request, stressing that Say's remarks should be viewed as exercise of freedom of expression.
"And undoubtedly the government has made a mistake by remaining almost indifferent to the prosecution," he said. "Religious matters are really sensitive in Turkey, but the pious people should be more tolerant and open to criticisms even when they are directed against their religious beliefs."
Unver said Say erred when he publicly, and very bluntly, criticised Arabesque music, which has millions of followers in Turkey, by calling them backward, ignorant and lowly. This made it easier for the AKP to polarize public opinion against Say, Unver said.
Nader Hashemi, author of the book "Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies," believes is the current law in Turkey needs to change and replace it with one that protects a basic right to freedom of expression.
"The parameters on what constitutes legitimate freedom of expression are always subject to debate and change in all democratic societies," he told SES Türkiye. Turkey is a young and emerging democracy and Turks need to decide what type of society and democracy they want to live in, Hashemi said.