In Turkey, the sensitive subject of freedom of expression has an unlikely new face: Fazil Say, a world-renowned pianist who was convicted of insulting Islam on Monday.
Say, who has performed with the New York Philharmonic and is currently touring in Germany, received a 10-month suspended sentence, meaning he won’t go to jail unless he re-offends. But his case has provided a stark reminder of how far-reaching Turkey’s laws governing speech and expression can be. Such laws have seen hundreds of journalists jailed and writers such as Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk put on trial—and now, in Say’s case, they have stretched even into Twitter.
The 43-year-old Say is an outspoken secularist who has long drawn conservative ire in Muslim-majority Turkey. But his conviction stems from a series of tweets he posted last year. In one tweet from the indictment, Say cites verses from the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, who died in 1131, that take issue with religious hypocrisy: “You say rivers of wine flow in heaven; is heaven a tavern to you? You say two [virgins] await each believer there; is heaven a brothel to you?”
In another tweet, one of a handful that featured in the charges, Say muses: “What if there is raki in paradise but not in hell, while there is Chivas Regal in hell and not in paradise? What will happen then? This is the most important question!”
In a statement on Monday, Say called his conviction “alarming not only on a personal level but in terms of freedom of expression and beliefs in Turkey.”
Turkey has faced longstanding criticism from human rights groups for its restrictions on freedom of expression. But only in recent years, analysts say, has religion come to feature so prominently in the debate.
Most convictions against journalists have revolved around the subject of Turkey’s Kurdish rebels, and been based on restrictive anti-terrorism laws. The crime of insulting Turkish identity has also been a common charge, often revolving around hot-button issues such as what is commonly called the Armenian Genocide, in which Ottoman Turks, according to widespread consensus among historians, killed more than 1.5 million Armenians starting in 1915. (Turkey stridently contests that number, as well as the term “genocide.”) Pamuk’s trial concerned comments published in Switzerland in 2005 in which he told an interviewer that, “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.” He was ultimately ordered to pay a $3,700 fine.
Turkey, which has been pushing for admission into the European Union, has lately worked to reform such laws, analysts say, though they caution that the efforts are far from complete. But, says human rights lawyer and journalist Orhan Kemal Cengiz, as these cases have gradually receded, prosecutions involving insulting religion have increased. “When it comes to freedom of expression, the Turkish judiciary has always been terrible, but in the past they were concerned with protecting the high interests of the state,” he says. “In recent years, these kinds of cases are getting less and less. But we’ve seen the judiciary overreaching with this idea of protecting religious values.”
Some commentators have noted that Say is a staunch critic of Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP). But Cengiz notes that the government has seemed dismayed by Say’s case. (Asked about the case last year, Turkey’s minister for E.U. relations said it should be dismissed.) “They are aware that this will turn into a huge headache,” Cengiz says.
The case brings unwelcome comparisons to some of Turkey’s regional neighbors, such as Egypt, where the popular satirist Bassem Youssef was recently charged with insulting Islam. As in Egypt, the charges against Say were brought not by the government but by citizens, with the judiciary then making the controversial decision to pursue them.
Say was charged under a statute intended to prevent hate speech, but it is rarely used to protect Turkey’s many minorities, says Ceren Kenar, a columnist with the Turkish newspaper Taraf. “In Turkey the judges have a crooked interpretation of what defines hate speech,” she says, noting that the statute is most commonly invoked on grounds of nationalism or Islam. “The main problem regarding the Turkish judiciary is the mindset of the judges.”
Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and former E.U. ambassador to Turkey, says the shift in the judiciary reflects one that has been underway in Turkish society since Erdogan and the AKP came to power a decade ago and began moving the country to the right. While the reform efforts underway might suggest a potential remedy down the line for freedom of expression issues involving the Kurdish rebellion and even Turkish identity, he says, “We then still have the case of religion, and we don’t know where that will end up.”