DALLAS, JUNE 2, 2012 – It’s nice to know that in a NATO-member country like Turkey, which is pursuing full membership in the EU, no one is above the law. No one.
Not even world-renowned classical pianist Fazil Say. The man selected by the European Union to serve as Culture Ambassador in 2008. A composer with world-class talent, who has written dozens of musical pieces, won as many awards and released as many albums.
Everyone must be equal before the law. So far, so good.
It all started back in April, on Twitter of all places. Mr. Say posted some controversial tweets that ignited a fire storm and in the end criminal complaints were filed with the state prosecutor’s office.
No one takes this seriously, right? Wrong!
Istanbul State Prosecutor Erhan Gulcan prepared an indictment against the famous Turkish artist, charging him with violating the Turkish Penal Code by “publicly defaming religious values espoused by a segment of the population.” The indictment was accepted by the court on June 1st, and Mr. Say is schedule to appear before a judge on October 18th.
The indictment characterizes Mr. Say’s statements as “a serious insult to Islam and the Muslim who follow this faith.” The prosecutor said, “It was determined that Mr. Say’s tweets were meant to denigrate religious values by needlessly offending the sensibilities of adherents to the three major [monotheistic] religions, in relation to concepts such as Allah, heaven and hell in a way that suggested these concepts were meaningless, needless and worthless. This was more than simple criticism [protected] within the context of freedom of speech and makes no contribution to public debate that would benefit the development of human relations.”
Prosecutor Gulcan went on to say, “In light of the response and controversy sparked by the content of the texts, which continued for days among numerous individuals and civil society organizations of different persuasions, the texts written by the defendant were deemed to be of a nature that could lead to the breakdown of public order.”
While acknowledging a constitutional right to freedom of expression, the indictment claims that precedent for the charges has been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of the Otto Preminger Institute.
“Breakdown of public order” sounds serious. Riots, civil disturbances, unrest, uprisings. Something should be done.
The indictment (original version) requests a prison sentence ranging from 9 months to 1.5 years. In the statement Mr. Say made to the Istanbul State Prosecutor on May 15, 2012, he rejected the charges, but admitted to writing the tweets.
Some of the Tweets in question are given below [translation performed by author]:
“Is God someone you want to live for, someone you want to die for, or someone you would turn into an animal and kill for? Think about it.”
“If heaven serves raki [Turkish alcoholic drink] and there is none in hell, while hell serves Chivas Regal, and there is none of that in heaven, what then? This is the critical question.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed but wherever you have slimy, despicable, tabloid, thieving buffoons, all of them are followers of Allah. Is this a paradox?”
“It’s as if half the country consists of genuine atheists and the other half of traumatic atheists.”
“You say that there are rivers of wine [in heaven]. Does that mean it is heavenly bar? You say two virgins will be given to every believer. Does that mean it is a heavenly brothel?”
In the Tweets, Mr. Say states clearly that he is an atheist and “proud to say so.”
Of course, these tweets, however disrespectful they may be, are relatively tame when compared to artistic works in the West, such as the Temptation of Christ, or even the Da Vinci Code, which, by the way, was extremely popular in Turkey. Both of these works were viewed by believing Christians as reckless and baseless attacks on sacred tenets of the Christian faith, not just religion in general.
When they were released, there was fierce public debate in the West and around the world, but prison time for authors or producers? Not a chance.
We’re used to the “insulting Islam” charges. From Salman Rushdie to Geert Wilders, we have witnessed a virtually uninterrupted chain of perceived offenses to the religious sensibilities of Muslims. The lesson? They have really sensitive sensibilities. What we haven’t seen is the reverse, and that should make us wonder why.
A comment left in response to the news of Mr. Say’s indictment summed it up nicely, “If you slander religion, you will be punished… This is a Muslim country. You can’t just act according to your own opinions.”
This is, of course, the problem. In much of the Muslim world, the idea that people must conform to the dominant paradigm is widespread. Over the last quarter century, dozens of Turkish thinkers have paid with their lives for the constitutional right to freely express their opinions. A short list would include the Sivas Massacre, the assassination of Turan Dursun, the murder of Hrant Dink, etc.
The AKP’s stranglehold on Turkish politics seems to have emboldened the Islamists in government. Rewind the tape ten years and this indictment would have been unthinkable. Things change, and change is never easy, nor is it always positive.
Fourteen years ago, however, the shoe was on the other foot. The secularists dominated the political landscape. The current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a pious Muslim, was sentenced to prison and banned from political office in 1998 by the secular establishment because he read a poem they characterized as “fundamentalist” in nature.
Now, the AKP’s overzealous “scribes” have gone too far by targeting Say, an outspoken opponent of the current government. If Mr. Say had called for the death of people who believe “virgins are waiting for them in heaven”, then there might be grounds for judicial proceedings. But, he didn’t do that. He expressed in sarcastic terms his rejection of certain metaphysical beliefs. That is not a crime, at least not in an open society with individual rights.
No one is above the law. But the law should not be wielded as a club to intimidate people into silence or agreement. Individuals must have the freedom to express their disapproval of any idea or belief whether it is metaphysical, political, cultural or otherwise.
What is sacred to some is surely profane to others. Besides, if you believe in God, surely you believe He is big enough to take care of Himself and His reputation. If you believe in heaven and hell, then surely you believe the other side of Jordan is where accounts will be settled. Mr. Say and the prosecutor might at least agree that ‘the kingdom of God is not of this world.’
Imprisonment, fines, and court action hardly seem the proper way to settle this matter, and Turkey is taking a huge risk targeting a high profile artist with a worldwide following.
The sooner they stop the religious policing the better. Besides, as the Turkish proverb expresses so well, “Beauty is not something that can be forced.”
Luke Montgomery, author of A Deceit To Die For, lived in the Middle East for over a decade. He holds an MA in Linguistics, speaks fluent Turkish and writes on foreign policy, religion and culture. You can follow his work at www.lukemontgomery.net, or find him on Twitter at @LookingFor_Luke and on Facebook.