DALLAS April 16, 2013 – On Monday, Istanbul’s 19th Magistrate Court sentenced world renowned Turkish pianist Fazıl Say to 10 months in prison for tweeting a verse from 11th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam and comments related to religion. The tribunal then suspended the sentence, putting Say on probation for a 5-year period. The case will be dismissed and will not go on his record as long as he doesn’t violate article 216/3 of the Turkish Penal Code - publicly defaming religious values espoused by a segment of the population.
The ruling has been criticized by the EU Commission with spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic saying, “The Commission has learned with concern that Fazil Say, a former EU cultural ambassador, has been given a suspended jail sentence for blasphemy.” She went on to say, “The commission underlines the importance for Turkey to fully respect freedom of expression in line with the European Convention on Human Rights and case law of the European Court of Human Rights.”
The Turkish government’s lengthy detainment and imprisonment of hundreds of journalists, civil society organization leaders, writers, military officers, intellectuals and members of the political opposition have increasing come under fire in the West, leading many to question whether or not Turkey is ready for EU membership.
Sevim Dagdelen, an ethnic Turk and member of the German parliament, called the court ruling “a scandal”. Followers around the world showed their support for Say on Twitter by retweeting his original comments.
Fazıl Say lost no time in responding to the court’s decision.
“The ruling of the court makes me sad for my country. It is disappointing for me in terms of freedom of expression. The fact that I have been sentenced even though I have committed no crime is a matter of great concern not so much for me personally but for freedom of expression and belief in Turkey.”
In an attempt to distance Erdogan’s government from the decision, Minister of Culture and Tourism Omer Celik said, “Obviously I don’t want anyone to be taken to court for something they have said. I am particularly against artists and cultural figures being taken to court and sentenced. But in the end, all of us, artists, cultural figures, the ordinary citizen and politicians are equal before the law. The result is, in the end, a ruling of the court.”
Celik’s statement didn’t have the intended effect as many Turks on Twitter openly questioned the Minister’s sincerity and have a hard time believing that the lawsuit was not a punitive measure by the government for Say’s opposition to the AKP.
A written statement from the Turkish Press Council stated, “…Cases like this only serve to highlight the difficulty people in our country have understanding freedom of expression. In order for democracy to work properly, it is crucial that we understand that freedom of expression is not just for ideas we agree with. The solution to the problem is to apply the scalpel directly to laws that restrict freedom of expression.”
Fourteen years ago the shoe was on the other foot. While serving as the mayor of Istanbul in 1999, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current Prime Minister, was sentenced to 10 months in prison for a poem he read in 1997. He was convicted of violating article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code, which criminalizes, “openly inciting hatred and hostility by discriminating based on religion and race.”
Erdogan was incarcerated from March of 1999 to July of the same year for this quote: “The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmet; the mosques are our barracks, the faithful our soldiers; this divine army guards my religion. Allah is Great, Allah is Great.”
Erdogan’s conviction was viewed by many as a secular government trying to suppress religious sentiment.
The poem by Omar Khayyam quoted by Mr. Say was “You say that there are rivers of wine [in heaven]. Does that mean heaven is a bar? You say two virgins will be given to every believer. Does that mean heaven is a whorehouse?”
This quote in and of itself probably wouldn’t have resulted in a court case as Khayyam’s works are widely available in Turkey, and many people enjoy his thought-provoking style, but Say went further. He said, “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.” Another tweet said, “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?”
Say fans around the world are protesting the court ruling, many leaving comments or quoting Omary Khayyam on Say’s Facebook page. Sermin Donanci said, “Is there nothing we can do? I’m ashamed of my country.” Banu Ist summarized the comments of many when she said, “Dear Fazıl Say, I will support you to the end. We are tired of waking up every day to a new embarrassment.”
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.
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