Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees… (Fred Dufour / Agence France-Presse…)
A famed Turkish pianist was convicted Monday of insulting religion after sending a string of tweets deemed denigrating to Islam. Fazil Say was handed a suspended prison sentence of 10 months, according to news reports, stoking concerns in Turkey and abroad about freedom of speech.
The pianist reportedly invoked a verse by the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, which rhetorically asks believers if heaven is a tavern or a brothel, since wine and virgins are said to be waiting there.
Say also joked about an unusually short call to prayer, “Why such haste? Have you got a mistress waiting or [an alcoholic drink] on the table?”
Such statements took “a disrespectful, offensive and impertinent tone toward religious concepts such as heaven and the call to prayer,” Emre Bukagili, who filed an initial complaint against Say, wrote in an email to the Associated Press.
Because the prison sentence was suspended, Say will not spend time behind bars unless he reoffends in coming years. The conviction nonetheless alarmed Turkish secularists and rights activists, who called it another sign of a continued crackdown on free expression.
“Even if there’s no jail time, it sends a message that criticizing religion is an area that’s off-limits,” said Susan Corke, director of the Eurasia program at the international free speech group Freedom House.
Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been criticized repeatedly for trampling freedom of speech. Government critics also contend that the country, long known as a secular democracy, is bowing to religious conservatives under Erdogan and his religiously rooted party.
Activists contend that vague laws against terrorism allow reporters to be jailed for writing about outlawed Kurdish groups, making the country the worst jailer of journalists worldwide last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Other laws criminalize “denigration of the Turkish nation.” Amnesty International warned last month that free speech was “under attack in Turkey.”
“Hundreds of abusive prosecutions are brought against activists, journalists, writers and lawyers,” said John Dalhuisen, director for Europe and Central Asia for Amnesty International, in a statement. “The criminalization and incarceration of individuals simply for expressing their opinions must not continue.”
Alarm about the erosion of free speech could complicate the Turkish bid to join the European Union. The European Commission, the union's executive body, said it was concerned by the Monday ruling. Corke pointed out that Turkey had already signed onto European agreements enshrining free speech.
"They like to be viewed as a role model in the region ... part of this is living up to what they said they would do," Corke said.
Culture Minister Omer Celik appeared to distance himself from the ruling, telling Turkish media that while he didn’t wish for anyone to face trial for their speech, a court decision had been made.
Say said the ruling left him saddened for his country. The sentence "is alarming not only on a personal level, but in terms of freedom of expression and beliefs in Turkey," a statement posted Monday on his Facebook page said.
His attorney told the Associated Press that Say has not yet decided whether to appeal.
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