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Turkish Pianist's Conviction Provokes Debate

  • Dorian Jones

Fazil Say, an internationally known Turkish pianist, during a concert in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2012.

Fazil Say, an internationally known Turkish pianist, during a concert in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2012.

Turkey's internationally acclaimed pianist Fazil Say was convicted by a Turkish court earlier this month of blasphemy. His conviction has provoked a fierce debate over the balance between religious freedom and freedom from religion.

Say is on an extended international tour. But his conviction for blasphemy and the 10-month suspended prison sentence now hanging over his head has put his return to Turkey in doubt.

The 43-year-old pianist was convicted for inciting religious hatred, for retweeting a series of comments on religion. One was a quote attributed to the medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam questioning whether heaven was a brothel or tavern because of the promise of virgins and wine.

Say, an atheist, is an outspoken critic of the influence of religion in Turkish society and the country's Islamist-rooted government. For other critics of this trend, like internationally renowned Turkish artist Bedri Baykam, Say's conviction sends a worrying message.

"We feel totally vulnerable in front of the government with the ways the laws are being used," said Baykam. "You don't have the right to think or you don't have the right to be atheist or you don't have the right to criticize religion. So people who are atheist, people who criticize things that are written in religious books, so will they be forbidden to talk? We are talking about hell."

Say's conviction has drawn condemnation worldwide, with Amnesty International describing it as "chilling." The conviction coincided with the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights, which strongly criticized Turkey over freedom of expression.

But Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Omer Celik stressed that artists aren't above the law.

"I don't want anyone prosecuted for what they say, but everyone - cultural figures, ordinary citizens and politicians alike - are 'equal before the law,'" said Celik.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now pressing for greater protection of the Islamic faith both at home and abroad.

During a U.N. conference in Vienna in February, Erdogan said "Islamophobia" must be regarded as a crime against humanity "just like Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism," and called on the international community, in particular Europe, to do its part in combating it.

Turkey currently leads the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Its head, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, says such measures have nothing to do with curtailing freedom of expression.

"We believe in the right of freedom of expression, but we also believe [in] the freedom of religion," said Ihsanoglu. "How can someone practice his religion freely in dignity and without fear, if his religion, which is part of their identify, is denigrated and insulted?"

Critics point out there is an irony here. Prime Minister Erdogan himself was sent to jail in 1998 for quoting the lines of a famous Turkish poem "minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers." His jailing was part of a crackdown inspired by the staunchly secular military. Many religious activists were jailed and Islamic schools closed.

Istar Gozaydin of Istanbul's Dogus University is an expert on the often uneasy relationship in Turkey between religion and the state. She says Erdogan's decade-long rule has been characterized by the restoration and extension of religious rights, but warns that individual freedom is now at risk.

"They used to be a problematic time for the believers, for the people who wanted to have the freedom of conscience, religious belief and practices." said Gozaydin. "However, now it is just the opposite. Now there is quite a significant respect for freedom of religion, however there is not much respect for the freedom from religion."

Say has played with the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, among others, and has served as a cultural ambassador for the EU. His conviction has made him the symbol of what is becoming an increasingly polarizing debate over religious freedom and freedom from religion - one that seems destined to only intensify.

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