News / Europe

Turkish Pianist's Conviction Provokes Debate

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.
Dorian Jones
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.

You May Like

Multimedia Baltimore Mayor Lifts Overnight Curfew

update Saturday's rally is largest organized gathering since state's attonrey filed felony charges in police-custody death of Freddie Gray More

UN Denies Child Sex Abuse Cover Up in CAR

UNHCR says senior official suspected of leaking report suspended for breaching rules More

Nepal Officials Slammed Over Aid Response

VOA News has compiled from various organizations complaints from across Nepal of bottlenecks at customs, repeated harassing inspections of aid convoys and seizure of goods More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Eissa from: Egypt
April 30, 2013 10:08 PM
"Questioning whether heaven was a brothel or tavern because of the promise of virgins and wine"... That sounds like an ignorant INTERPRETATION (derived from the Qur'an). It is a CHOICE to take that as an insult or denigration of the religion. By persecuting such comments, the government is lowering itself to the same level of ignorance.

by: Mayray
April 30, 2013 8:09 AM
I hope religion won't lead to the end of this world soon. By the heavens, a man has got the right to air his views!

University of Nigeria
http://unn.edu.ng

by: Abriskil from: Aqwa
April 28, 2013 4:07 PM
I remember the days when this government was claimed to be champions of liberty in Turkey, by American media. What has changed now? Turkey is worse than 90s in which it had communist and kurdish terrorists to blame for lack of liberties.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil Wari
X
Henry Ridgwell
May 03, 2015 1:12 AM
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil War

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video Rural Nepal Suffers Brunt of Quake’s Devastation

Nepal is still coming to grips with the full extent of the devastation and misery caused by last Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Some of the hardest-hit communities have been cut off by landslides making it difficult to assess the precise toll. A VOA News crew has been among the first to reach a few of the smaller, remote communities. Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Sindhupolchak district, east of Kathmandu, which suffered greatly in Nepal’s worst quake in more than 80 years.
Video

Video Black Families Use Baltimore Case to Revisit 'Police Talk'

Following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody this month, VOA interviewed black families throughout the eastern U.S. city of Baltimore about how they discuss the case. Over and over, parents pointed to a crucial talk they say every black mother or father has with their children. Victoria Macchi has more on how this conversation is passed down through generations.
Video

Video Middle East Atheist Channel Defies Taboo

In Egypt, a deeply religious country in a deeply religious region, atheism is not only taboo, it is dangerous. It is sometimes even criminal to publicly declare nonbelief. Despite the danger, one group of activists is pushing back with a new online channel that defends the right not to believe. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Nepal Quake Survivors Tell Their Stories

Against all hope, rescuers have found a few more survivors of the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal last Saturday. Mountain climbers and hikers trapped in remote places also have been airlifted to safety, and aid is finally reaching people in the areas closest to the quake's epicenter. Survivors and rescuers are now recounting their experience. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Lessons for Germany, Europe Remain on Anniversary of WWII's End

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II will be marked May 8-9 in all European countries except Germany, which lost the war. How is the war viewed there, and what impact is it still having? From Berlin, VOA’s Al Pessin reports.
Video

Video 'Woman in Gold' Uses Artwork as Symbol of Cultural Identity

Simon Curtis’ legal drama, "Woman in Gold," is based on the true story of an American Jewish refugee from Austria who fights to reclaim a famous Gustav Klimt painting stolen from her family by the Nazis during World War II. It's a haunting film that speaks to the hearts of millions who have sought to reclaim their past, stripped from them 70 years ago. VOA's Penelope Poulou reports.
Video

Video Nepal Town Destroyed By Quake Counts Itself Lucky

Foreign search teams on Wednesday began reaching some of the communities outside Kathmandu that suffered worse damage than Nepal’s capital from last Saturday’s massive earthquake. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman is in Sankhu - a town of about 10,000 people - where there is relief the death toll is not higher despite widespread destruction.
Video

Video First Surgical Glue Approved for Use Inside Body

While medical adhesives are becoming more common, none had been approved for use inside the body until now. Earlier this year, the first ever biodegradable surgical glue won that approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on the innovation and its journey from academia to market.
Video

Video Somali Hotel Chain Owner Strives to Make a Difference

Many in the Somali diaspora are returning home to make a new life despite the continuing risks. Since 2011 when a military campaign against Al-Shabab militants began making progress, members of the diaspora community have come back to open hospitals, schools, hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Abdulaziz Billow in Mogadishu profiles the owner of a chain of hotels and restaurants who is helping to bring change to the once-deadly Somali capital.
Video

Video Study: One in Six Species Threatened with Extinction

Climate change is transforming the planet. Unless steps are taken to reduce global warming, scientists predict rising seas, stronger and more frequent storms, drought, fire and floods. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, a new study on species extinction underscores the need to take action to avoid the most catastrophic effects of rising temperatures.
Video

Video Taviani Brothers' 'Wondrous Boccaccio' Offers Tales of Love, Humor

The Italian duo of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have been making movies for half a century: "The Night of the Shooting Stars," "Padre Padrone," "Good Morning, Babylon." Now in their 80s, the brothers have turned to one of the treasures of Italian culture for their latest film. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver reports.
Video

Video Child Migrants Cross Mediterranean Alone, Face Unknown Future

Among the thousands of migrants making the deadly journey by boat to Europe, there are unaccompanied girls and boys. Some have been sent by relatives to earn money; others are orphaned or fleeing war. From a shelter for young migrants in the Sicilian town of Caltagirone, VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Baltimore Riots Shed Light on City’s Troubled Past

National Guard troops took up positions Tuesday in Baltimore, Maryland, as authorities tried to restore order after rioting broke out a day earlier. It followed Monday's funeral of a 25-year-old black man who died while in police custody earlier this month. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Challenges Await Aid Organizations on the Ground in Nepal

A major earthquake rocked Nepal on Saturday and killed thousands, injured thousands more and sent countless Nepalese outside to live in makeshift tent villages. The challenges to Nepal are enormous, with some reconstruction estimates at around $5 billion. Aid workers from around the world face challenges getting into Nepal, which likely makes for a difficult recovery. Arash Arabasadi has the story from Washington.

Poll: Baltimore Police Charged

Poll archive

VOA Blogs