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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

America's Most Exotic Presidential Pets

From alligators to bears, the White House has been home to some unusual presidential pets over the years 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.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs