News / Middle East

Turkish Pianist Receives Suspended Sentence for Blasphemy

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.
Reuters
A world-renowned concert pianist was given a suspended jail sentence in Turkey on Monday for insulting religious values on Twitter, a case which has become a cause celebre for Turks alarmed about creeping Islamic conservatism.

Fazil Say, also a leading composer, went on trial in October for blasphemy - a crime that can carry an 18-month sentence - for a series of tweets including one citing a 1,000-year-old poem.

"The fact I've been convicted for an offense I didn't commit is less worrying for me personally than it is for freedom of expression and faith in Turkey,'' Say said in emailed comments.

His case has stirred up passions about the role religion should play in Turkish public life and highlighted how much has changed since Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party, which has roots in Islamist politics, swept to power a decade ago.

A judiciary once renowned for defending the secular republic against Islamist influence - notably jailing Erdogan himself for reciting a religious poem - now finds itself in hock to religious conservatives, government opponents say.

"The verdict is unacceptable, and an indicator of the AK Party's vengeful conception of the law,'' Ilhan Cihaner, a lawmaker from the main opposition CHP party, told Reuters.

Say retweeted a verse in April last year in which 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam mocks pious hypocrisy. It is in the form of questions to believers: "You say rivers of wine flow in heaven, is heaven a tavern to you? You say two houris await each believer there, is heaven a brothel to you?''

In another tweet, he poked fun at a muezzin, someone who makes the Muslim call to prayer. "The muezzin finished the evening prayers in 22 seconds ... Why are you in such hurry? A lover? A raki table?'' he asked, referring to the aniseed-flavored spirit popular in Turkey.

The series of more than half a dozen tweets led prosecutors to accuse the 43-year- old pianist of "explicitly insulting religious values''.

An Istanbul court gave him a 10-month prison sentence but suspended it by five years on condition that he does not commit the same crime again in that period.

"Say did not repeat the words of a poet, but attacked religion and the holy values of religion, completely with his own words,'' said plaintiff Ali Emre Bukagili, a civil engineer and follower of a prominent Turkish creationist, who has brought a series of such cases against public figures.

Divided opinion

Say, who has performed with leading orchestras from Tokyo to Berlin, as well as the Israel Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, denied the charge.

"Fazil Say'' became a top trending topic on Twitter immediately after the ruling was announced, with comments reflecting Turks' strong but divided opinions on the role of religion in public life.

"Scandalous and disgraceful,'' one tweet said of the ruling. "I wouldn't be surprised if a witch hunt for non-believers starts.''

Another disagreed: "Finding religious values silly is one thing, provoking people through insults another. The court ruling is not wrong.''

Erdogan's AK, its initials spelling out the Turkish word for purity, was elected in 2002 by a landslide. A decade since then of unprecedented prosperity is admired among Western allies keen to portray NATO member Turkey as a beacon of political stability in a troubled region.

But Erdogan's opponents accuse him of posing a threat to the modern, secular republic founded by Kemal Ataturk on the ruins of the Ottoman empire 90 years ago.

The courts have helped silence opposition and emasculate a military which was long the self-appointed guardian of Turkish secularism. It pressured an Islamist-led government from power in 1997 but has since been forced into retreat under AK rule.

Erdogan himself served time in prison in 1998, when military influence still held sway, for reciting a poem that a court ruled was an incitement to religious hatred.

The poem Erdogan had read contained the verses, "The mosques
 are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.''

You May Like

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Researcher: Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor at Symposium on Obesity, Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome says problem involves more than calorie intake, warns of worldwide health impact More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thoughti
X
George Putic
May 26, 2015 9:26 PM
Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.

VOA Blogs