Reading Between the Lines: Jailing of Turkish Blogger Wasn't About Religion

Judicial crackdowns on freedom of expression in Muslim countries, like the case of the Turkish pianist who was punished for anti-religious tweets, aren't always about religion.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

An Istanbul court recently sentenced Turkish pianist Fazil Say to a 10-month suspended jail term. Following the ruling, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said, “Mr. Say is a great artist. We take pride in his works. But his remarks are of a kind that offends almost all people living in this country, and in my opinion, this is not freedom of thought. I see it as cursing at someone’s values … Nobody should confuse freedom of thought with freedom of cursing.”

Say is indeed a great artist. He is an internationally-renowned pianist, conductor and composer. He plays with the greatest symphony orchestras and is a frequent guest in Israel. His crime was making comments on his Twitter account that are in Turkey considered a violation of the law against “publicly insulting religious values that are adopted by a part of the nation.”

Among other things, Say wrote, “I don’t know whether you have noticed or not but wherever there is a stupid person or a thief, they are believers in God. Is this a paradox?” In another tweet, he wrote, commenting on several lines of poetry about the afterlife attributed to poet Omar Khayyam, “You say its rivers will flow in wine. Is Paradise a bar? You say you will give two whores to each Muslim. Is Paradise a brothel?”

As expected, the verdict caused quite an uproar in Turkey. A website was set up calling on visitors to sign a petition against the verdict, and the press was full of articles protesting the "pro-religious" trend in the courts. Others saw that verdict as further proof that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime is leading Turkey to the edge of religious radicalism.

Turkey is not going to win any medals for freedom of expression. Quite a lot has been written here about the regime’s treatment of journalists and newspapers, Erdogan’s condemnation of his critics in the press and the direct attack on newspapers that dared to expose government corruption. But those of us concerned about freedom of the press in Turkey cannot forget that Erdogan was himself a victim of the legal system (and of the army), which put him on trial for speech connected to religion.

When the religious Welfare Party sent Erdogan to manage its campaign in southeastern Turkey in 1997, he appealed to supporters by quoting several lines from a poem by Ziya Gokalp, a pan-Turkish poet of the 20th century. The lines read: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes are our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” Erdogan, who was then mayor of Istanbul, was charged with religious incitement in violation of the constitution and convicted of the same offense as Say. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

It seems the Turkish legal system is consistent. Pro-religious and anti-religious incitement, whether under a strongly secular government or Erdogan’s pro-religious regime, carries the same punishment. It is interesting that after the sentence was announced, many people, including secular intellectuals, spoke out in defense of Erdogan, who has so far refrained from commenting on Say’s sentence.

Last week, not too far away, in Egypt, a court upheld the punishment meted out to preacher Abdullah Badr, who denounced the well-known actress Elham Shahin on television. In an interview on the religious channel Al-Hafez that took place in August 2012, Bader raised his voice to accuse Shahin of “teaching the public how to be promiscuous and licentious and how to get undressed ... How many men did you sleep with to get your status?” he asked her from the television screen.

Shahin is not only an excellent actress, but an opinionated woman who has criticized Egypt's radical religious movements freely. “What’s making a person who says such things about me watch my films? He’d be better off reading a book about religion and educating himself. Let him find a teacher of religious law to instruct him in proper Islam,” Shahin said shortly after the interview. Shahin did not stop there, though. She also brought a complaint against Badr in court, and in January he was sentenced to a year in prison and a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds. Badr's appeal was denied last week in the court of appeals.

According to “conventional wisdom," a Muslim Brotherhood regime would be expected to prevent a court from handing down a tough sentence against a Salafist preacher in defense of an actress. The court could easily cite freedom of speech to acquit Badr. In addition, the Egyptian legal system, which has become a protective barrier against the whims of President Mohammed Morsi, could have used Badr’s trial as a relatively easy way to clear its name and win points with the radical public.

It seems that in both cases, in Turkey and in Egypt, “conventional wisdom” could use an update. While freedom of expression in both countries is still far from exemplifying enlightenment and progress, whether it is an artist deeply offending a large segment of the population or a preacher making extremely insulting remarks about an actress, the legal responses are not always the result of Islamic control.

Acclaimed Turkish pianst Fazil Say recieved a suspended jail sentence for offensive tweets.Credit: AP

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