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Turkish pianist Fazil Say: anatomy of a case

Ceylan Ozbudak

Published: Updated:

It keeps happening again and again. Yet we turn away from the underlying cause of the tensions, acrimony, and sadly, even loss of human life in an interdependent world. It does not have to be that way. We can change it and improve our societies.

First, it was Salman Rushdie writing his highly controversial book “Satanic Verses” in England in 1988, insulting the Prophet, enraging the world’s Muslims. Then it was Taslima Nasrin in Bangladesh in 1993 causing riots and even liberal Muslim governments to ban her writings attacking Muslim sensitivities.

Not to be outdone, Somalia’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali appeared in Dutch public life in 2003 and attacked the Prophet Mohamed and Muslims in scathing terms, declaring herself an ex-Muslim and joining the ranks of Rushdie and Nasrin. All three have been venerated in the West as icons of freedom of expression. All three are widely scorned in the Muslim world. From the Danish cartoons in 2005 to last year’s attacks on US embassies, killing of US diplomats, the misunderstandings and violence continue.

This last week, Istanbul Criminal Court #19 sentenced Turkish pianist Fazil Say on a conviction of “openly denigrating religious values". There has been a vibrant debate in Turkey, and amid his supporters in the West about freedom of expression. This pains me to see all this ‘argumentum ad ignorantia’.


What Fazil said


First, they have no idea how Fazil Say has no tolerance for offensive remarks against him. He cannot even stand the slightest criticism and frequently sues people saying that such criticism is not freedom of thought, but rather an ‘attack on his personal rights’. For instance:

• After the Fenerbahçe sports club lost to a Swiss team, Fazıl Say cursed Fenerbahçe and said that ‘I am embarrassed about the s*umbag behavior of losing to the Swiss team’ and after that the singer Ercan Saatçi responded to him saying that ‘Fazıl Say should stop being such a s*umbag’. Fazıl Say then went on and sued the singer Ercan Saatçi for his words.

• Fazıl Say, targeting arabesque music fans, saying ‘I am embarrassed about the s*umbag nature of arabesque listeners’. Then the singer Müslüm Gürses said about him ‘Such a s*umbag… is he an artist?’ and Fazıl Say responded by suing the singer Müslüm Gürses.

• Artist Hülya Avşar said “He just talks rubbish, he needs help”. Fazıl Say responded by suing the singer Hülya Avşar as well.

• Fazıl Say also sued Ömür Kabak, the AKP İzmir Office Chairman, for the words she used about him which were: ‘He might be a good artist. But I cannot say that he has a sufficient intellectual level. Political discussions require a certain level of knowledge. I don’t think he has that. Actually, Say owes an apology to the society.

This wasn't a blasphemy case. He wasn't prosecuted because he doesn't pray. He wasn't prosecuted because he doesn't fast

Second, they have no idea why Say was prosecuted. This wasn't a blasphemy case. He wasn't prosecuted because he doesn't pray. He wasn't prosecuted because he doesn't fast. He was prosecuted because he openly, clearly used curse words for those who believe in the existence of a Creator all around the world. This wasn't a case of free speech. He wasn't criticizing those who believe in God. He wasn’t calling them to debate. He was cursing at them. And he wasn't using a poem of Khayyam. Historians proved he was lying. Khayyam has no poem saying these. Plus it wasn't just one line. He shared 8 insuting speeches one after another. And during the course of the case he continued to insult all believers

He wrote: “(The) Muezzin (person who calls for prayer) recited the azan (Islamic call for prayer) in 22 seconds... what’s the rush, dear? Is it the raki table?

“Is Heaven a barrel house, is Heaven a brothel?” “Wherever there is jagoff, (a) cheap-jack, (a) thief, (a) jester, all are Allahist.

Just look at this last sentence. You change the last word to “Jew”, and you are an ati-semite. Change the last word to “Christian”, you are an Islamofascist. Change the last word to “black” and you are a racist. And for all of these, you will face severe public persecution. The ‘freedom of expression’ granted to individuals by law does not give one the right to insult another’s person or his religious values. Remember what happened to President Mursi when it was understood he called Jews “sons of apes and pigs”. He faced very serious pressure and persecution. Numerous politicians pressured him to apologize. And I supported it too. No one should be insulted because the tribe, nationality or religious group they belong.

Court of Rights

This is not about freedom. Europe has libel and defamation laws to prevent insulting individuals. Poland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Italy, Spain, and the UK all prohibit gratuitous insults against religion. Europeans recognize that religious faith is deserving of full legal protection as inherent social value. Germany has laws in place to stop any questioning of the Holocaust. The United States and Europe has strong legislation to prosecute any racial slurs or insults against people of color.

All these reflect understanding of sensitivities, to giving offence, to creating harmony between communities. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has extended the powers of the countries that are parties to the Convention to ensure that the cultural and religious values of the countries can be protected in an effort to bring social peace and considered that the legislation of the various EU countries to protect their own values lawful. This can be clearly seen in the many precedents of the ECHR. So the verdict against Say is completely in line with the decision of European Court of Human Rights.

Why are Muslims and our beliefs considered fair game? To us, Islam is everything. It is life itself. The Quran teaches that the Prophet is more precious to a believer than our own lives. So when he is insulted, yes, we react. No, it should not be violent --- that is always condemned. But we will take legal action. Living in a democratic country gives you the right to choose. I as a Muslim woman chose to work, have a voice in the media, vote, wear whatever I want and go to a mosque and pray when I want. But this doesn't mean I can insult and defame women wearing hijab, women who chose to be house-wives or women who chose to be atheists.

There is a lesson for the West and others in all of this. Just as the sensitivities of black people, Jews and others is considered sacrosanct and therefore beyond reproach, it is time to learn that Islam is more dear to a sincere Muslim than his or her race or nationality. Unless we understand the depth of religious belief, we will continue to make mistakes of supporting lone voices that seek to divide us with hate speech in the name of freedom of speech.

Given Turkey's prosecution of Fazil Say, can Turkey be trusted to respect the rights of those outside Islam? Absolutely. Non-Muslims in Turkey have the same right to their unbelief as Muslims have to their prayers: The Qur'an itself establishes this right, by implication of the principle that "truth stands out clear from error" and therefore there is no compulsion in religion( Al-Baqara 25). However, secular pluralism does not require moral nihilism nor is it necessary for a government to permit gratuitous insults against religious faith in to protect the right of unbelievers to express their lack of faith. Turkey was fully within her rights to sanction these statements, and if Mr. Say can't accept a ten month suspended sentence to make that point, he can cry me a river.

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Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.