Pianist’s Sentence Is the Latest Example of Turkey’s Slide Towards an Islamic Theocracy 3

Today, Fazil Say, 43, a famous Turkish pianist who has played with the New York Philharmonic and other world-renowned orchestras, got a 10-month suspended prison term. A Turkish court handed down the verdict after it found that Say had mocked Islam on Twitter. If he reoffends in the next five years, he’ll be put behind bars.


And what awful, shocking, impermissible things he wrote. See for yourself:

In one tweet, Say joked about a call to prayer that he said lasted only 22 seconds. Say tweeted: “Why such haste? Have you got a mistress waiting or a raki on the table?”

Raki, popular in Turkey when I visited a few decades ago, is akin to what the French call Pastis — an alcoholic drink with a sweet aniseed flavor. Alcohol is forbidden under Islam.

Another of Say’s tweets noted that Muslims are promised wine and virgins if they go to paradise (extra-marital fornication is also an Islamic no-no), and Say asked, prickly but not unreasonably, whether that meant that heaven is closer to a tavern or a brothel.

So some Islamist jackass sued.

Emre Bukagili, a citizen who filed the initial complaint against Say, said in an emailed statement that the musician had used “a disrespectful, offensive and impertinent tone toward religious concepts such as heaven and the call to prayer.”

And this harms you how, Sir? Why not tweet a witty retort, or a Qur’anic verse if you prefer, and call it a draw? You know, like they do in grownup countries?

What angers me most about this affair is that the Turkish government pretends to be pained by the whole thing — and claims to have nothing to do with it.

“I would not wish anyone to be put on trial for words that have been expressed. This is especially true of artists and cultural figures,” Culture and Tourism Minister Omer Celik said. “But… this is a judicial decision.”

This would be encouraging if it wasn’t so patently disingenuous. Turkey, though often considered to be westernized and modern, has a nasty habit of harassing and prosecuting domestic critics.

Two years ago, it convicted the only Nobel Prize winner it ever produced, the novelist Orhan Pamuk, for mentioning the Armenian genocide in an interview with a Swiss magazine. Pamuk was first put on trial for “offending Turkishness” and “offending the Armed Forces,” charges that were later lessened to violations against individual Turks’ “honor.”

Elif Shafak, perhaps the only other contemporary writer to enjoy literary fame beyond Turkey’s borders, was prosecuted for similar reasons.

There can be no doubt that this is condoned, if not encouraged, at the highest level.

Consider that making fun of Islamic prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is especially hazardous. The British collage artist Michael Dickinson, an Istanbul resident, spent three days in jail and was then made to endure a four-year legal ordeal after he portrayed Erdogan as George W. Bush’s lapdog.


A Turkish court ordered him not to insult the Dear Leader again or pay a $3,000 fine. (This was an improvement over the 14 months in jail that the judge had initially imposed on the satirist.)

I could give many such examples, but the Wall Street Journal already published a jaw-dropping roundup here, noting that Erdogan is “suing perhaps hundreds of private individuals for insulting him.”

It’s loopy enough for a 21st-century head of state to be mortally insulted by cartoons and art works and songs that are insufficiently reverential toward him; but the offense-taking is especially chilling when, subsequently, all of religion is de facto declared off-limits.

Erdogan is on record as saying that he will “raise a pious generation,” and he’s been very diligent in that regard. Notes Ankara-based journalist Sibel Utku Bila:

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has almost daily tirades to deliver. His anger has boiled over … over a sculpture not to his liking, a rock festival that offered beer to university students, and a soap opera chronicling lustful intrigues in an Ottoman harem. The premier’s outbursts are not without consequences: The “freakish” sculpture has been demolished, the rock festival has gone dry, and the fictional sultan’s household has started praying.

Religion-based censorship, Bila adds, comes in many forms in Turkey, and “often needs no law to thrive on.”

Like several years ago, when public broadcaster TRT chose not to include “Winnie the Pooh” in a major purchase of Disney cartoons because one of its main heroes, Piglet, was an animal deemed unclean in Islam. Or more recently, when a TRT presenter narrating the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics omitted John Lennon’s appeal for “no religion” when he translated the lyrics of “Imagine,” one of the songs featured in the show.

Up and down the chain of command, judges and bureaucrats are getting the message.

Take, for instance, the $30,000 fine for “insulting religious values” that Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog meted out to a private TV channel in December. The broadcaster had dared show an episode of The Simpsons in which God was shown taking orders from the devil.

I suppose you don’t have to be a religious nanny to not find that funny, but it helps.

[portrait of Fazil Say via hr-online.de]

3 thoughts on “Pianist’s Sentence Is the Latest Example of Turkey’s Slide Towards an Islamic Theocracy

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