‘Blasphemy’ Jail Sentence Unsettles Turkish Twitterati

May 19, 2013 Updated: May 19, 2013

ISTANBUL—The case of a renowned Turkish musician, who had been given a suspended prison sentence for posting Tweets deemed blasphemous caused unease amongst social media users.

“After the trial, many Twitter users have become wary about what they say and write. Who is the winner?” said composer and pianist Fazil Say following his trial in a recent interview with Turkish daily Milliyet. 

The case against the world-famous pianist began last year after a few people made complaints about a series of Tweets. On April 15th, a Turkish Court found him guilty of “openly insulting the religious values of public.” The court ordered 10 months suspended imprisonment with five years’ probation, meaning if Say commits a similar crime he will be sentenced for both charges. 

A retrial was ordered after it was found there were procedural errors in the trial, reported state-run news agency Anatolia on April 26. Say and other Turkish Twitterati await the verdict as a gauge of freedom of expression in the country. Elected officials stand behind the verdict, saying a person does not have the right to insult the religious beliefs of another. 

Say insists he is innocent. “I am extremely disappointed with the restrictions on freedom of thought and expression. The fact that I have been charged with punishment despite being totally innocent is alarming, not only on a personal level, but in terms of freedom of expression and beliefs in Turkey,” he said on his official website.

Say has been critical of religious practice, society, and government. In one of his Tweets he mocked a muezzin who calls Muslims to prayer. In another Tweet he said “those who are disingenuous, bad, thieves, and fools” are all Muslim. 

His lawyer clarified that two Tweets did not belong to Say, but were reposted replies. “There was no intention to insult or humiliate,” he said. However, the clarification did not influence the verdict. 

The Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc asked Say to apologize to Muslims.

One of the tweets that landed the pianist in trouble was in fact a poem by 11th-century Persian philosopher, mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam: “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?”

Some writers have protested against the court’s decision, joking that Khayyam has apparently been sentenced in Turkey after 1,000 years. “Fortunately Omer Khayyam is dead” wrote journalist Cuneyt Ozdemir on Twitter.

According to social media consulting firm Monitera, there are roughly 10 million twitter users in Turkey, with a 33 percent increase in the past year. 

PEN International, a worldwide association of writers that supports freedom of expression, condemned the trial of Fazil Say. Board members of PEN Turkey were called to the prosecutor’s office for insulting government and state institutions. The board submitted an official statement back in January: “We strongly condemn and meet with consternation the [news] that our esteemed composer and pianist Fazil Say has been called up to court. The international community has been put on alert in the face of fascist developments in Turkey.”

The court’s decision was backed by senior politicians. 

“Fazil Say has not been charged for expressing his thoughts, but for openly insulting religious values,” said vice president and spokesperson of AK Party Huseyin Celik in an interview with local newspaper Haberturk. “You can be a world famous musician, you can be very successful, but this success does not give you the right to insult the beliefs of others. In such cases, the European Court of Human Rights says that insulting religious beliefs is a crime. Fazil Say needs to get his act together.”

Follow Emel on Twitter: @mlakan