The first ‘tweet’ to come under fire was a direct reference to the Persian poet Omer Khayyam describing Islamic paradise with “beautiful women and refreshing rivers”, which the pianist compares to brothel maidens and wine from a “meyhane” (Turkish tavern).
In another tweet quoted by the prosecution, the musician joked about whether the muezzin’s 22-second call to prayer was because he was running late for a drink of raki (turkish liquor) or a woman.
The court case ended on April 15, with a suspended 10-month jail term and an accompanying five-year pending sentence should the musician — a self-proclaimed atheist — ironize on religious themes during that period.
It is as if to say, ‘here’s the warning, it could get worse’.
It may seem that history is repeating itself. Writers Pamuk and Şafak faced the same charges of Say, based on the violation of article 216, in which the third paragraph punishes anyone who “openly offends the religious sentiments of a section of the population”.
But aside from the same accusation, the sentence and the outcomes were quite different. Pamuk and Şafak were given acquittals, while Say was found guilty.
The two writers were also cited for insulting “Turkish identity”, in accordance with Article 301 of the Criminal Code. This Article levies a sentence starting from six months to two years in prison, increased if “the offense comes from a Turkish citizen residing abroad” and adding that the “crime does necessarily have to be a direct manifestations of criticism”.
The fact that the two writers landed implications, the first for statements on the Armenian genocide and the second for having created a literary character unfriendly to nationalist consciousness, provides insight into the method prosecutors create charges based on Article 301, which had previously been drawn by lawyers and judges from “direct manifestation of criticism” and “insults to Turkishness”.
The two writers knew they were walking a minefield, they knew the risks they were taking – the same risks taken by anyone who has ventured to criticize Kemalists or Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (the founder of the Republic of Turkey known as the “Father of the Turks”), for which there is a separate article of the criminal code.
The first paragraph of article 5816 states that anyone who “publicly insults the memory” Atatürk “with vulgar and offensive remarks will be punished with a sentence of one to three years imprisonment,” with an extended punishment for those who “damage, ruin, break or deface statues, busts and monuments”.
This article has made it possible to bring legal proceedings against many critics, especially academics and intellectuals. The last was a young liberal and secular journalist from the newspaper Akșam and CNN-Turk, Nagihan Alçı, found guilty of offending Atatürk whom she defined “a dictator”.
The indictment came after a heavy campaign against Alçɪ led by some media members and politicians, but the point goes beyond the various and relatively positive opinions of Atatürk: in Turkey his character and reign have always been taboo topics, and the zealous application of the law protecting his ideology and character, in itself secular, has led to a kind of “secular blasphemy” over the years.
The very same instrument through which the State has pursued the protection Kemalist ideology, in fact imposed by the Republic since its foundation, is the same one no one can afford to criticize.
Note the meaning that the term “offense-blasphemy” has taken on. It characterizes the evolution of the Turkish Republic itself, gradually transforming its republic characteristics and making Turkey unique within the entire Islamic panorama.
Those who offend the “Father of the Nation, Turkish identity, the great National Assembly, the Government of the Republic, judicial or military institutions” are to be persecuted.
The object of injury is apparantly the reference to the government in power, and mostly the foundations of a national identity to which all citizens must agree to comply with and recognize — with serious repercussions to freedom of thought and expression, as evidenced by the cases cited.
The condemnation of Say, while presenting different connotations, should be placed in the same context. The alleged offense seems disproportionate to the few tweets that the offense is linked to. The news of the sentence was met with disbelief by a large part of public opinion in a country where secularism has always been a source of pride.
Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party in recent years, have adjusted the degree system of secular schools and religious schools (imam hatip) allowing graduates of the latter access to positions of prominence as never before.
With the rise to power of Erdoğan religion has become, for the first time, a factor that affects Turkish politics.
With the condemnation of Say, religion becomes part of that system of values that Turkey can neither criticize nor discuss – once again wielding serious repercussions for freedom of expression and thought.
Translated by Kathryn Carlisle