Note to Turkey: Pianist’s Tweets Are Crass, Not Criminal

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By Marc Champion

Fazil Say, the Turkish pianist and composer was arraigned today in a Turkish court, accused of inciting hatred and insulting Islam on Twitter.

How can this be? This is the Turkey that we all want the rest of the Middle East to emulate in its tolerance. It's the same Turkey that, when radical Islamists across the region started storming U.S. embassies over a video that portrayed the Prophet Muhammad as a pedophile, condemned the protests and violence, as well as the video.

So maybe what Say said was even worse? There are about half a dozen tweets and retweets in the indictment, here are the highlights:

“What if there is raki in paradise but not in hell, while there is Chivas Regal in hell and not in paradise? What will happen then? This is the most important question!”

Another tweet makes fun of a muezzin for taking only 22 seconds to sing the call to prayer, asking if he has a mistress or some raki waiting for him to get back to. Another suggests that whenever people are notably greedy or thieves or otherwise bad, they turn out to be "exceedingly pious."

So not exactly a high-end debate or in the best of taste, but did they "incite public hatred"? That's a charge that most legal systems reserve for people who inflame one ethnic or religious group against another, with a view to violence. Does the Turkish justice system think that this globetrotting pianist was trying to trigger riots against religious conservatives in Turkey?

Maybe not, but Turkey's penal code does criminalize insulting religious values, just as in the bad old days of the ultranationalists and generals, Turkey criminalized insulting the republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or "Turkishness."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party rolled back the worst impact of those laws, which for decades had been used to restrict free speech, especially by those the regime felt to be insufficiently Turkish -- such as members of the country's minority Armenian and Kurdish communities.

The amendments were a real achievement and shouldn't be belittled. Yet the government didn't get rid of the "insult" clauses in the penal code. Erdogan issued more civil cases against people who allegedly insulted him -- mainly journalists but also a street performance group, a stand-up comedian and an amateur British collage artist -- than any Turkish leader before him. (He dropped all outstanding insult cases last year, shortly after a Wall Street Journal article on the subject.)

It remains a crime to insult an official in Turkey. TV presenter Cuneyt Ozdemir was facing a three-year prison term, accused of tweeting criticism of a judge, until the term was lifted in October as part of an amnesty (conditional on his not repeating the offense). Ozdemir's alleged criticism was of a judge, who upheld a lower court decision to void jail sentences against 26 men who had gang-raped a 13-year-old girl, on grounds that she consented.

Now, instead of ethnic-Armenian writer Hrant Dink being prosecuted under the "insulting Turkishness" laws, a secular pianist is on trial for insulting religious values.

Is this progress? I'd like to say yes -- Dink, after all, was shot dead by a nationalist in the streets of Istanbul in 2007. Fazil Say's trial was postponed until February, and you have to hope the courts will drop the case, rather than invite more ridicule and criticism in the EU's annual progress report on Turkey's membership bid.

Unfortunately, the case against Say is part of a pattern. Turkey's democratic progress has stalled. If the government wants to keeps its moderate, pro- democracy reputation intact it needs decriminalize insults, whether these are made against officials, Turkishness or religion. They are free speech, pure and simple.

(Marc Champion is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.


-0- Oct/18/2012 16:25 GMT