Turkey's Shameful Prosecution of Pianist Fazil Say

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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(Corrects spelling of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in fifth paragraph.)

If only it were a shock. A Turkish court today convicted the country's best-known classical pianist and composer, Fazil Say, for inciting hatred and insulting Islam.

Say, who is a regular guest with the New York Philharmonic and Vienna Symphony among other orchestras, was given a 10-month suspended sentence in absentia, for a series of mischievous tweets he sent to his 44,000 followers. More accurately, he was gagged for 10 months: The point of his suspended sentence is that he goes to jail if he repeats the offenses.

There are several things to make clear here. The first is that the charges against Say are ridiculous. He made jokes about Imams and Muezzin, who are fallible humans and not gods or prophets; he joked about what booze will be available in which part of the afterlife (the world's jails would overflow if that were a crime elsewhere, no blasphemous pun intended); and he forwarded a controversial rhyming couplet from a 12th century Persian polymath, concerning the garden of Eden, wine and sex.

You don't have to like these jokes, and you don't have to follow Fazil Say on Twitter. But the only way these tweets can rise to the level of inciting hatred is if you accept that arguments made widely and for centuries are legitimate causes for a violent response, rather than disagreement.

A second point is that this use of the courts to suppress free speech has a long history in Turkey. The old fiercely secular regime used the judicial system to supress criticism of the Turkish Republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, among other nationalist taboos. The current government has merely re-targeted the repressive laws it inherited, rather than eliminating them.

Thirdly, Turkey's Islamic-leaning government is far from unique in the region in its use of the courts to punish "insults," whether these are against Islam or the country's leaders. The first fully empowered Islamist leaders of both Turkey and Egypt have made more use of these insult laws than all of their predecessors combined. Both Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Mohamed Mursi have prosecuted comedians for laughing at them.

Finally, don't listen to arguments that the governments have nothing to do with these prosecutions, which are purely matters for the courts. The people who make those arguments don't believe them. In some countries, with independent courts, that separation may be real. Neither Turkey nor Egypt, however, has genuinely independent courts -- they were deeply politicized under previous regimes, and they remain so today, in part because the new regimes purged old regime judges and replaced them with their own loyalists. They know exactly what they are doing.

In any case, governments are not powerless before the judiciary, because their job is to make the law. The role of any government that claims to espouse democracy should be to eliminate bad legislation such as "insult" laws, the sole purpose of which is to suppress the free speech. That's especially true for Turkey, if it genuinely wants to join the European Union one day. Without free speech, no healthy democracy can develop.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net