Turkish musician sentenced for anti-Islamic tweets

So much for the benign nature of Islam, even in countries as liberal and secularized as Turkey. As the New York Times reports:

ISTANBUL — A court here handed down a suspended 10-month jail term on Monday for Fazil Say, an internationally acclaimed Turkish pianist and composer convicted of insulting Islam and offending Muslims in postings on Twitter.

Mr. Say, 42, who has performed with major orchestras around the world in places including New York, Berlin and Tokyo, said during earlier hearings that the accusations against him went “against universal human rights and laws.” The sentence was suspended for five years, meaning that the pianist will not be sent to prison unless he is convicted of re-offending within that period.

In recent years, many intellectuals, writers and artists have been prosecuted for statements about Islam and Turkish identity, both of which the pro-Islamic government seeks to shield from criticism. Social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, however, have rarely figured in previous trials, although Turks are active users of the sites.

Well, it’s a mercy Say won’t see jail time, but really? That country aspires to join the EU?

And the nature of his crime? Part of it involved quoting one of my favorite poems, a paean to enjoying this life and not a supposed hereafter:

The messages cited in the indictment were Mr. Say’s personal remarks referring to a poem by a famous 11th-century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, which poked fun at an Islamic vision of the afterlife.

The poem was sent to Mr. Say from another user before he forwarded it.

In another personal Twitter post, he joked about the rapid call to prayer at a nearby mosque, questioning whether the muezzin who makes the call was running late for a drink.

These aren’t Islamic “fundamentalists” or “extremists;” this is the Turkish government, for crying out loud.

h/t: Greg Mayer


  1. johne2010
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    There are many disturbing news coming from Turkey, this is just the latest one. Let’s not forget that the current prime minister once said that democracy is just a bus that gets you to your destination. When you get there, you get off.

    • Mel
      Posted April 15, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      Reminds me of the kind of thing the Christian Reconstructionist Gary North would say:

      Everyone talks about religious liberty, but no one believes it. So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.

      I lost track of this quote for awhile, but I found it — and more — here:

  2. Don
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    These are still the Dark Ages.

  3. Hempenstein
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Kemal Ataturk would have handled this quite differently.

  4. Hamilton Jacobi
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Turkey is not a secular country any more. They’re planning on converting the 13th century Church of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

  5. Posted April 15, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    “That country aspires to join the EU?”

    The EU doesn’t require secularism. At least in Germany, Austria and Ireland blasphemy is a crime.

    • Posted April 15, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think it’s punishable with jail time though, is it?

      • Posted April 15, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

        yes, it is! Up to 3 Years in Germany and up to 6 months in Austria.

        • CFM
          Posted April 16, 2013 at 3:54 am | Permalink

          Blasphemy in itself is not punishable in Germany.

          Reviling religious ideas (or world views in general) and rituals or insulting churches or “communities with a certain world view” in a way that may lead to a “disturbance of the public peace” is. Same for Austria.

          As there are atheist and humanist organizations in Germany which are officially “Weltanschauungsgemeinschaften” (communities with a certain world view), this law does (technically) protect these and their ideas as well.

          The problem is: This still affords (religious) world views a protection not granted to, for example, political points of view. And everything depends on what is interpreted as a “disturbance of the public peace”.

          Interestingly, Say has been convicted for “insulting Islam” – not for “insulting Allah”.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted April 16, 2013 at 6:03 am | Permalink

            So in theory, telling atheists they’re all going to burn Hell forever could land you in the slammer in Germany? (Obviously you’d have to be pretty strident about it. I expect the Westboro Baptist Church could manage it though).

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted April 16, 2013 at 6:04 am | Permalink

              *in* Hell, of course.

              • P.S. Rayter
                Posted April 16, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

                No; fear of violent Islamist reactions to any criticism leads to the end of freedom of speech. Neville Chamberlain must be laughing in his grave.

  6. Mel
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Semicolons should go outside of quotation marks.

    • tomh
      Posted April 15, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      Not in the US.

      • Mel
        Posted April 15, 2013 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

        True for commas but not for semicolons. For commas, I think the British system makes more sense.

  7. gluonspring
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Let’s see the poem! If the poem will put someone in Turkey in jeopardy of jail, seems like it should be reprinted as often as possible.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 15, 2013 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

      Depends which stanzas of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam you want to see. It’s a looong poem, and Fitzgerald (the ‘translator’) wrote at least five versions. I say ‘translator’ in quotes because I’m not sure how much of the translated version is owed to Omar Khayyam of Naishapur, and how much to Fitzgerald.

      Omar was fatalistic and sceptical, I think.

      In the light of a recent noted bereavement I’ll quote:

      And those who husbanded the Golden Grain,
      And those who flung it to the Winds like Rain,
      Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn’d
      As, buried once, Men want dug up again.

      Or one for this website:
      Myself when young did eagerly frequent
      Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
      About it and about: but evermore
      Came out by the same Door as in I went.

      Or his best-known line:
      The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
      Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
      Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
      Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

      (Howcome I know it? Because it was a favourite of my father’s. It is the ONLY thing, ever, on which my father’s tastes and mine coincided : )

      But you can find the whole thing with a quick Google on the net.

      • Posted April 16, 2013 at 1:31 am | Permalink

        I suspect that the objectionable verses were some of these:

        Alike for those who for TO-DAY prepare,
        And those that after a TO-MORROW stare,
        A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
        “Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There!”

        Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
        Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
        Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
        Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.

        Oh, Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin
        Beset the Road I was to wander in,
        Thou wilt not with Predestination round
        Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?

        Oh, Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
        And who with Eden didst devise the Snake;
        For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
        Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give—and take!

        None answer’d this; but after Silence spake
        A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
        “They sneer at me for learning all awry;
        “What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?”

        Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
        To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
        Would not we shatter it to bits—and then
        Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

        Any of those, by apparently criticising Allah or his prophets, might be deemed blasphemous.

        The FitzGerald “translation” is condemned in detail in a version by Robert Graves and Idries Shah and a more literal translation offered, showing that FitzGerald just concocted some fatalistic verses pleasing to his Victorian audience with only the loosest connection to Khayyam’s actual meaning.

        • Posted April 16, 2013 at 2:23 am | Permalink

          When it comes to blasphemous religious poetry, I haven’t seen any that is more hard hitting than that of Kabir (who, ironically, is worshipped as a saint today by the same people whose religious rituals he mocked as worthless). Two of his most famous couplets go as follows:

          If God was to be found by worshipping stone,

          I would then worship mountains.

          This grindstone is better than those statues,

          For it produces the flour that feeds the world.


          By cobbling a few rocks together,

          They have constructed a mosque.

          A muezzin now climbs it and croaks,

          Has God gone deaf?

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted April 16, 2013 at 3:54 am | Permalink

          I rather like stanza 57, and 73.

          I did have doubts about how accurate FitzGerald’s ‘translation’ was, though actually I’m not worried about it, I only know FitzGerald’s version. IMO the Victorians had quite a lot to recommend them (notwithstanding their celebrated faults).

      • Posted April 16, 2013 at 2:16 am | Permalink

        Perhaps it is worth noting that apart from being one of the greatest poets the world has ever seen, Omar Khayyam was also one of the foremost mathematicians of his age (which, by the way, was the age when mathematicians in the middle east were synthesizing earlier discoveries and making several of their own to lay the foundations of what we now call algebra). He was not unlike the later Leonardo da Vinci in the expanse and depth of his work.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 15, 2013 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

      Oh, I forgot the ‘enjoying this life’ theme –

      Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
      A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
      Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
      And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

      Another well-known Omar quote.

  8. John
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    I find it disturbing that a country moving in that direction would be considered stable enough to be in NATO. It’s something we certainly need to watch; its scary on the fringes right now, and if that be so, scary at the core is not far away.

    • Posted April 15, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

      As commenter profon pints out above, neither the EU nor the NATO require secular laws as a membership criterion: Germany, for example, still has blasphemy laws under which a person can be imprisoned for three years. As such, were Turkey to join the EU, it would not be very different in this regard from some of the current members; contrary to what the post above might suggest.

      To me the most ironic part of this whole issue is that one of the journalist seems to have been jailed for insulting Islam, when all he seems to have done is quote a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_Khayy%C3%A1m”>poet who was an important pillar of what is now referred to as the Islamic Golden Age.

    • Posted April 16, 2013 at 12:44 am | Permalink

      They let the US into NATO, didn’t they?

      • Posted April 16, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        We don’t put people in jail for blasphemous tweets.

        • Posted April 17, 2013 at 12:13 am | Permalink

          No, but you put people in prison for lots of other things — I see figures of 716 per 100,000 (Turkey imprisons 168). It’s a disgrace.

          • Posted April 17, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

            Yes,agreed. But we’re pretty good on freedom of speech. And that is important.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted April 16, 2013 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      Authoritarian governments tend to be pretty stable. NATO is about defense of territory, not ideology.

  9. Mike Lee
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    I have just read on the BHA website of atheist bloggers in Bangaladesh being arrested for their comments on the internet…!
    But I suppose that’s to be expected in countries where militant Islam holds sway.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 15, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

      According to a report I saw, they are not necessarily atheists (it could just be the worst insult the Islamists can throw their way), but they have been calling for punishment of the leaders of the Islamic political party for crimes committed during the Partition. More than that I don’t know.

  10. Occam
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    These aren’t Islamic “fundamentalists” or “extremists;” this is the Turkish government, for crying out loud.

    “Turkish government”, “fundamentalists”, “extremists”: no real contradiction these days, not with the AKP in power.

    • Posted April 16, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

      Which really goes to show the same point.

      Islamic “fundamentalists” and “extremists” are not some fringe group we can safely ignore.

  11. revjimbob
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    ‘That country aspires to join the EU?’
    Recently, José Manuel Barroso, European commission president butted in to the Scottish independence debate (we have a referendum on the issue next year) by asserting that Scotland would not become part of the EU automatically, but would have to re-apply (with the implication that we may not get admitted).
    These are the people who are desperate to get Turkey as a member. The bulk of the country is not even in Europe, and has little in common politically, culturally, historically, and yes, even religiously, with the rest of Europe.
    They should realise that Scotland is perhaps the most pro-Europe part of the UK, and that we have a long memory when the increasingly likely UK referendum on EU membership takes place.

    • revelator60
      Posted April 16, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      “The bulk of the country is not even in Europe, and has little in common politically, culturally, historically, and yes, even religiously, with the rest of Europe.”

      Religiously it’s got something in common with Bosnia and Albania, whose large Muslim populations are the direct result of the Ottoman Empire ruling over much of the Balkans for over 400 years. So historically Turkey has got a lot in common with Eastern Europe as well. The European side of Turkey only shrank to a small size during the Balkan Wars in 1913. Turkey really was a secular country for the past few decades–unfortunately, the current ruling party, the AKP, is trying to reverse the trend. And as in many developing countries, the rise of a middle-class/bourgeoisie often means a rise in religiosity. The rise of that middle-class is due to Turkey’s current economic success. Economically, Turkey would do less damage to the EU than a member like Greece has. But I suspect it’ll take a few more decades for the former to make it in, after the AKP has left power (if it ever will).

  12. MKray
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    Fazil Say is, in fact a pianist of international reputation and a composer. I happen to have a very nice CD of Haydn sonatas played, very well, by him.

  13. Greg Peterson
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I would just like to thank the Turkish government for calling my attention to this excellent musician. Since this story first broke, I have downloaded several of Say’s albums and my partner and I enjoy his musical sensibilities very much. Thanks, Islamists! You keep directing me toward the most interesting material! If it wasn’t for such folks, I might never have read any of the amazing Rushdie’s novels, either–and that would have been a real shame.

  14. JBlilie
    Posted April 16, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Only a tad off topic: If you haven’t listened to Say’s disc, “Bach”, you absolutely should. You are in for an audio treat. Maybe my favorite piano record. Amazing stuff. The Chaconne in Dm for solo violin (BWV 1004) arranged for piano by Busoni is … incredible.

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