Turkish pianist Fazil Say appeared in an Istanbul court Thursday to defend himself against charges he insulted Islam on Twitter.
Say performs around the world with prestigious orchestras such as the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.
His trial was adjourned until February 18.
Zeynep Tufekci is a visiting associate research scholar at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy.
She tells host Marco Werman Say’s tweets did not seem that offensive by Turkey’s standards.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH-Boston. World renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say is used to the spotlight. He regularly performs with the likes of the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, but it was a different sort of spotlight that shone on Fazil Say today. The pianist appeared in an Istanbul court, charged with insulting Islam and inciting public hatred on Twitter. Say told the court he rejects the charges against him. His trial was adjourned until February. Zeynep Tufekci is a visiting scholar at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. She also happens to be Turkish. Tufekci says the tweets in question didn’t seem that offensive to her.
Zeynep Tufekci: One of them was in response to the muezzin who reads the call to prayer, which Fazil Say thought ended early and he said, why only 22 seconds, what’s your hurry. Are you in a hurry to go meet your lover, are you in a hurry to go to a raki table.
Werman: Raki is a strong alcohol.
Tufekci: A strong alcoholic drink, so that was the one that got him in trouble. Another one he paraphrased well known verse by Omar Khayyam which he said, you say that there is wine flowing in rivers in heaven, so is heaven a bar, and that there will be women for the believers, then are you saying heaven is a brothel. And those got him in a lot of trouble.
Werman: So Khayyam is a well-known poet, of course, but tell me about that first tweet. What’s your hurry, is it a lover, is it alcohol. Is it that part of it that so upset the critics?
Tufekci: I don’t think so because the Turkish social media space and in fact even just Turkish public space in general, there is a lot of either criticism of religion or people who are not believers. I don’t really find that particularly out of step with what you could find. I think he wouldn’t have gotten in this much trouble if he had not also been a prominent and biting critic of the government.
Werman: Right, I was just about to ask you about that. So is that what’s really going on here?
Tufekci: Well, that would be my read of it, because coming down with the prosecution request for a jail term for about a year and a half, that seems quite extreme, and I don’t think that would happen if, as I said, he had not been a prominent critic of the government.
Werman: And not just a prominent critic, but a prominent musician who’s toured all over the world and played with some of the world’s best symphonies. Interestingly enough, Zeynap, there was a case that made headlines back in 2001 of a US citizen, a Muslim Sufi preacher who was jailed for criticizing the then-secular government of Turkey. So you could see this as a 360 degree turn, or really nothing has changed. What do you see it as?
Tufekci: It is actually quite disappointing because it used to be that people who argued for more religion in public spaces or who argued against secularism would be threatened with court orders and would be put in jail sometimes even. And in fact, our current prime minister, who’s been prime minister for just about ten years now, and who’s the most powerful man in Turkey, he himself spent four months in jail for reading a poem and paraphrasing a little bit.
Werman: Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan.
Tufekci: He spent four months in jail out of a ten month sentence for reading a poem by a very prominent Turkish poet, in fact, which said that religion is our army, that religion is our weapons, and we will beat whatever it is you consider evil. Now the poem was clearly a metaphor, it was not the sort of, we are going to go do something violent. It was saying that armed with religion, we will overcome. And he got a ten-month jail sentence, and he did serve the sentence. So it’s unfortunate that instead of learning from their own experience as dissidents and people who went to jail for free speech, the government is now not using its power to enact real, fundamental free speech laws in Turkey that would protect critics.
Werman: I remember a few years ago Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk was tried for insulting Turkishness, I think.
Werman: And I’m just wondering, is this what happens in a moderate Muslim state like Turkey, free speech can be challenged on religious and kind of nationalistic grounds as well?
Tufekci: It is quite unfortunate, and as many people said, the biggest insult to Turkishness is that there was a trial like that. And this kind of prosecution seems to happen more frequently to people who criticize the current government and people who become prominent, especially people who are well known internationally like Orhan Pamuk was and Fazil Say is. And the government’s defense is, well, it’s just the judicial system and we don’t have oversight over it. Well, then that’s a great challenge. They’re in a great place to change the laws, and they’re choosing not to do that at the moment. so that to me is a worrisome moment, especially as a lot of emerging Muslim democracies are looking for models of how to move forward in the 21st century free speech environment. And it’s unfortunate to see that this Turkish government is not taking steps to legally and judicially protect free speech.
Werman: Zeynep Tufekci with Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. Always good to speak with you. Thanks.
Tufekci: Same here. Thank you.
Werman: By the way, I also asked Zeynep Tufekci about another case involving freedom of speech and Twitter. This one is in Germany where Twitter has blocked an account belonging to a neo-Nazi group at the request of a local court. You can hear our discussion of that case at TheWorld.org.
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