Top Turkish musician in court for insulting Islam

Istanbul, Turkey — Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say faces charges of insulting Islam in comments made on Twitter. Say's supporters as well as his critics say the case risks damaging Turkey's reputation on freedom of expression.

In April Fazil Say wrote several comments on Twitter allegedly ridiculing Islam. One message asked whether a particular call to prayer, which lasted 22 seconds, was cut short so the muezzin could get to his lover or a bottle of booze. Another questioned if heaven, where according to some interpretations of Islam wine flows and virgins await the faithful, was a brothel or a bar.

State prosecutors in Istanbul investigated accusations made by a citizen against Say and in June, they charged the 42-year-old pianist and composer with insulting religious values. A prosecutor claimed Say's tweets could lead to a "collapse of public order."

His trial starts on Thursday (18.10.2012) and he faces up to 18 months in prison, though, even if he is convicted, it is unlikely he will be sent to prison as most sentences shorter than two years are normally suspended. But he would have a criminal record.

Known critic of Erdogan government

For many Turks, Say represents more than just one musician. He's the country's leading classical composer and an internationally renowned concert pianist. Say has also sharply criticized Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's conservative-religious government. An atheist, Say said having devout Muslims in government represents a catastrophe for Turkey and said he has long considered emigrating.

Many members of Turkish and international intellectual circles have come out to show their solidarity for the musician, who lived in Düsseldorf for eight years and studied in Berlin. Nearly 8,000 people have added their names to an online petition to support Say, who served as a cultural ambassador for the EU and has performed with the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, National Orchestra of France and Tokyo Symphony.

Messages forwarded from others

Say has rejected the charges brought against him. He said the tweets were actually re-tweets of messages written by others and added that he is the only one facing criminal charges. Even observers who are generally critical of Say's actions have called the court case a scandal that could damage Turkey's international reputation.

Turkey has been especially concerned about its international reputation as criticism of the country's approach to freedom of expression has grown. In its most recent report, the European Union, which Turkey aims to join, said it had "serious concerns" about Ankara's approach to freedom of expression. Turkey rejects the charge it does not respect freedom of expression.

Judges and prosecutors in Turkey tend to a very strict interpretation of the law. They often rank freedom of expression behind the interests of state security or the threat to social harmony from verbal attack. Whether that will be will be the case for Fazil Say remains to be seen.