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News Analysis

Turkish Gov't Persecuting Artists & Journalists

Wed, January 23, 2013

by: 
Abigail R. Esman

Islamofascism: A controversial buzzword among the pundits and commentators since the attacks of 9/11. The term poses any number of questions, particularly for governments of Muslim countries: Is Political Islam a fascist ideology? Can Islam coexist with democracy? What is the difference between Nationalism and Islamism in an Islamic state?

These are precisely the issues that now rear their heads in the face of a series of arrests, lawsuits, and most recently, allegations of a state-sponsored assassination in Turkey over the past several months, and which have captured the attentions not only of the international media, but of human rights organizations worldwide.

Moves that elicit accusations of Islamism and fascist dictatorships are not new to the governing style of Turkey's current government, led by the Islamist AKP, or Freedom and Development party. Ongoing imprisonment of journalists, coupled with the arrest of world renowned pianist/composer Fazil Say last April on charges of insulting Islam, as well as the filing of charges earlier this month against the Turkish chapter of the human rights organization PEN for their defense of Mr. Say and "denigration of the state,” have particularly alarmed human rights activists abroad and pro democracy advocates at home.

The charges against Say were brought after the 42-year-old musician joked on Twitter about a call to prayer lasting less than a minute. Sending out the message to his thousands of subscribers, the openly atheist Say wrote, "Why such haste? Have you got a mistress waiting or a raki on the table?" 

Fundamentalist Muslims were not amused. The references to a mistress and to raki, an alcoholic drink, were inappropriate and insulting, they said, leading prosecutors to charge him with “public enmity” and “denigration of Islam.” If found guilty when his case comes to trial next month, Say could face a prison term of 18 months.

But the joke was not Say’s only misdeed.  Charges were also brought against him for another tweet, in which he quoted Omar Khayyam: “You say rivers of wine flow in heaven, is heaven a tavern for you? You say two houris [virgins] await each believer there, is heaven a brothel to you?” 

What is significant about this is that Say’s tweet was, in fact, a “retweet” – the reposting of a twitter comment someone else had initiated. Moreover, hundreds, if not thousands, of others had also tweeted the same text.  Why, then, was Say singled out?

The case made headlines worldwide.  In an interview with Newsweek last June, Say defended himself, saying, “I did not insult Islam. I just retweeted a verse that I thought was funny. One hundred and 65 others retweeted that verse the same night, but I am the only one being tried.”

Neither Say and nor his manager responded to my requests for further comment on the case. It is said that he is no longer speaking to the press on this issue – an understandable position, if true.

But supporters of the 42-year-old pianist – who has performed with the New York Philharmonic, among others – continue to speak out. In June, the Turkish chapter of PEN issued a statement condemning the prosecution of Say: "The international community has been put on alert in the face of fascist developments in Turkey,” they wrote.

Now, six months later – ironically, during the same week that the Turkish government reversed a ban on more than 1,000 books – PEN Turkey’s leaders have been called to the public prosecutor’s office on charges of violating article 301 of the penal code, which prohibits “denigration of the state.”  (Article 301 was also used against novelist Orhan Pamuk when he accused the Turkish state of murdering 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians, and against journalist Hrank Dink, who was subsequently assassinated.)

The charges took PEN leaders by surprise.  “We never thought that because of a declaration made by PEN in favor of a genius, a writer, a musician – we didn’t expect this,” said a visibly still-stunned Zanep Oral, who heads up PEN Turkey’s executive committee.   “And the thing is, I am a journalist who has been working for the past 40 years. I have seen many military coups. And you always knew what you were fighting for, what you were against.  Now we are supposed to be in a progressive democracy – the current administration calls it a ‘progressive democracy.’ But if this is the progress of democracy, I don’t know what to expect.”

And that, indeed, is the salient question.

While the persecution of PEN in this case revolves around “denigration of the state” and not “denigration of religion,” many now wonder whether the two concepts have not become one and the same – or whether the real problem with PEN’s statement was not the use of the word “fascism” but the fact that they came to the defense of someone who had allegedly insulted Islam.

[ad] This, after all, is the government that defines itself by its “duty to raise religious generations,” and the dictum, “one nation, one country, one state, and one religion” – an observation Today’s Zaman columnist and Fatih University political science professor Ihsan Yilmaz made last July. According to professor Yilmaz, "...there are an increasing number of signs that the AKP is reverting back to Islamism and this is not a first in Turkish political history."

When reached by e-mail, Professor Yilmaz expressed concern about the handling of Fazil Say’s case. “Taking Mr. Say to court for his brutal remarks is a mistake,” he said.

Any number of columnists in Turkey have expressed concerns about the imposition of religion onto their  secularized Kemalist state, from the introduction of Koran lessons  and the study of Mohammed’s life in public schools to the censoring of Darwin (whom school children are now taught was a Jew) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new plans to build the largest mosque in the country (with the tallest minarets in the world).

Increasingly, it seems, “denigrading the state” and “denigrating Islam” are becoming one and the same in this once-secularized republic, and both punishable by law, with the threat of prison hanging over the heads of the country’s free thinkers -- its musicians, its artists, its journalists, its poets – those, that is, who hold the keys to the minds of Turkey’s future. Is that “fascism,” then? “Islamism”? “Islamofascism”?

You decide.

 

Abigail R. Esman, an award-winning writer based in New York and the Netherlands, is the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West
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