April 24, 2013

Turkish Democracy Lacks An Essential Freedom

By: Elisha Maldonado

Fazil Say, the internationally-acclaimed Turkish pianist, bumped up against the limits of free speech in the Middle Eastern country that likes to think it has married Muslim religious tenets with Western, democratic politics.

On April 15, Say was hit with a 10-month suspended prison sentence for mocking Islam in a number of ways on Twitter. The suspension is essentially a five-year gag order, meaning that as long as he doesn’t repeat what he was been deemed guilty of, he won’t see the inside of a jail cell.

Say’s conviction is based on “openly insulting the religious values held by a portion of the public,” and for “blasphemy,” and for “inciting public hatred” with his year-old Twitter posts.

The not-permitted-under-freedom-of-expression tweets are as follows:

“You say the rivers will flow with wine, is heaven a tavern? You say each believer will receive two women, is heaven a brothel?” Another joked about the rapidity of a daily call to prayer, suggesting the muezzin who makes the call was tardy for drinks. According to the indictment, the tweet read: “What’s the hurry? Lover waiting?”

The conviction also extended to the retweeting of “offensive” posts, such as: “I am not sure if you have realized it, but where there is a scum, a lowlife, a thief or a fool, s/he is always an Allahist. Is this a paradox?”

The several things that need pointing out were best voiced by Bloomberg’s Marc Champion.

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.

The question of whether Say committed an egregious error in tweeting the above has been matter of debate among freedom of expression supporters, in the West, and Turks in favor of his conviction — those who consider Say’s actions to be gratuitous insults against the core of a society.

But just because a country happens to be 99 percent comprised of adherents to the same religion, doesn’t mean it’s representative of the whole.

Turkey likes to posture as a quasi-Western democracy, and it wants to keep up this reputation, despite its litany of free speech abuses. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech, though, go hand in hand. That’s why the First Amendment to the Constitution protects both. The right to worship or not, the right to proclaim openly what one does or does not believe — even to the point of mockery — are basic freedoms.

If Turkey wants a Western-style democracy, it must abide by the essential tenets of a democracy. It can’t cherry-pick. Say, a self-proclaimed atheist, is merely exercising those rights, even if his jokes were in poor taste.

After all, part of the beauty of freedom of speech is that it allows ignorance (if you tend toward the Say-is-insulting belief) to be advertised.

But it hasn’t been viewed that way by some Turks.

“This wasn’t a blasphemy case. He wasn’t prosecuted because he doesn’t fast,” Turkish political analyst Ceylan Ozbudak wrote at Al Arabiya. “He was prosecuted because he openly, clearly used curse words for those who believe in the existence of a Creator all around the world. This wasn’t a case of free speech. He wasn’t criticizing those who believe in God. He wasn’t calling them to debate. He was cursing at them. … The freedom of expression granted to individuals by law does not give one the right to insult another’s [sic] person or his religious values.”

Actually, yes, yes, it does. Insults are plainly a component of free speech. Besides, offense isn’t necessarily given, it’s generally just taken. One always has the right to blow off what another says. Even Turkey’s main opposition, the Republicans Peoples’ Party, or CHP, agrees.

This is a “new link in the long chain of assaults on the freedom of expression and freedom of conscience in Turkey,” Faruk Logoglu, deputy international affairs chairman for the CHP, said. “This is shameful for Turkish democracy.”

In the Turkey of yore, it used to be criminal to blaspheme the republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or deride the sentimentality of “Turkishness.”

But as Champion pointed out, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP, have “rolled back the worst impact of those laws, which for decades had been used to restrict free speech, especially by those the regime felt to be insufficiently Turkish — such as members of the country’s minority Armenian and Kurdish communities. The amendments were a real achievement and shouldn’t be belittled.”

The “insult” clauses, however, still exist in the penal code. And Turkey can’t pretend to be a democracy while it’s still stomping on the freedom of speech that permits the offensive. It’s one of the ugly things (or beautiful, depending on one’s viewpoint) that freedom of speech extends to lampooning something held dear by another.

But, again, the choice belongs to the beholder of the mockery, to take offense, or counter in a more productive way, or by being confident in what you hold to be true, despite the naysayers. This confidence ennobles the believer more than any joking non-believer ever could.

If freedom of speech doesn’t extend to the disagreeable, it shouldn’t extend to what a large portion of a country, like Turkey, does find agreeable.

Elisha Maldonado is the editorial page editor for the International Business Times. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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