Turkish pianist sentenced for tweeting Omar Khayyam poetry

Omar Khayyam.jpg

A world-renowned concert pianist was given a suspended jail sentence in Turkey today (15 April) for insulting religious values on Twitter, a case which has become a cause célèbre for Turks alarmed about creeping Islamic conservatism.

Fazil Say, also a leading composer, went on trial in October for blasphemy – a crime that can carry an 18-month sentence – for a series of tweets including one citing a thousand-year-old poem.

That message, in April last year, retweeted a verse in which 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam mocks pious hypocrisy. It is in the form of questions to believers: "You say rivers of wine flow in heaven, is heaven a tavern to you? You say two houris await each believer there, is heaven a brothel to you?"

In another tweet, Say poked fun at a muezzin. "The muezzin finished the evening prayers in 22 seconds … Why are you in such hurry? A lover? A raki table?" he asked, referring to the aniseed-flavoured spirit popular in Turkey.

The series of more than half a dozen tweets led prosecutors to accuse the 43-year old pianist of "explicitly insulting religious values".

An Istanbul court gave him a 10-month prison sentence but suspended it by five years on condition that he does not commit the same crime again in that period.

"Honestly we were not expecting this ruling, and all I can say is, both legally and for the country, it's a sad decision," Say's lawyer Meltem Akyol told Reuters.

Religious conservatives have become ever more assertive since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an's AK Party, which has roots in Islamist politics, swept to power a decade ago, arousing fears that Turkey's secular traditions are being eroded.

"Say did not repeat the words of a poet, but attacked religion and the holy values of religion, completely with his own words," said plaintiff Ali Emre Bukagili, a civil engineer and follower of a prominent Turkish creationist, who has brought a series of such cases against public figures.

Say, who has performed with leading orchestras from Tokyo to Berlin, as well as the Israel Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, denied the charge.

Turkey's relations with the European Economic Community (EEC) date back to 1959. It gained candidate status in 1999.

The EU opened accession talks with Turkey in October 2005, but a number of stumbling blocks are holding up Ankara's progress, in particular concerning Turkey's relations with Cyprus, human and minority rights and freedom of expression.

Out of 35 negotiation chapters, so far only one chapter (science and research) has been provisionally closed. Thirteen chapters are open, but the EU has suspended the opening of eight chapters over Turkey's failure to implement the Ankara Protocol, which states that access should be granted and ports opened to products coming from the Republic of Cyprus.

The opening of another 11 chapters has been blocked by the France and the Republic of Cyprus, amounting to 19 blocked chapters in total.

In 2010, the EU, in a gesture of good faith towards Turkey, opened another chapter in the accession process, increasing the total number of opened chapters to 13. The chapter covers sectors related to food safety and veterinary standards.

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