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Freedom of insult or freedom of speech? A reply to critics about the case of the Turkish pianist Fazil Say

Published: 28/05/2013 02:47:00 PM GMT
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I know that I am walking a very fine line here but I will and I have to. Recently Fazil Say, the Turkish pianist, faced a sentence of up to one and a half years in prison for the crime of 'openly insulting the sacred values of a certain fraction of the general public'.

By Sinem Tezyapar

I know that I am walking a very fine line here but I will and I have to. Recently Fazil Say, the Turkish pianist, faced a sentence of up to one and a half years in prison for the crime of 'openly insulting the sacred values of a certain fraction of the general public'. This lawsuit created a stir in the international media and caused some circles to attack Turkey and Islam in an unjust way either because of not being fully informed about the insults of Fazil Say or overlooking the facts. Although I can understand that there are important concerns that need to be taken into consideration in regards to the betterment of freedoms in Turkey, some circles are misusing this case by making demagoguery and twisting the truth of the matter. Presenting this case as a restriction of freedom of speech by Muslims and/or the government of Turkey is quite far from the truth.

First of all I would like to remind everyone that it is not Islam that is punishing Fazil Say. The laws in question were passed a very long time ago, long before Prime Minister Erdogan, long before the AK Party came into power and long before the AK Party even existed. Similar laws exist throughout the very democratic and largely post-Christian and secular EU, including France, the most staunchly secular of all EU nations. Besides there is a separation of powers in Turkey; meaning that the AK Party as a legislative body has nothing to do with the ongoing of the case as an issue of the judiciary.

America is very different – unique in many ways. It’s simply a case of where Americans' perception of the world - and of freedoms - differs from the world as it exists. However, the rest of the world is not America, nor does it adhere to American values or laws or social customs. I do not mean this in a disrespectful fashion: I am simply stating a point of fact.

Fazil Say did violate Turkish law. Therefore, the court duly found him guilty of violating the law as it is. One can debate whether or not such laws should exist but the intention of the laws is clearly to support and underlie social stability and it works in Turkey and thus the Turkish court found Fazil Say guilty of violating the law. Insulting people and their beliefs is considered as a crime not only according to the Turkish law, but in the laws of many democratic, secular countries; such as France, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Italy, Austria, Denmark and so on. Laws banning defamation against religion and faith are being presented as if it is an act against the freedom of thought and peculiar to Turkey or as if it is a sign of under-development causing embarrassment to Turkey. However the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) says otherwise and it has extended the powers of the countries within its entity to ensure the protection of cultural and religious values to in order to bring social harmony.

What is more democracy is not the freedom to insult. Democracy teaches us not to display patience in the face of insult but rather to avoid insulting others. One may not have faith in God and can hold a statement or an intellectual argument regarding this or criticize as he likes; this is freely possible but opinion or intellectual criticism is not a matter of hurling insults, curses, libels or slanders; that is why they have completely different meanings in any dictionary you should care to consult. So let us not make demagogic arguments: Fazil Say's case has nothing to do with his being an atheist or expressing his disbelief; his crime is about insulting people, cursing a specific group -in this case all believers- and inciting hatred against them. Fazil Say insulted all believers in God, and that includes Christians, Jews and also theists, in short, whoever believes in a Creator, meaning tens of millions of people; and he confirmed his lengthy insult in front of the court and consciously repeated his indecent remarks several times via social media during the court case.

But if you have read his insults and still say that it is fine with you, very well; but it is not fine with me. I am an honorable person and I don't accept insults and I seek my right by legal means to protect my honor and dignity as a Turkish citizen. The logic trying to make people become accustomed to insult can one day lead to the same for physical attacks. As a Muslim, I would never get used to being insulted and cursed. Do those who advocate freedom for insults, cursing, libels and slanders imagine what kind of a world would come to pass in that which they advocate? It would be a nightmare. I don't consider any human worthy of that. Indeed, the world they advocate is that of the world envisioned by the Marquis de Sade, who cheerfully advocated anarchy and amoralism.

Social media is powerful but unregulated and lacks proper regulations that traditional media in almost all countries are subjected to, and it goes without saying that it is thus capable of inciting hatred. It is all easy to use Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites to foment a lynch mob.

Yes, there must be limitless freedom of thought, but there can be no freedom to slander or insult people or their beliefs publicly. One may advocate any philosophy, any idea he likes, but this can be done without resorting to petty insults or slanderous talk. Let us talk with one another, let us converse in a rational manner. No one want to live in a world where the air is thick with poisonous speech or toxic hatred.

Sinem Tezyapar is a political and religious commentator and a peace activist. She can be reached on

Turkish pianist Fazil Say