Istanbul: A Turkish court has started trial of a well-known national pianist and composer who has been alleged with the charges of offending Muslims and insulting Islam in comments he made on Twitter.
The Turkish pianist and composer, Fazil Say, who has played with the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and others, appeared in the court to defend himself against the charges. He is on trial for sending tweets that included one in April that joked about a call to prayer that lasted only 22 seconds.
Say had tweeted: “Why such haste? Have you got a mistress waiting or a raki on the table?” Raki is a traditional alcoholic drink made with aniseed. Islam forbids alcohol and many Islamists consider the remarks unacceptable.
Prosecutors in June charged Say with inciting hatred and public enmity, and with insulting “religious values.” He faces a maximum 18 months prison term, although any sentence is likely to be suspended.
Say, who has served as a cultural ambassador for the European Union, rejected the charges and demanded his acquittal, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.
The trial was adjourned until February 18 and the musician was granted the right not to appear at subsequent court hearings due to his concert schedules.
The prosecution has caused anger among intellectuals in Turkey and escalated concerns over freedom of expression in the country. Hundreds of his fans, supporters and human rights activists went to the courthouse in Istanbul in a show of solidarity, holding up signs that read: “Fazil Say is not alone” and “Free Art, Free World.”
Say, 42, is a strong critic of the Islamic-rooted government of Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a sincere Muslim who has preached Islamic values, alarming some secular Turks who fear the government plans to make religion part of their lifestyle.
Turkey has a history of prosecuting its artists and writers, and the European Union has long encouraged the nation to improve freedom of speech if it wants to become a member of the bloc one day.
The Minister In-charge of relations with the EU, Egemen Bagis, suggested the case against Say should be dismissed saying the court should regard Say’s tweets as being within “his right to babble.” However, he criticized the pianist for “insulting people’s faith and values.”
The charges against Say also cite other tweets he sent, including one - based on a verse attributed to famous medieval poet and wine-lover Omar Khayyam - which questioned whether heaven was a tavern or a brothel, because of the promises that wine will flow and each believer will be greeted by virgins.
Say has since closed his Twitter account and said that he plans to leave Turkey for Japan. His lawyer said that Say has received some death threats.