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Indicted for Twitter joke

June 9, 2012

Pianist Fazil Say is an internationally acclaimed Turkish artist. He could face a sentence of 18 months in prison on charges of insulting Muslim religious values on Twitter. Critics call him a "traitor to the nation."

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"Could paradise be a brothel?" is one of Fazil Say's Twitter posts that have incurred the wrath of Turkish authorities. Some of the tweets by the internationally acclaimed Turkish pianist weren't even his own words. Say quoted medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam: "You say that there are rivers of wine. Does that mean it is a heavenly bar? You say two virgins will be given to every believer. Does that mean it is a heavenly brothel?"

Say's Twitter posts instantly provoked debate and Muslim Turks insulted him online. The 42-year-old, who has said he is an atheist, stayed calm and reacted with sarcasm: "The muezzin's call for evening prayer lasts only 22 seconds. Prestissimo con fuoco!! Why the haste? A mistress? The raki table?"

Charges of sedition

Say's comments also drew the ire of Turkish authorities who alerted Istanbul's Public Prosecution Service. Say now faces charges of inciting hatred and public enmity, and insulting "religious values." The prosecutor claimed Say's tweets could lead to a "collapse of public order."

Komponist und Pianist Fazil Say
Fazil Say combines tradition and avantgardeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Say is not unknown to the Turkish authorities. He openly criticized the Turkish government on several occasions, and said he'd consider leaving his home country because of the politics by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose party has strong roots in Islam.

In an April 23 interview with Turkish daily Hürriyet, Say announced he would emigrate to Japan, because of the growing cultural intolerance in Turkey.

"When I said I was an atheist everybody insulted me," said Say. The authorities "chased after everything I posted on Twitter." In the interview Say said he felt completely ostracized from Turkish society and that the criticism he was facing was a sign of a growing atmosphere of intolerance in Turkey.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Fazil Say, Burhan Öcal
Fazil Say (r) with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and percussionist Burhan ÖcalImage: Marco Borggreve

Getting rid of an annoying critic?

Say was one of the 166 Twitter users to circulate the Khayyam quote but is the only one to face a trial for posing a risk to public order. But Turkish authorities have punished other artists. Author and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk had to pay damages in 2006 after he openly criticized the genocide of Armenians. The same year saw author Elif Shafak standing trial for broaching the same topic in her book "The bastard of Istanbul." Turkish author Nedim Gürsel was the latest case of a prominent artist who - like Say - got into trouble with the law in 2009, for allegedly criticizing Islam. The author of the novel "Allah's daughters" had to stand trial in Turkey on charges of blasphemy.

Internationally-acclaimed artist

Say is a star pianist of international acclaim and has in the past performed with the philharmonic orchestras of Berlin, New York, Tokyo and Israel, as well as with the French national orchestra. In 1994, he won the first prize at the European Young Concert Artists International Auditions. That was his break-through.

Fazil Say - Pianist
Could his career be over if he is sentenced to prison?Image: dpa

According to Say's lawyer, Meltem Akyol, insulting religious values can be punished with prison sentences in Turkey. Akyol has denied all charges made against her client. Turkish news agency Dogan reported on June 4 that Say declared he never intended to offend anyone and that freedom of opinion was a universal right.

The trial against Say is to start on October 18. If found guilty, he faces up to 18 months in jail. Say has said he believes that if he is sentenced to prison, his career is finished. Fans and friends have launched a campaign to support the musician. By June 8, the campaign had more than 5,000 members.

Author: Arne Lichtenberg / nh
Editor: Sean Sinico