Turkey's Most Famous Pianist Convicted For "Blasphemous" Tweets

Turkish pianist Fazil Say in 2011
Turkish pianist Fazil Say in 2011
Ismail Saymaz

ISTANBUL – Earlier this month, a Turkish court sentenced world-famous pianist Fazil Say to a ten-month suspended jail sentence for “insulting religious values.”

Say, 43, had tweeted the following verse from 11th century poet Omar Khayyam: “You say that the rivers flow with wine, is Heaven a tavern? You say that you will give every believer two very beautiful women, is Heaven a brothel?”

He also retweeted a missive posted by someone else: “I am not sure if you have noticed, but where there is a louse, a non-entity, a lowlife, thief or idiot, they are all pro-Allah. Is this a paradox?”

In another tweet, he made fun of the muezzin’s call for prayer: “The muezzin recited the evening prayer in 22 seconds. Prestissimo con fuoco!!! What is your hurry? A lover? Raki?” (raki is a Turkish alcoholic drink flavored with aniseed.)

Hulusi Pur, the judge who handed down the April 15 ruling, said the tweets "do not contribute anything to the public debate but unnecessarily offend the common values of Allah, heaven and hell of the three major religions in the world, and were written to denigrate religious values by creating the opinion that these concepts are meaningless, unwarranted and worthless.”

He added, “the contents of the tweets cannot be considered within the scope of the practice of the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion and expression.”

According to Judge Pur, freedom of expression can be limited under some circumstances according to the second article of the European Convention on Human Rights. He referred to three past verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to support the justification of his verdict, including a 1995 ruling that Turkish authorities did not violate freedom of expression by convicting a book publisher who'd printed insults against Allah, Islam, the Prophet and the Koran.

Article 216(3) of the Turkish Criminal Code states: "Any person who openly denigrates the religious beliefs of a group shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to one year if the act is conducive to disrupting the public peace.”

Between heaven and hell

The judge said that the possibility that these tweets could disrupt public peace incorporated a virtual threat and the court did not have to wait for that threat to become a fact before sentencing.

The guilty verdict complies both domestic and international legal proceedings, Judge Pur argued, since concepts like heaven and hell are considered holy in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Important values were mocked and demeaned and believers were openly insulted by being called a louse, a non-entity, a lowlife, thief or idiot” while heaven was likened to a “tavern” and a “brothel”, stated the judge.

Say’s lawyer Meltem Akyol said her client did not write the incriminating tweets, only retweeted them, and that there was “no intentional act of denigration or mockery.”

Since the verdict was issued, columnists from the Turkish press have shown the wide range of opinions on such a hot-button subject, even though the majority of observers argued that Say deserved to be punished for insulting religious values.

The commentary included:

*Ahmet Kekeç from the Daily Star said although the tweets were “problematic, vulgar and rude,” Say should not be convicted for them.

*Berat Özipek, also from the Daily Star, said he was hurt by Say’s tweets but added: “However, I have no intention of sacrificing the freedom of expression because I was hurt.”

*Ali Ä°hsan KarahasanoÄŸlu from daily newspaper Yeni Akit said Say was guilty, and that he should have gotten a harsher punishment.

*Davut Åžahin of the Milli Gazete said: “I have no doubt that he would have received a higher penalty in another country.”

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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