Turkish pianist on trial for insulting Islam on Twitter

Virtuoso Turkish pianist Fazil Say appeared Thursday at an Istanbul court, where he has been charged with inciting hatred and insulting Islam in a series of Twitter posts.


In a case that has escalated concerns over the freedom of expression in Turkey, virtuoso Turkish pianist Fazil Say appeared before an Istanbul court Thursday on charges of offending Muslims and denigrating Islam in his Twitter posts.

A pianist who has played with the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Say has been charged with inciting hatred and insulting “religious values”.

Some of his Tweets included a jab at an uncharacteristically brief, 22-second muezzin call to prayer.

“Why such haste?” tweeted Say in April. “Have you got a mistress waiting or a raki on the table?''

Raki is a traditional Turkish alcoholic drink made with aniseed. Islam forbids alcohol and many Islamists consider the remarks unacceptable.

In another post on the microblogging site, Say retweeted a verse by the 11th-century poet Omar Khayyam: “You say rivers of wine flow in heaven, is heaven a tavern for you? You say two houris await each believer there, is heaven a brothel to you?”

The case has put the spotlight on a society bitterly divided between pro-secularist Turks - who defend the principle of secularism espoused by Turkey’s founding father, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk - and supporters of Turkey’s ruling, moderate Islamist party.

A self-declared atheist and staunch critic of the ruling AKP, Say is no stranger to controversy in Turkey due to his outspoken comments.

"I am perhaps the only person in the world to be investigated for having declared my atheism," he said in an interview with a Turkish newspaper earlier this year.

But the flamboyantly talented pianist has also drawn supporters - including international artists - who have been critical of the latest charges against him.

At the trial on Thursday, hundreds of human rights activists, as well as artists and journalists demonstrated before the courthouse holding signs that read: “Fazil Say is not alone” and “Free Art, Free World”'.

On Thursday, Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s Minister for EU Affairs, expressed his regret at the trial, according to the website of the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News. Bagis suggested that the case should be dismissed since Say had a “right to babble” on Twitter. But he criticized the pianist for “insulting people's faith and values”.

An oratorio to a Turkish poet killed by Islamist radicals

The son of socially engaged Turkish intellectuals, Say grew up in a household stacked with classical music LPs, including the works of Bach, Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

He wrote his first piece at the age of 14 while still a student at the Ankara State Conservatory. A scholarship at 17 enabled him to study music in Germany sparking a career that sees him on tour for nearly 250 days a year.

But in his beloved homeland, Say has had the occasional brush-ins with the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a devout Muslim who has preached conservative values, alarming some secular Turks who fear the government plans to make religion part of their lifestyle.

In 2007, his oratorio "Requiem for Metin Altiok" - created in the memory of the Turkish poet who was killed in a 1993 hotel fire – was partially censored by the Turkish Culture Ministry.

Along with 36 other mostly secular intellectuals, Altiok was killed when a mob of radical Islamists set fire to a hotel in the central Turkish city of Sivas. The victims had gathered in Sivas for a cultural festival.

For a 2007 recital of "Requiem for Metin Altiok" in Istanbul, Say was allowed to play the music but a projected visual backdrop of images had to be scrapped.

Following the filing of the latest charges against him, Say has disbanded his Twitter account and has told reporters he would consider moving to Tokyo.

Thursday’s court hearing was adjourned until February 18 and the musician was granted the right not to appear at subsequent court hearings due to his concert schedules.

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