Wednesday, 24 April 2013

What the Columnists Say

Published in Roundup of Columnists

The division between seculars and religious conservatives could once again clearly be observed in the comments in the Turkish press after the sentencing of pianist Fazıl Say. An Istanbul court convicted the world famous Turkish pianist of inciting hatred and offending Muslims in Twitter messages. Although Say was not sentenced to jail, secular-oriented commentators interpreted the case as the latest example of the growing, Islamic conservative intolerance in Turkey. Conservative commentators meanwhile showed little concern for the implications of the sentence for the freedom of expression; echoing the comment made by Deputy Prime minister Bülent Arınç that Say ought to apologize to “all Muslims”, the point was made that freedom of expression does not include the right to insult religious feelings and that Say should show respect for the pious.


Kadri Gürsel in Milliyet writes that there is not a single shred of evidence that supports the assertion of the court that sentenced Fazıl Say that his Twitter messages had endangered societal peace. In fact, it is the other way around. It is the sentence that Fazıl Say was handed that renders societal peace fragile. This is a political sentence, and the purpose is not to protect “societal peace” but rather Turkey´s new taboo. Had it been thirty years or so ago, a rebellious young artist like Fazıl Say might for instance have written “I don’t know, but have you noticed that every single low-life, simple thief that goes around is an Atatürkist; isn’t that paradoxical?” And then he would have similarly faced trouble. Turkey was the same back then: then as today, flawed characters used to hide behind certain taboos in order to either obtain advantages or to shelter their faults. Those taboos are now “trampled upon” (a reference to Prime Minister Erdoğan’s recent statement that his government “tramples upon” Turkish – and Kurdish – nationalism); instead, new taboos are in the process of being introduced. And chief among these is Sunni Islamic religiosity. The red lines that have been drawn up with the sentence demonstrate that criticizing Sunni Islamic religiosity is taboo. Meanwhile, no one can claim that the judiciary is assuming its responsibility to protect minority beliefs and inclinations of every kind from the hate crimes that are encouraged by the majority.

Commenting the sentence that Fazıl Say has been handed, Şahin Alpay in Zaman writes that in a democracy atheists of course have as much right as religious believers to express their opinions; and the beliefs of atheists as well as of religious believers can be subjected to criticism. However, there is a limit to the freedom of expression. And this requires that due respect is shown toward the freedom of others, and one has to abstain from denigrating the beliefs of others. For this reason, Turkish legislation, just like European legislation, makes it a criminal offense to insult religious beliefs. There is a delicate balance that needs to be struck between the freedom of expression and the respect for beliefs. Yes, Say many be a world-famous pianist, but he cannot be said to be a champion of the freedom of expression and belief. Those who wish their own beliefs to be respected must abstain from insulting the beliefs of others. Nonetheless, there is no ground for claiming that the statements of Say on Twitter amount to a “threat to public order”. Thus, if I had been a judge, I would not have sentenced Say.

Fuat Keyman in Milliyet writes that the attempt to renew the main opposition party, the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) is failing. Keyman has reached this conclusion after the recent demission of Gülseren Onanç, a deputy chairman of the party. Or rather, she had to leave after CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu demanded that she resign following her statements in a television program. Onanç had said that sixty five percent of the base of the CHP in fact supports the peace process with the Kurds. Onanç’s removal should be seen as the demission of the new CHP from the CHP. Her demission was preceeded by the outrageous accusation against Sezgin Tanrıkulu, another of the party’s deputy chairmen, and a defender of human rights, that he is a CIA agent. The new CHP is becoming history. But, as that project fails, the CHP is only becoming less influential, leaving the political scene to other parties, starting with the AK Party. While the AK Party, the (pro-Kurdish) BDP and the (right wing Turkish nationalist) MHP are growing stronger, the CHP is becoming weaker. Leveling insults at Tanrıkulu, and demanding Onanç’s resignation does not only amount to a rejection of the idea of a new CHP; doesn’t it also reject the reality of today’s Turkey?

Doğan Akın in T24 notes that the Foundation of Journalists and Authors, which is known to speak in the name of the Fethullah Gülen movement, has issued an unprecedented call in support of the freedom of expression in Turkey. This is the first time ever since its foundation nineteen years ago that the organization has issued such a call. The statement underlines that political pressures, businees ties and self-censorship that restrict the freedom of the media is undemocratic. The statement calls on the collective of journalists to rise to the defense of their professional honor and principles in the face of pressures, and exhorts the government to remove the problem by bringing the laws that have an impact on media and freedom of expression in line with EU and universal norms. Why, then, has the Foundation of Journalists and Authors published this manifest? The reason is said to be “the latest discussions”; and these have, as we know, focused on Hasan Cemal, who was deprived of his column in the daily Milliyet after having insisted on questioning the stance of the prime minister and the attitude of media owners, as well as the case of Fazıl Say who has been sentenced because of his Twitter messages. It is apparent that the Gülen movement has no compunction in joining the chorus of reactions to these recent developments, a chorus which even includes President Abdullah Gül.  We are not privy to what has been going on between the movement and the government; however, the statement of the Foundation of Journalists and Authors is mportant, both with regard to its content, and as it represents a crucial contribution to the emergence of a broad coalition in defense of freedom.

Abdülhamit Bilici in Zaman writes that the foreign policy establishment in Ankara worries about the risk of sectarian fighting in the Middle East. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu brought up the matter during his last visit to Tehran; he called attention to the danger of a Cold War in the region along sectarian lines  and said that a Sunni-Shiite confrontation would spell suicide for the Middle East. It is above all the propaganda network of the Iranian regime in the region that level accusations against Turkey, which is accused of promoting a Sunni sectarian agenda. Even though this is a baseless accusation, it has to be admitted that the policies of the AKP government has played a role in creating this negative perception; one cannot deny that the fact that the AKP government has severed its relations simultaneously with Baghadad and Damascus, that it has established special relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and similar Islamic groups, which has made other groups feel excluded, and that it has given the impression of being eager to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries have contributed to the perception of Sunni sectarianism. Care must be taken to avoid such mistakes.

Read 6758 times Last modified on Wednesday, 12 June 2013

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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