Tweeting Turkish pianist given suspended sentence for blasphemy

Mon Apr 15, 2013 10:43am EDT
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By Can Sezer and Ece Toksabay

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A world-renowned concert pianist was given a suspended jail sentence in Turkey on Monday for insulting religious values on Twitter, a case which has become a cause celebre for Turks alarmed about creeping Islamic conservatism.

Fazil Say, also a leading composer, went on trial in October for blasphemy - a crime that can carry an 18-month sentence - for a series of tweets including one citing a 1,000-year-old poem.

"The fact I've been convicted for an offence I didn't commit is less worrying for me personally than it is for freedom of expression and faith in Turkey," Say said in emailed comments.

His case has stirred up passions about the role religion should play in Turkish public life and highlighted how much has changed since Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party, which has roots in Islamist politics, swept to power a decade ago.

A judiciary once renowned for defending the secular republic against Islamist influence - notably jailing Erdogan himself for reciting a religious poem - now finds itself in hock to religious conservatives, government opponents say.

"The verdict is unacceptable, and an indicator of the AK Party's vengeful conception of the law," Ilhan Cihaner, a lawmaker from the main opposition CHP party, told Reuters.

Say retweeted a verse in April last year in which 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam mocks pious hypocrisy. It is in the form of questions to believers: "You say rivers of wine flow in heaven, is heaven a tavern to you? You say two houris await each believer there, is heaven a brothel to you?"

In another tweet, he poked fun at a muezzin, someone who makes the Muslim call to prayer. "The muezzin finished the evening prayers in 22 seconds ... Why are you in such hurry? A lover? A raki table?" he asked, referring to the aniseed-flavored spirit popular in Turkey.   Continued...

Turkish classical pianist Fazil Say performs during a concert in Ankara October 14, 2010. REUTERS/Stringer