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‘Insulting the religious beliefs held by a section of society’: Plenty of evidence in Turkish newspapers

April 19, 2013

Handing its 10-month jail sentence to Turkish pianist Fazıl Say on April 15, the Istanbul court stated that Say was guilty of “denigrating the religious beliefs held by a section of society” and had thus violated Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). Although “blasphemy laws” still officially remain in many states, they are now almost completely dormant in most democracies. The rare prosecutions that are attempted based on them almost always fail, either because of sensible legal interpretation or the fact that a guilty verdict would clash with legally enshrined principles of freedom of expression.

Say’s prosecution was based on his retweeting of couplets attributed to medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam last year, including lines such as: “You say its rivers will flow with wine. Is the Garden of Eden a drinking house? You say you will give two houris to each Muslim. Is the Garden of Eden a whorehouse?” He also posted a personal tweet, stating: “I don’t know whether you have noticed or not, but wherever there is a stupid person or a thief, they are believers in God. Is this a paradox?” However misguided Article 216 may be, there can be little doubt that Say deliberately intended to “denigrate the religious beliefs held by a section of society.” Of course, deliberate insult should never be criminalized, but as it is considered legitimate grounds for prosecution in Turkey it’s worth asking why cases aren’t regularly opened against material published in certain Turkish newspapers. The fact is that there are a number of Turkish dailies with considerable reputations for directing abuse at religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

Yeni Akit has a considerable track record of targeting respected journalists for aggressive and persistent smear campaigns, including Cengiz Çandar, Hasan Cemal, Ahmet Altan, and Amberin Zaman. It has even recently been waging a bizarre campaign against the “deviant spirituality” of yoga. Although it and fellow hard-line Islamist newspaper Milli Gazete (affiliated to the minor Felicity Party) have both been fined on numerous occasions for slander and libel, they have never to my knowledge been prosecuted for “insulting a section of society.” That may seem odd after considering the following examples, dredged up on their websites by a simple search of the words “Christian,” “Jew,” “Alevi,” and “homosexual”:

– Milli Gazete’s April 18 front page headline focused on the “scandal” that the EU was “making the Turkish state pay” the costs for lighting non-Muslim places of worship “such as churches and synagogues.”

– On the same front page, it was also disbelievingly reported that New Zealand had become the latest country to legalise gay marriage. The article was headlined, “Your destruction is near,” and was accompanied on the printed page by a picture of two fossilised victims from Pompeii.

– The same paper also carried a headline story in January warning about the dangers of “Zoroastrian missionaries” spreading “terrorist propaganda” in Turkey’s southeast.

– Again Milli Gazete, this time declaring as its Jan. 8 front page: “Here’s the Jewish mind.” The story was about Jewish religious jewellery being sold by a U.S.-based company, which donated some of its profits to the Israeli army.

Milli Gazete, Jan. 1, 2013: 'Here's the Jewish mind'

Milli Gazete, Jan. 8, 2013: ‘Here’s the Jewish mind’

– On the same day that Milli Gazete was warning about “the Jewish mind,” Yeni Akit reported news of an old church in the Black Sea province of Giresun making “Christian propaganda.” Despite the fact that the church had been converted into a library in 2001, the article bemoaned that crosses and Stars of David were still to be found inside the building, “blurring young minds.”

– Yeni Akit on Feb. 3: “Support for perverts from the CHP and BDP,” regarding attempts in January by opposition deputies to reform the law stating that “dirty” and “deviant” homosexuality is legitimate justification for expulsion from the Turkish military.

– Yeni Akit:The 19 Year Lie,” in which a host of slanderous claims were made about the massacre of over 30 Alevis in the central Anatolian town of Sivas in 1993.

On any given day you can open either Milli Gazete or Yeni Akit and be sure to find similar stories, written in the most unpleasant, insulting language. Should it really be surprising that Article 216 isn’t extended to these cases?

Even if the necessary sections of the Turkish penal code were reformed, they would still undoubtedly be liable to misuse through selective interpretation. However decent a country’s set of laws may be, and however enshrined they are in decent-sounding constitutions, problems generally come from the interpretation of those laws. If Article 216 was always applied as rigorously as it was against Say, then all the above examples would be investigated. In the end, the most important factor behind scandals such as the Say case is the mentality behind them, which is not something that can be transformed by a simple change in legal language.

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