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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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It’s been a while since I last wrote about my favourite hard-line Islamic newspaper, Yeni Akit. It would be wrong to overemphasize Akit’s significance in the overall scheme of things, but a couple of its recent news items are certainly worth mentioning, and indicate that it might have rather more influence than many give it credit for(!)

On Nov. 22, Akit published a story headlined, “Immorality at High School,” containing photographs that it said showed teachers drinking alcohol with their students at a picnic. This photos were taken in the southern province of Antalya, (“known as a castle of the secularists,” according to the article), and were apparently uploaded to Facebook by one of the teachers. “It has been claimed that the teachers are members of the ‘Eğitim Sen’ union, which opposes the headscarf as well as classes on the Quran and the life of the Prophet,” Akit helpfully stated. The Antalya branch of the National Education Directorate opened an investigation into the 11 teachers upon the publishing of the story, but this was quickly dropped after it was established that the photos were in fact taken by a teacher at a family picnic three years ago, and that no students were present. Unbowed, on Dec. 2 Akit went on to publish a photo of a female teacher at the same Antalya school, part of a group at a bar celebrating a friends’ birthday (with glasses of beer on the table). “Do these photographs suit a teacher?” said the headline. However, rather than the Education Directorate setting up an inquiry, the teacher in question is now opening a legal case against Akit.

 

 

It’s worth mentioning these “photo scandals” because very recently Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used similarly tendentious photographs published in Akit to attack his political opponents. The pictures used by Erdoğan showed deputies of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) sitting around a table eating kebab, despite the fact that over 600 Kurdish prisoners were entering their 49th day on hunger fasts: “Lamb kebab for us, death fasts for you,” read Akit’s headline. On the same day (Oct. 30) Erdoğan told a meeting of his parliamentary party: “On one hand [they] are eating lamb kebab, on the other [they] are telling those in prison, ‘Die on hunger strike.’” In fact, it soon emerged that the photos had been taken two months before at the wedding of a BDP member in the southeastern province of Mardin.

Erdoğan’s harsh words got a lot of coverage at the time, (here’s the Reuters story on it), but the fact that his source was Yeni Akit obviously received rather less attention. Commentary suggesting that the prime minister is turning Turkey into an “Islamic state” is simplistic and misguided, (a piece in the Wall Street Journal last month claimed that he was “ramming Shariah law into practice.”), but it can’t be a good sign that he’s turning to Yeni Akit for rhetorical fodder to use against his opponents.

The massacre that took place in the Central Anatolian town of Sivas in 1993 is one of the darkest episodes in modern Turkish history. On the morning of July 2, a large group of radical Sunni Islamists descended on the Madımak Hotel in Sivas town center, protesting its hosting of an Alevi cultural festival. The mob attacked and set fire to the hotel, which resulted in the deaths of 37 people. Autopsies at the time concluded that the deceased had either died of burns or smoke inhalation.

Radical Islamist daily Yeni Akit’s July 23, 2012 front page carried a large headline declaring “The 19 Year Lie,” accompanied by two photos tastefully showing the morgue full of corpses from the massacre. Aside from the pleasure the paper obviously derived from showing off the photos on its front page once again, the ostensible reason the story was to expose what it called the “lie” that those in the hotel had been killed by the flames. In one of the pictures, a young girl lying on a morgue table, Belkıs Çakır, bears what the paper says is “clearly” a gunshot wound in the chest. This apparently proves that most of the deceased actually killed each other inside the hotel.Unfortunately for Akit, closer inspection reveals that the “blood” from Çakır’s “bullet wound” is simply a braid of hair hanging down from her head.

Akit’s charming July 23 front page

Akit’s piece aroused immediate opprobrium from a number of other Turkish dailies. The next day’s Taraf responded with the headline: “Akit sets fire to Madımak again,” Cumhuriyet said: “One more black publication from Akit,” while leftist-nationalist Yurt bluntly stated on its front page: “A Bigoted Lie.” All included the dismayed reactions from the families of those who died in the tragic incident, as well as their representatives.

Akit said the morgue photos had been hidden for 19 years before passing into their hands, but lawyer Şenal Sarıhan explained to Taraf that the photos were in fact included in a book on the event written by herself, “Madımak Yangını Sivas Davası.” “This book was published in 2002, and it had its third print run in 2011. Akit’s reporter Murat Alan clearly has it. The photos are included on page 97, 100, and 102. To claim that this is the first time they have been seen is completely untrue,” Sarıhan said. Çakır’s original autopsy, she added, was conducted at Sivas’s Numune Hospital, under strict observation. It unambiguously concluded that she had died of burns and from carbon monoxide poisoning. “The definite cause of death was burns and smoke inhalation. There is no dispute on this subject … Neither bullet wounds nor knife wounds can be seen in the photos,” Sarıhan said, adding that the only two people who died of bullet wounds on the day were shot outside the hotel by the demonstrators.

Zeynep Altıok, daughter of the poet Metin Altıok who was killed in the Madımak attack, was quoted as saying that the news did not come as a surprise from Akit. “They have written similar things before. They used to say it was the work of the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK. Their aim is to distort the truth. Before, they said it was the PKK, now they’ve gone in completely the opposite direction. I can’t take it seriously.”

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to reason with fanatical Islamists, and Akit’s July 24 front page headline followed on from the previous day, declaring: “Let the autopsies be conducted again”! On July 25, following the condemnations that the earlier pieces had aroused, the paper retreated into comforting victimhood,complaining that the other newspapers constituted a “dirty alliance against Akit … a panicking cartel.”

Yeni Akit is notorious in Turkey as the most vitriolic of the country’s Islamist newspapers. It was established in 2010 after its forerunner, “Anadolu’da Vakit,” was closed down following its failure to pay a fine incurred in 2003 for a piece deemed “insulting to the Turkish Armed Forces” (still officially a crime). Sane-minded observers view Akit with a mixture of incredulity and contempt, and think of it as not much more than a marginal voice on the lunatic fringe. Nevertheless, the fact that it enjoys significantly higher circulation figures than a number of far more respected newspapers must be chastening indeed!

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