— The Erimtan Angle —

People stumbling across the following piece in Today’s Zaman must have been somewhat surprised, while Turkey’s so-called secularists are probably feeling vindicated now, albeit primarily perturbed and worried too: a ‘prosecutor has proposed charging an internationally renowned Turkish pianist and composer with insulting Islamic religious values in comments he made on Twitter. The state-run Anatolia news agency reported on Friday [, 25 May] that an İstanbul court will decide whether to accept the proposed indictment against Fazıl Say, who has played piano with the New York Philharmonic, Berliner Symphoniker, Israel Philharmonic, Orchestre National de France and Tokyo Symphony. The prosecutor accuses 42-year-old Say of inciting hatred and public enmity and insulting “religious values.” Say, who has served as a culture ambassador for the European Union, allegedly mocked Islamic beliefs on Twitter. Last month, Say sent controversial tweets questioning whether heaven in Islamic belief is like a brothel or pub because the Quran says there are rivers of drinks and houris, or very beautiful women, in heaven for those who commit good deeds while they are on earth’.[1]

In his tweet Mister Say posed the somewhat rhetorical question whether heaven (“cennet”) was a whorehouse (“kerhane”) or a tavern (“meyhane”), and given that the Turkish nation consists of dedicated followers, his facetious comment also got to the attention of a number of people who appear to lack a sense of humour but instead possess a dedicated attachment to the Islamic Heaven. Fazıl Say was obviously referring to the Quranic verse describing the rivers of heaven: “Therein are rivers of water unpolluted, and rivers of milk whereof the flavour changeth not, and rivers of wine delicious to the drinkers, and rivers of clear-run honey; therein for them is every kind of fruit, with pardon from their Lord”.[2]  In other words, the Quran clearly indicates that believers will be drinking wine in heaven, and that they will enjoy the experience. And Turkish believers have officially known these delights since 1926: the “proclamation of the Republic . . . liberated Turkish citizens from the restrictions of Islam and the Şeriat [Shariah].” As a result, Republican Turks were meant to enjoy this world and its delights to the fullest and the decision to let Turkish citizens “partake of the delights of the mortal world was arguably crystallized in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. A strict interpretation of Islam explicitly prohibits the drinking of intoxicants in this world.” Hence, the issue of unrestricted access to beer and other alcoholic intoxicants has now assumed political, if not ideological, importance [in Turkey]. Turkey’s Muslim citizens have had legal access to alcohol since 1926. Turkey’s Islamic neighbor states do not grant their citizens equally easy access to the forbidden delights of alcohol. As a result, some Turks regard the issue as critical to the definition of secularism in the country. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) also defines secularism as “Concerned with the affairs of this world, wordly; not sacred”, as I wrote some time ago in Hürriyet Daily News.[3]  Now, the pianist Fazıl Say has succeeded to move the debate concerning the consumption of alcohol to loftier spheres. His second query, then, was a reference to those eternally virginal lady-companions one will encounter in heaven: “Thus (it will happen,) and We will marry them with houris having big dark eyes” (44/54); “Relaxing on lined up couches”. And We will marry them with big-eyed houris” (52/20); “The houris, kept guarded in pavilions” (55/72); and finally, “And (for them there will be) houris, having lovely big eyes” (56/22).[4]  These Quranic references to other delights awaiting believers in heaven constitute the meat of the first half of his flippant question (“kerhane”).

The big bulk of Turkey’s population has always been quite pious, but nowadays the presence of the AKP government in Ankaraseems to give certain pious busy-bodies the courage to pursue an active exercise in social control in accordance with the Islamic Way. Mister Say, in the company of his lawyers Metin Feyzioğlu and Meltem Akyol, has now appeared in front of the İstanbul Cumhuriyet Savcılığı (Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office), located in Çağlayan.[5]

Recently, a similar thing happened in Afghanistanas well: an ‘Afghan journalism student sentenced to death for insulting Islam denied the charges before an appeals court Sunday [,13 May 2012], saying he only confessed to questioning the religion’s treatment of women because he was tortured. During an hour-long hearing, a judge read aloud a transcript of the Jan. 22 proceedings against 24-year-old Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh at the primary court in northern Balkhprovince. It was the first time the public and the media heard full details from the closed-door trial, which highlights the influence of conservative religious attitudes in post-Taliban Afghanistan’s still-nascent justice system. Kambakhsh was studying journalism at BalkhUniversityin Mazar-i-Sharif and writing for local newspapers when he was arrested Oct. 27 [,2011]’, as recorded by AP.[6]

In neighbouring Pakistan, the present blasphemy legislation has also led to numerous assaults: the BBC informs that ‘offences relating to religion were first codified by India’s British rulers in 1860, and were expanded in 1927. Pakistaninherited these laws after the partition of Indiain 1947. Between 1980-86, a number of clauses were added to the laws by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq. He wanted to “Islamise” them and also legally to separate the Ahmadi community, declared non-Muslim in 1973, from the main body of Muslim population . . . The laws have been contentious since the formation of Pakistan in 1947, but have been especially in the spotlight since a Christian mother-of-five, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death in November 2010 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The following January Punjab Governor Salman Taseer – a prominent critic of the law – was assassinated by his bodyguard. The assassination divided Pakistan, with some hailing his killer as a hero. In March 2011 Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead in Islamabad[as well]’.[7]

Do Pakistan and Afghanistan now represent the shape of things to come inTurkey???  Or has the Istanbul Public  Prosecutor’s  Office merely overreached and will there now be a “secular” backlash on the streets  of Turkey???  Or, is this but the beginning of the slide down the slippery slope???


[1] “Turkish pianist who insulted Islam on Twitter faces jail time” Today’s Zaman (25 May 2012). http://www.todayszaman.com/news-281534-turkish-pianist-who-insulted-islam-on-twitter-faces-jail-time.html.

[2] “Sura 47 Muhammad, line (15)” Quran Explorer. http://www.quranexplorer.com/quran/.

[3] C. Erimtan, “Secularism, beer and bikinis” Hürriyet Daily News (10 March 2011). http://tiny.cc/6msiy.

[4] Cfr. Quran Explorer. http://www.quranexplorer.com/.

[5] “Fazıl Say savcı karşısında” gerçek gündem (16 May 2011). http://www.gercekgundem.com/?p=458918.

[6] “Afghan Journalist Charged With Insulting Islam Appeals Death Sentence” AP (18 May 2012). http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,356525,00.html.

[7] “Q&A: Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws” BBC News South Asia  (22 March 2011). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12621225.

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