Turkey: Acclaimed pianist charged for blasphemy

Turkish composer and pianist Fazil Say faces trial on 18 October 2012 on charges of insulting religious values, with a possible 18-month prison sentence, his lawyer Meltem Akyol told news agencies in Istanbul. 

Fazil Say has long been a controversial artist in Turkey. He is a classical musician who declares himself an atheist in a country where the majority are Muslims and listen to anything but Western classical music.

Fazil Say is accused of insulting people’s Islamic values and incite hatred, because he, along with 165 other persons, forwarded a quote on Twitter of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam from the 11th century. Elsewhere on Twitter, he had stated that he is an atheist and is proud that he can say it so openly.

“I just thought it was a funny allegory and retweeted the message. It is unbelievable that it was made into a court case. This case, which goes against universal human rights and laws, is saddening not only when judged on its own merit but also for Turkey’s image,” Fazil Say was quoted as saying.

The 42-year-old piano virtuoso will be tried under Article 216 of Turkish Penal Code, which makes insults against religious values and instigation of enmity punishable by prison terms.


Fazil Say received support from international media and pro-secular Turkish columnists, and a Turkish classical-music magazine organized a petition. Oray Egin — a Turkish journalist based in New York — wrote the following for Newsweek magazine:

Fazil Say is a superstar among secularists in Turkey’s highly polarized environment. In 2010, when his Istanbul Symphony debuted in Istanbul, the crowd cheered him with a 17-minute standing ovation. His political comments and occasional flings with famous women polish his celebrity status, while classical-music experts admire his talent. He tours approximately 250 days of the year. But he did mark on his calendar 17 October — the date his trial is to begin — to be in Istanbul.

“Everybody knows that separating musicians from an instrument for more than three-four months will ruin their career,” he says about the possibility of imprisonment. “But I don’t want to think about it now.” Would he consider leaving Turkey again? “I’ve lived abroad for 17 years, and perhaps it’s time to move on,” he responds. “Moving to Tokyo is a possibility, I think living in the Far East will be good for me.”

Fazil Say made a public statement on his website where he writes that it was not his intention to offend anyone, but that freedom of expression must apply to everyone.


About the artist
Turkish pianist Fazil Say is a multiple award-winning artist. He has played piano with the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, National Orchestra of France and Tokyo Symphony. He has recorded 21 albums of music by, among others, Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Paganini, Beethoven as well as his own compositions, symphonies, oratorios, concertos and some chamber music. He has also written three books. Fazil Say plays 120 concerts a year worldwide — a new concert in a new city every third day. In 2008, Fazil Say was appointed by the EU as Ambassador for Intercultural Dialogue.


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The Daily Beast / Newsweek – 11 June 2012:
‘Turkish Pianist Fazil Say Charged With Insulting Islam’

The Guardian – 10 June 2012:
‘In Turkey the right to free speech is being lost’

Fazil Say’s official home page:


In Danish language

Politiken – 12 June 2012:
‘Stjernepianist risikerer fængsel for ateisme’


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