Turkish classical musician Fazil Say is best known for his piano work, but it's the actions he took using a computer keyboard that have thrust him into the limelight in an unexpected -- and disturbing -- way.
Yesterday, Say -- who has received rave reviews for his playing and has performed in concert halls around the world -- was given by an Istanbul court a suspended 10-month prison sentence for insulting Islam and offending Muslims -- in Twitter posts. Although he was spared the indignity of being sent to jail, Say could find himself locked up if he is convicted of similar offenses during the next five years.
The offending tweets? In one, Say forwarded an excerpt from an 11-th century poem written by the famed Omar Khayyam. “You say that the rivers flow with wine, is heaven a tavern? You say that you will give every believer two very beautiful women, is heaven a brothel?” the poem says. In another tweet, the pianist -- a self-declared atheist -- suggests the rapid call to prayer he heard coming from a nearby Istanbul mosque might have been given by a muezzin eager to get his work done and head out for a drink.
Looking at the case in a piece for the Al-Monitor website, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a well-known civil rights lawyer in Turkey, suggests Say's conviction is part of a disturbing trend in Turkey regarding the prosecution of those deemed to have insulted religion or Islam. From Cengiz's article:
Slowly but surely, the latest attempt by the Turkish government to resolve the decades-old Kurdish issue is moving along. In the latest confidence building measure, members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BD), who were given Ankara's permission to meet with jailed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan this past Sunday, delivered a message from Ocalan that suggested his organization's fighters would soon be leaving Turkish territory. “The peace process we are currently going through is continuing at full speed. I am striving to make the ceasefire permanent and to ensure a withdrawal. I can say we are more hopeful now that we have come to this stage. In this context, I will reveal the details of the efforts we are making,” Ocalan's statement said.
Still, the nascent "peace process" is facing some profound challenges, both domestic and external. In a new piece from the German Marshall Fund that gives a good overview of the latest developments surrounding the Kurdish issue, political scientist Ilter Turan takes a look at these challenges, suggesting there is good reason to be cautious about predicting the process's success.
He may be the sole inmate of an island prison in the Sea of Marmara, but Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), still knows how to command the headlines. Thursday, as Kurds celebrated the spring holiday of nevruz -- in years past an occasion for often violent protests -- Ocalan made what could turn out to be a game-changing call for the fighters of the PKK to cease fire and withdraw from Turkish soil.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, gathered in the regional center of Diyarbakir, cheered and waved banners bearing Ocalan's mustachioed image when a letter from the rebel leader, held since 1999 on a prison island in the Marmara Sea, was read out by a pro-Kurdish politician.
"Let guns be silenced and politics dominate," he said to a sea of red-yellow-green Kurdish flags. "The stage has been reached where our armed forces should withdraw beyond the borders ... It's not the end. It's the start of a new era."
Ocalan's call for a ceasefire, which had been expected for some weeks now, gives a major boost to the ongoing "peace talks" between Turkey and the Kurds and represents a major turnaround in how both sides had been dealing with each other. Up until a few years ago, it was common for Turkish courts to charge Kurdish politicians with the crime of referring to the jailed PKK leader as "the honorable Mr Ocalan." On the other hand, until fairly recently, many Kurdish leaders in Turkey had written off the government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), considering it and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as having been cut from the same Kurdish-identity denying nationalist cloth as previous Turkish governments.
Embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad probably gets very few visitors these days, and rightly so. Still, it appears Assad can count on the friendship of the Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's main opposition party, which recently sent a high-level delegation to visit the Syrian autocrat in Damascus. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
A parliamentary delegation from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad early yesterday. The three-member group, which consisted of deputy leader Şafak Pavey and deputies from the neighboring Hatay province, Hasan Akgöl and Mevlut Dudu, was in Syria following an invitation from al-Assad, according to CHP sources.
Al-Assad told the team there was “a need to distinguish between the stance of the Turkish people, who back stability in Syria, and the positions of Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, which supports terrorism.
“The Syrian people appreciates the position adopted by forces and parties in Turkey that reject the Erdoğan government’s negative impact on our societies, which are multi-religious and multi-ethnic,” al-Assad added.
Human Rights Watch has just released its annual World Report and its chapter on Turkey contains some very strong criticism of Ankara's efforts at human rights reform. “Despite some moves for reform, the efforts have been patchy, incomplete, and the new human rights mechanisms are under government control and lack independence,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, HRW's senior researcher in Turkey. “If the government is serious about its latest moves to address the Kurdish issue in Turkey, freeing the thousands of detained peaceful Kurdish political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and students would be a good first step,” she said. “Turkey needs to make human rights a priority in its approach to all of its citizens.”
In Turkey, the cross-party work on a new constitution during 2012 was a positive development, Human Rights Watch said. But tight government control of appointments to the national human rights institution created in March and the ombudsman office established in June undermined confidence in potentially important oversight mechanisms. There are serious concerns about how independent or effective either institution will be in practice.
Turkey’s restrictions on freedom of expression are evident both in its laws and in the pattern of prosecutions and convictions under these laws, Human Rights Watch said. Judicial reform packages passed by the parliament, most recently in June, suspended prosecutions and convictions for some speech offenses, amended penalties for various terrorism laws, and attempted to curb excessive detention on remand, but have not yet had a significant impact. Politicians’ intolerance of dissenting voices – extending as far as criticizing television soap operas – and their willingness to sue for defamation perpetuates a chilling climate for free speech.
Although it's still quite early to know which way Turkey's new peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) will go, this week saw some very encouraging signs coming out of Ankara.
Late Thursday, the Turkish parliament passed legislation that will allow defendants to use Kurdish in court, a long-standing demand put forward by Kurdish activists and politicians. Up until now, Turkish courts have regularly refused to allow Kurdish defendants to use the language during proceedings.
Also yesterday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reshuffled his cabinet, most significantly replacing the hawkish Interior Minister Naim Sahin with Muammer Guler, a former governor of Istanbul who originally hails from southeast Turkey. Sahin, an old school nationalist, had managed to enrage Kurds on numerous occasions, especially in the wake of the 2011 Uludere incident, in which 34 Kurdish villagers were killed in an errant military operation. At the time, Sahin dismissed the killed villagers as "extras" in a PKK operation and said there was no need for Turkey to apologize for the incident.
Following today's burial in Turkey of the three Kurdish women activists murdered last week in Paris, Ankara's renewed peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) and its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, are facing a critical test.
There were some concerns that the funerals, which drew a massive crowd in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, could turn violent and become another provocative development which could jeopardize the nascent talks, but the event turned out to be peaceful in the end. Writing in the Hurriyet Daily News today, analyst Semih Idiz takes a look at the significance of both the murders in Paris and today's funerals:
The bottom line is that today’s developments, whether are positive or negative, will determine the course that the ongoing peace talks between the government and the PKK take, perhaps much more than the actual murders in Paris. Despite the horror of that event, a positive result has been that the government, the PKK leadership, and the BDP have all indicated views suggesting that this as a provocation aimed at derailing the current peace talks. This shows that there is a desire for these talks to continue.
The highly disturbing murder of three Kurdish women activists in Paris -- among them one of the co-founders of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) -- is casting a long shadow over newly launched talks between the Turkish government and the militant organization.
The Wednesday killing of the three women, which took place inside the Paris office of a Kurdish institute, was described by the French Minister of Interior as “without doubt an execution.” Along with Sakine Cansiz, the PKK co-founder, the victims included Fidan Dogan, a leading Kurdish figure in Europe and Leyla Soylemez, a young Kurdish activist.
The murders occurred in the midst of a critical time for the Kurdish issue. The new year started off with the announcement that the Turkish government and Abduallah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, have restarted talks aimed at resolving the decades-old Kurdish problem (a previous effort at talks was stymied after a strong backlash in Turkey). In recent days, several Turkish papers have reported on a possible "roadmap" being worked out between Ankara and Ocalan, which, among other things, includes numerous political reforms and the release of Kurdish prisoners on the Turkish side in return for the PKK disarming.
It's generally accepted that a strong separation of powers between the various branches of government is the bedrock of a functioning democracy. But recent comments made by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, indicating that he believes Turkey's current separation of powers is hindering the country's progress, has left some observers concerned the PM might have a different understanding of how a democracy works.
During a speech made earlier this week in the city of Konya, Erdogan complained of obstacles that had been put in front of his government's efforts to introduce "further services" to the Turkish public. “You know this thing they call the division of powers; this turns up in front of you as an obstruction. The legislature, executive and judiciary in his country must consider the benefit of the nation first and then the benefit of the state,” the PM told his audience.
When the liberal daily Taraf was launched some five years ago, it was presented as prime evidence of how much Turkey has moved forward. Staffed with muckraking journalists who were especially committed to exposing the misdeeds of Turkey's powerful military, the scrappy newspaper truly did break new ground, covering stories that most of the Turkish mainstream media stayed away from for fear of crossing the powers that be.
Five years later, Taraf might be put forward as prime evidence of how much Turkey is slipping backwards, particularly in terms of press freedom issues. On Dec. 14, Taraf's top two editors -- Ahmet Altan, a vocal critic of the government, and Yasemin Congar, as well as two leading columnists -- resigned from the newspaper, effectively stripping it of some of its most powerful voices. The reasons for the resignations were not immediately given, but they came at a time when Taraf was facing increasing pressure from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and some of its supporters after the newspaper started turning a critical eye towards how the government was managing Turkey's affairs.
Writing in Today's Zaman, veteran journalist and media observer Yavuz Baydar describes the role Taraf played in recent years: