“Have you heard of Fazıl Say?,” she asked, with the obscenely picturesque Istanbul skyline behind her. We were, all of us, at a rooftop bar/restaurant, eating and drinking raki when I asked about Turkish musicians I should know about. I admitted I hadn’t heard of him.
“He’s a genius,” she said. “But he was punished for insulting Islam.”
Say, I now know, is a pianist and composer who’s garnered wide acclaim for his work. One of his first big international breakthroughs came in 1997, with “Black Earth,” a piano piece which fused his own considerable compositional skills with motifs from Turkish folk music and experimental techniques most identified with John Cage (whose own work was deeply influenced by Buddhist philosophy and practice):
Say is also apparently a Turkish atheist who made the rare choice to actually admit that fact in public, and who further confirmed his “infidel” status in several (re)tweets referencing the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam poking fun of an Islamic view of the afterlife, and by posting his own joke on Twitter about a local muezzin’s azan (muezzin‘s are the people who sing the azan, or call to prayer, that goes out over Islamic cities, towns and villages five times a day.):
“Muezzin 22 saniyede okudu akşam ezanını yahu. Prestissimmo con fuco!!! Ne acelen var? Sevgili? Rakı masası? ” ( The muezzin has recited the evening azan in 22 seconds. [Early, with fire]!!! What’s the rush? Lover? Raki binge?)
Those landed him in legal trouble when the government prosecuted him for insulting Islam and offending Muslims and handed down a 10-month jail sentence, which was suspended on the condition that Say engage in no further blasphemous speech or action.
You might imagine that anyone secure in their religious belief wouldn’t worry what an “unbeliever” posts on a largely inane social media platform like Twitter, since that believer could rest easy knowing they were right and the non-believer was wrong.
But that’s not how totalitarian monotheistic religious thought works — be it Muslim, Christian or Buddhist, in Turkey, the U.S., Myanmar or elsewhere — when it’s being exploited for cynical political purposes.
“Here in Turkey, we have been going through a hard period, as the ruling class oppresses the masses while trying to gain power by misusing religion,” said Say, in a 2013 speech to the 38th Congress of the International Federation for Human Rights.