Orhan Kemal Cengiz
Turkey’s deadly blasphemy cases
In the early years of the 2000s, the Turkish state prosecuted many intellectuals and writers for allegedly insulting Turkishness under the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, novelist Elif Safak, writer Murat Belge and many others were targeted in these cases.
It was a dangerous and threatening trend not only because these trials were a serious threat to freedom of expression and made it impossible to discuss critical matters, such as the Armenian genocide, but also because it was obvious that the people who were put on trial were turning into targets of ultra-nationalist groups.
It was indeed very dangerous to be labeled by the judiciary as a person who insulted “Turkishness.” It was a threat akin to bleeding in the open sea — the blood would inevitably draw the sharks.
As expected, almost all those put on trial for this alleged crime were verbally and physically assaulted. Angry mobs gathered in front of the courthouses and the intellectuals under trial were insulted, taunted, and shoved about. The horrific peak of this trend was the murder of Hrant Dink in 2007. He was turned into a target after he was condemned under Article 301 for allegedly insulting Turkishness in his articles that analyzed the impacts of the Armenian genocide and the Armenian question in modern Turkey.
Today, a similarly dangerous trend is occurring under the guide of yet another article of the Turkish Penal Code. Citizens are being investigated, prosecuted, and put on trial for allegedly insulting the “religious values” of society. This time, Article 216, Clause 3 is to blame.
The relevant clause reads that “a person who openly insults the religious values of a section of the public shall be sentenced to a penalty of imprisonment of six months to one year in the case that the act is capable of disturbing public peace.” This article may seem neutral in its language and phrasing, but it is indeed used against any statement that is regarded as an “insult to Islam.”
The number of prosecutions based on this charge is increasing, as is the exposure of the defendants to an increasingly angrier public. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom published a valuable short report on this topic titled “Charges for Blasphemy and Insulting Religious Values.” The report makes references to the cases against Spotify, national icon and singer Sezen Aksu, Bogazici University students, journalist Hakan Aygun, Atheism Association, and so on. The report states that cases under Article 216 (3) are “especially concerning as the government, including the president and other officials, increasingly rely on this provision to target and silence individuals who express criticism in religious terms, disclose beliefs or a lack thereof that differ from those of the majority of the population or engage with religion in a way perceived as ‘mocking’ or ‘irreverent.’”
However, what may be the most significant concern is the potential violent attacks on those being tried under this article. A piece published by Diken on December 21 indicates the danger ahead. The title of the article reads “The turbaned group in front of the courthouse chanted the slogan ‘Down with infidels.’” Their coverage shows that a radical Islamist group protested singer Gulsen and Ugur Kutay, both of whom were on trial that day at the courthouse based on charges of insulting religious values.
I am overcome by a sense of déjà vu. People are being made targets Turkey once more. This time, not for allegedly insulting Turkishness, but for insulting Islam. One hopes history will not repeat itself and that these cases are stopped before anyone loses their life.