Turkey: PEN talks to writer Sevan Nişanyan

5 February 2015

Sevan Nişanyan is facing imprisonment for ‘denigrating religious values’

Sevan Nişanyan is a writer, linguist, hotelier and public intellectual from Turkey’s Armenian minority, whose etymological dictionaries, travel books and treatises on Turkish, Islamic and Anatolian culture have been widely hailed for their importance to contemporary Turkish cultural discourse. He is a controversial figure in Turkey for his harsh critiques of Kemalism (the ideology of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) and Islam as well as his outspoken opposition to the Turkish authorities’ refusal to acknowledge that there had been an Armenian genocide.

One of the biggest controversies in which Nişanyan has been involved relates to a blog post he made in September 2012. Writing in his personal blog, Nişanyan criticised the government’s call to introduce a new ‘hate speech’ bill in response to the release of the film The Innocence of Muslims.  The film led to widespread protests around the world as a result of its unflattering depiction of the prophet Muhammad.   Writing in defence of the right to freedom of expression, Nişanyan criticised the government’s attempts to prohibit criticism of the historical Muhammad.

Nişanyan’s blog post was deemed by the public prosecutor’s office to constitute religious defamation and he was charged under Article 216/3 of the Turkish Penal Code. On 22 May 2013, an Istanbul court found him guilty and he was sentenced to 15.5 months in prison. This conviction and prison sentence remains under appeal.

PEN International notes that Nişanyan faces further possible imprisonment as punishment for offending Turkey’s conservative elite and is gravely concerned that his conviction and sentence are motivated by animosity for his legitimate expression as a public intellectual. The organisation believes that Nişanyan’s comments fall well within the realm of legitimate historical and religious criticism and that his conviction for religious defamation is a violation of his right to freedom of expression as well as his right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion/belief. Both these rights are protected under Articles 18 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which Turkey is a state party.

Article 216/3 functions as a blasphemy law by criminalising the public ‘denigration’ of religious values.  This article has been criticised for affording different levels of protection to different religions or beliefs and for being applied in a discriminatory manner, particularly towards unorthodox, non-religious or anti-religious beliefs.  These concerns have been highlighted in the cases of renowned concert pianist and composer Fazil Say, and journalists Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Cetinkaya. PEN reiterates the comment made in the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred regarding blasphemy laws: ‘The right to freedom of religion or belief, as enshrined in relevant international legal standards, does not include the right to have a religion or a belief that is free from criticism or ridicule’. PEN believes that the fundamental human right to freedom of expression guarantees the right to express critical views, even those that offend, shock or disturb. PEN calls on the Turkish authorities to repeal Article 216/3 and drop all cases against writers under this law for their legitimate expression.

The interview below was conducted with the help of Sait Çetinoğlu, who very kindly relayed PEN’s questions to Nişanyan in Yenipazar prison, where the Armenian-Turkish writer is currently serving a two-year sentence as a result of a separate construction dispute with the Turkish authorities.

A case was brought against you for a piece you wrote on your personal blog. What does the bringing of this case and the fact that you were convicted at its conclusion tell us about the state of freedom of expression in Turkey?

The blog piece for which I was prosecuted and convicted argued simply that disrespectful speech about an ancient Arab leader – implying the prophet of Islam – was a matter of free speech that should be under the protection of law. It employed mildly disrespectful language about the prophet to illustrate the point.

As a result I was attacked in vile language by a government minister, a top aide to the then prime minister, and the top religious official of the country; several newspapers launched a lynching campaign; I received hundreds of death threats; I was prosecuted in about a dozen courts around the country; and I was sentenced to 15.5 months in jail for blasphemy.

I believe the case illustrates how gravely free speech is imperilled in this country; at least as far as Islamic prejudices are concerned.

What did the court point to as its reasoning behind this decision?

The court made a rather tendentious attempt to base its decision on some precedents from the European Court of Human Rights. It also asserted, without evidence, that my blog piece “threatened public order”. It was necessary to add that bit to have a case under article 216 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes religious blasphemy where it threatens public order.

What was it about these arguments that you found objectionable and do you think they represent an undue restriction on your right to freedom of expression?

I believe this country, as well as the world at large, urgently needs a serious debate about the role of Islam in modern society. But that debate is impossible if every phrase that is contrary to the beliefs, prejudices, habits or sensitivities of the self-appointed spokesmen of Islam is going to be banned or prosecuted or greeted with paroxysms of rage.

What kind of impact do cases like these have on outspoken critics such as yourself as well as ordinary members of the public? 

The ordinary public is cowed. The outspoken critics are likely to hold out longer, but the spiralling pace of repression will eventually make many of them think again.

What kind of impact do such court cases have on your writing?

I have been in jail for a year now. That obviously has a dampening effect on one’s writing. I use the time to concentrate on my academic research, which is in historical linguistics.

Why is it important that forms of expression that offend, shock, disturb are worthy of protection?

Anything that is genuinely new for a society will by definition offend, shock or disturb. You cannot swim against the current of received opinion without touching the nerves of the owners of received opinion.

You could either let things run in their established rut, or else you must encourage and protect those who risk offense and shock by seeking new paths of thought. Some of offenders may be purveyors of junk. But you cannot expect to hear anything new unless you are prepared to tolerate a certain amount of junk.

In recent years, cases brought under Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code have been increasingly coming to prominence; indeed some have described Article 216 as Turkey’s new Article 301. What does this tell us about the way taboos have changed in Turkey in recent years?

Article 216 is actually a reasonably phrased piece of legislation. In a sane environment it could be used to penalize vilification campaigns against, for example, the Jews or other religious minorities. The problem is that most Turkish courts take it as their duty to uphold government authority at all costs against the claims of any individual or minority interest. Nationalism was the sacred cow of Turkish governments until 2002; so free thinkers and dissidents were prosecuted for touching that particular bovine. Now Islam is the sacred cow, and one must be careful not be irritate this one.

Opinions expressed by Nişanyan in this interview do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of PEN International.


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