Turkey: Artists, Free Press Under Fire

Turkish PM Erdogan greets Syrian refugees with his wife Emine on the Turkish/ Syrian border near Akcakale. (Photo: Reuters)

Turkish PM Erdogan greets Syrian refugees with his wife Emine on the Turkish/ Syrian border near Akcakale. (Photo: Reuters)

by: Abigail R. Esman

Islamofascism, a controversial buzzword among the pundits and commentators since the attacks of 9/11. The term poses any number of questions, particularly for governments of Muslim countries: Is Political Islam a fascist ideology? Can Islam coexist with democracy? What is the difference between Nationalism and Islamism in an Islamic state?

These are precisely the issues that now rear their heads in the face of a series of arrests, lawsuits, and most recently, allegations of a state-sponsored assassination in Turkey over the past several months, and which have captured the attentions not only of the international media, but of human rights organizations worldwide.

Fazil Say

Fazil Say

Moves that elicit accusations of Islamism and fascist dictatorships are not new to the governing style of Turkey’s current government, led by the Islamist AKP, or Freedom and Development party.   Ongoing imprisonment of journalists, coupled with the arrest of world renowned pianist/composer Fazil Say last April on charges of insulting Islam, as well as the filing of charges earlier this month against the Turkish chapter of PEN for their defense of Mr. Say and “denigration of the state,” have particularly alarmed human rights activists abroad and pro democracy advocates at home.The charges against Say were brought after the 42-year-old musician joked on Twitter about a call to prayer lasting less than a minute. Sending out the message to his thousands of subscribers, the openly atheist Say wrote, “Why such haste? Have you got a mistress waiting or a raki on the table?”

Fundamentalist Muslims were not amused. The references to a mistress and to raki, an alcoholic drink, were inappropriate and insulting, they said, leading prosecutors to charge him with “public enmity” and “denigration of Islam.” If found guilty when his case comes to trial next month, Say could face a prison term of 18 months.

But the joke was not Say’s only misdeed.  Charges were also brought against him for another tweet, in which he quoted Omar Khayyam: “You say rivers of wine flow in heaven, is heaven a tavern for you? You say two houris [virgins] await each believer there, is heaven a brothel to you?”

What is significant about this is that Say’s tweet was, in fact, a “retweet” – the reposting of a twitter comment someone else had initiated. Moreover, hundreds, if not thousands, of others had also tweeted the same text.  Why, then, was Say singled out?

The case made headlines worldwide.  In an interview with Newsweek last June, Say defended himself, saying, “I did not insult Islam. I just retweeted a verse that I thought was funny. One hundred and 65 others retweeted that verse the same night, but I am the only one being tried.”

Neither Say and nor his manager responded to my requests for further comment on the case. It is said that he is no longer speaking to the press on this issue – an understandable position, if true.

But supporters of the 42-year-old pianist – who has performed with the New York Philharmonic, among others – continue to speak out. In June, the Turkish chapter of PEN issued a statement condemning the prosecution of Say: “The international community has been put on alert in the face of fascist developments in Turkey,”

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Abigail R. Esman, an award-winning writer based in New York and the Netherlands, is the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West

Daniel Pipes: MPAC Calls Me an “Expert on Islam”

MPAC’s Salam al-Marayati

Daniel Pipes:

Why thank you, Muslim Public Affairs Council, for this endorsement. It’s much appreciated, even if came in a 65-page pamphlet, Not Qualified: Exposing the Deception Behind America’s 25 Top Pseudo-Experts on Islam.

According to MPAC, a leading Islamist group based in Los Angeles, those 25 would be Andrew Bostom, William Boykin, Stephen Coughlin, Nonie Darwish, Steven Emerson, Brigitte Gabriel, Frank Gaffney, David Gaubatz, William Gawthrop, Pamela Geller, John Giduck, Sebastian Gorka, John Guandolo, Tawfik Hamid, David Horowitz, Raymond Ibrahim, Zuhdi Jasser, Andrew McCarthy, Walid Phares, Patrick Poole, Walid Shoebat, Robert Spencer, Erick Stakelback, David Yerushalmi … and me.

The gravamen of MPAC’s analysis is that members of this group overwhelmingly are not what it calls experts on Islam, where this term is defined as

[A]n individual who has formal academic qualifications in Islamic Studies from an accredited institute of higher education in the West or those institutes of higher education in Muslim-majority countries that rank among the world’s top 500 universities. In order to be classified as “expert”, as defined above, one’s credentials must also be publicly verifiable.

According to MPAC, “Of the 25 people examined, only 1 (4%) had the qualifications to be considered an ‘expert’ on Islam.” That 4% would be me. In another place, MPAC contradicts itself and allows that Raymond Ibrahim also has “the formal and verifiable academic credentials to be classified as an expert.” Even more contradictorily, as the pamphlet title implies, MPAC says I am a “pseudo-expert” expert on Islam.

My first question is, why does MPAC choose individuals who make no claim to expertise in Islam (such as John Giduck and David Horowitz), but exclude critics with academic credentials in Islamic studies, such as Fouad Ajami, David Cook, David Forte, Efraim Karsh, Martin Kramer, Bernard Lewis, Michael Rubin, Philip Salzman, and Kemal Silay?

My main objection is to the emphasis on credentials. The field of Middle East studies demonstrates only too-colorfully that possessing a PhD does not guarantee competence. Sadly, it’s almost the opposite.

It’s not where a person went to school in his twenties, the languages he knows, or his years living abroad that matters but the capabilities, knowledge, energy, and intelligence he subsequently displays. Speaking as someone who has the requisite degrees, languages, and years abroad, I despise this self-serving emphasis on academic pedigree which would exclude non-PhDs from commenting on things Muslim.

A number of individuals on the MPAC list of 24 have made real contributions. Take the example of Robert Spencer: he has a mere M.A. in religious studies, lacks fluency in Middle Eastern languages, and has not lived in a Muslim-majority country, to be sure, but he has developed a deep erudition on Islam demonstrated in his many books. Indeed, I challenge MPAC to put him toe-to-toe with any PhD’d expert on Islam of its choosing. I nominate that foremost credentialist, John Esposito, for the job.

(Amusingly, by insisting that only those with a degree in Islamic studies may comment on Islam and Muslims, MPAC has just fired its own staff. Its leader, Salam al-Marayati has an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and a graduate degree in business administration. And yet MPAC mires itself in deep Islamic issues.)

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