Istanbul: World-renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say went on trial on Thursday on charges of insulting Islam and offending Muslims in a series of provocative comments on Twitter, in a case that could revive fears of the Islamisation of Turkish society.
“I reject all the accusations,” a visibly upset Say told the Istanbul court, as about 100 supporters gathered outside.
The court adjourned the case to February 18 after rejecting his lawyers’ request for an immediate acquittal.
“Fazil Say is not alone,” declared one banner carried by rights activists, including artists and journalists, who gathered outside the courthouse in support of the self-declared atheist.
The 42-year-old virtuoso, who has played with the philharmonic orchestras of Berlin, New York, Tokyo and Israel, is charged with inciting religious hatred and insulting Islamic values in a series of provocative tweets.
He faces up to 18 months in prison if convicted.
The case has revived fears of increasing restrictions on freedom of speech in Turkey and concerns that the secular country was becoming more conservative.
Say said he was “amazed” he was having to appear in the dock, in a note he sent to a gathering of fellow artists on Tuesday.
“All my life, I have represented the modern face of Turkey to the world through my art… I feel weird because I am facing the threat of being punished with a case like this,” he said.
The indictment cited some of his controversial tweets from April, including one where he said: “I am not sure if you have also realised it, but all the pricks, low-lives, buffoons, thieves, jesters, they are all Allahists.”
One of the plaintiffs in the case, Ali Emre Bukagili, said Say was “insulting religious values” in a country where 99 percent of the population is officially Muslim.
Ayfer Bayar, a plaintiff lawyer, said the musician had “insulted the three major religions.”
There are also other cases pending against the virtuoso filed by individuals infuriated by his remarks on social networks.
Say was also the target of public outrage when he posted tweets denouncing what he branded the hypocrisy of the pious in Turkey.
He has also frequently criticised the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), accusing it of having a secret agenda to Islamise Turkey.
The AKP fired back, with a party member hurling an insult at him, saying Say’s mother was “out of a brothel”.
In April, Say told the Hurriyet newspaper that he felt completely ostracised by Turkish society since he declared that he was an atheist, an experience that for him highlighted a growing culture of intolerance.
“I am perhaps the first person anywhere in the world to be the object of a judicial inquiry for declaring that they are an atheist,” he told the daily, adding that he might move to Japan to escape the tension.
“If I am sentenced to prison, my career is over,” said the musician, who throughout his career has filled halls from Tokyo to Berlin, Paris, London and Salzburg.