Turkey's Blasphemy Barometer

Sacrificing Free Speech in Istanbul

Turkish riot police guard a courthouse in Silivri, where there will be a hearing on over 300 people charged with attempting to overthrow Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, August 5, 2013. Osman Orsal / Courtesy Reuters

In mid-January, Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu marched alongside other world leaders in Paris to commemorate those killed in the terrorist attack on the satiric newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

Upon his return to Ankara, Davutoglu made it clear that he had gone to Paris to make a stand against terror, not to support Charlie Hebdo. The paper, he said, had no right to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. When a court in Diyarbakir, a city in Turkey’s southeast, banned access to all websites carrying the cover of its newest issue, which featured a cartoon of a weeping Muhammad saying, “All is forgiven,” Davutoglu applauded the decision. “Freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to insult,” he said, referring to the Islamic interdiction on depicting Muhammad. “Turkey will not allow its prophet to be insulted.”

Davutoglu also denounced Cumhuriyet, a secular Turkish newspaper, which published a selection of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, including the latest cover with the tearful Muhammad. Given the need to respect Muslim sensitivities in Turkey, said Davutoglu, the decision to print “those insulting caricatures” was tantamount to “open sedition.” More than 90 percent of the Turkish population is Muslim.

Two Cumhuriyet columnists who chose to include images of the Muhammad cover beside their commentaries have since been placed under investigation on suspicion of violating Turkey’s blasphemy law, which punishes those who “incite hatred and enmity” and “insult religious values.”

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president and Davutoglu’s predecessor as prime minister, has also offered his opinions on the Charlie Hebdo attacks, drawing uncomfortable parallels between the murdered cartoonists and the terrorists who killed them. “Terrorism is not just committed by weapons,” he said. “Attacks on holy values and religious beliefs are acts of terror.”

In a move that seems to confirm that Turkey’s judges and prosecutors often take cues from those in power, an Ankara court forced Facebook to block access to pages found to be “insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.”

Of course, respecting the Islamic injunction against drawing or ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad

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