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 is one thing. Using the law to crack down against those who ignore or defy this prohibition is quite another.

The row over Charlie Hebdo is not the first time that Turkish courts have cited the blasphemy law, or article 216 of the penal code, to protect Islam’s prophet from ridicule. In 2013, Sevan Nisanyan, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, was sentenced to over a year in prison for criticizing Muhammad and defending his right to do so in a blog post. The following year, 40 people were arrested after contributing to a thread on Muhammad on a popular online forum. Sedat Kapanoglu, the forum’s founder, was given a ten-month jail sentence. Another person was sentenced to 15 months in prison for creating the Twitter handle @Allah.

Yet the tendency to restrict free speech has gone well beyond what the government calls protecting Muhammad’s image. Erdogan’s government and his courts are taking issue not only with depictions and criticisms of the prophet but also with any criticism of Islam as a whole.

Take the ongoing debate in Turkey on the relationship between terror and Islamist militancy. Or, rather, don’t—such a debate does not exist. Erdogan—who once dismissed the violence in Darfur, saying, “Muslims do not commit genocide”—insists that those who carry out terror in the name of Islam are not real Muslims. Any suggestions to the contrary, including all references to “Islamic terror,” are met with accusations of Islamophobia. “As Muslims, we have never taken part in terrorist massacres,” Erdogan has said. “Behind these [claims] lie racism, hate speech, and Islamophobia. Games are being played with the Islamic world.”

In Europe and the United States—but also in Turkey, where some secularists privately slander Muslims and Islam in terms that would raise eyebrows even in France—Islamophobia is a real, growing problem. Within a week after the Charlie Hebdo murders, 26 mosques were attacked across France, according to the French National Observatory Against Islamophobia. At the time of writing, investigators were probing into a possible case of religious hate crime with the murders of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Among Turkish officials and pro-government commentators, however, the specter of Islamophobia is being invoked more and more to inhibit criticism of Islam, religious authorities, and even of Turkey itself. And the blasphemy law is the vehicle they increasingly use to silence dissent.

In 2013, Fazil Say, a Turkish pianist, was placed on trial for a series of tweets in which he cited the writings of Omar Khayyam, the 11th-century Persian poet, and ridiculed a muezzin, the person appointed to call Muslims to prayer from the minaret of a mosque. For these tweets, Say received a suspended ten-month jail sentence.

Late last year, Turkey's religious affairs ministry, the Diyanet, demanded that a fictional television series about a petty thief posing as an imam be taken off the air, arguing it was immoral to cast a religious official in a negative light. “We have no doubt that both the channel and the relevant authorities will show necessary sensitivity toward such distortions about the place and role of imams in society,” the ministry wrote in a statement. The series, itself a spinoff from an Iranian movie, survived, but only after producers revealed its ending, in which the thief-cum-imam makes amends for his sins.

Leaving aside the debate as to whether the injunction against depicting or insulting Muhammad ought to acquire the weight of law in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim but constitutionally secular, the prohibition at least has the veneer of religious and popular legitimacy. Arbitrary bans on ridiculing fictional religious officials clearly do not.

When it comes to defining what can and cannot be said in Turkey, rather than strike a balance between free speech and blasphemy, Turkey’s government has chosen to shift the goalposts.

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  • PIOTR ZALEWSKI is an Istanbul-based freelance writer who has written for Time, Foreign Policy, and The National, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @p_zalewski.
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