Earlier this week, Turkish pianist Fazıl Say was handed a 10 month suspended jail sentence by a Turkish court for the crime of insulting religious beliefs. Say’s sentence was based on a series of tweets he wrote a year ago quoting the famed medieval poet Omar Khayyam and voicing the belief that thieves and stupid people are always religious believers. In order to stay out of prison, Say has to avoid a relapse of his alleged crime for the next five years. Say is actually fortunate to be a famous and high profile person, as were he an ordinary Turkish citizen, he would already be serving time in prison and would not have had his sentence suspended, as the case of Abdulkerim U. – who was sentenced to six months in jail for insulting the prophet Muhammad on Facebook – vividly demonstrates. In a move that perfectly encapsulates in one short moment the essence of Prime Minister Erdoğan and what makes him both a successful and infuriating politician, he responded to reporters’ questions about Say by smiling and saying, “Do not occupy our time with such matters.” Unsurprisingly, other government officials followed Erdoğan’s lead in dismissing concerns about the verdict and even justifying it, such as EU Affairs Minister Egeman Bağış who declared the need for people to learn to respect that which is sacred to others, which will no doubt come as great consolation to, say, Turkey’s Alevi community, which is used to having its beliefs and rituals routinely mocked by the prime minister.
On the other hand, observers who are not AKP members were not quite as non-plussed as Erdoğan and his coterie of followers. CHP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu did not pass up the opportunity to hammer away at the government and questioned whether Turkey actually has a justice system and declared that democracy in Turkey is at stake, and a variety of columnists including Yavuz Baydar and Murat Yetkin have both criticized the substance of the verdict and noted the damage to Turkey’s image abroad. Amnesty International also weighed in, calling the verdict a “flagrant violation of his [Say’s] freedom of expression,” and the EU expressed its concern and called on Turkey to take care in respecting freedom of speech. As is apparent, everyone outside of the AKP is taking the Say case very seriously and recognizes it as a stain on Turkish democratic aspirations.
Everyone outside of the AKP, that is, with one notable exception. U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone’s comments on the subject of Say’s sentence were that his brother David Ricciardone, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge, remarked to him that “a very bad piano player hit the wrong key.” Yes, you read that correctly: our government’s official representative in Turkey not only declined to condemn what is clearly a gross miscarriage of justice and a blatant violation of democratic values and practice, but tacitly endorsed the court’s decision and joked about it with reporters. I suppose that the good people of Massachusetts are fortunate that Judge Ricciardone is a state judge rather than a federal judge, since his understanding of the First Amendment seems to be on par with that of my 10 month old son. Moving onto the bigger culprit here, it is inconceivable that Ambassador Ricciardone’s initial reaction is one of anything other than outrage. Yes, we don’t want to be meddling in another country’s internal affairs and we want to respect laws abroad that are different from our own, and we also want to maintain a good relationship with the Turkish government, but none of that applies here. Plenty of Turks, both individually and institutionally, are criticizing the Say verdict to the high heavens, and so this does not fall into the category of respecting another culture. This is an instance where if we have any respect for our own democratic values, we are compelled to make it crystal clear that what has taken place with regard to Say and to Abdulkerim U. and to the other hundreds of Turkish citizens who get prosecuted on similar charges is completely unacceptable in our view. Ricciardone instead has chosen to act as a lackey for the Turkish government and turn a blind eye to behavior that we routinely call out on other occasions, and it is evident to me that this is becoming a chronic problem in our relationship with Turkey.
Both publicly and privately, U.S. diplomats who are in charge of our Turkey policy talk about the country as being more democratic now than it has ever been, and while acknowledging some problems with freedom of speech, the overarching and worrisome issues are generally swept under the rug in a disturbing fashion. As I noted a year ago, the U.S. needs Turkey on a host of regional issues, and so it studiously ignores Turkish bad behavior and sticks to the party line about the strength of Turkish democracy. It is one thing, however, to pretend that a problem does not exist, and quite another to contribute to that problem worsening. I am going to assume that the U.S. will express its displeasure with Turkey over the Say verdict behind the scenes, but backing up the government in such a public way like Ricciardone did is enormously damaging irrespective of what goes on later behind closed doors. Ricciardone has been criticized in the past, including just a couple of months ago, by the Turkish government for perceived interference in Turkey’s internal affairs, and kudos to him for his previous efforts to highlight abuses of democracy by the Erdoğan government, but it appears as if his response has been to go way too far in the opposite direction in an effort to curry favor with Ankara. If that is the case, his completely out of line and inappropriate response to the Say verdict should be the impetus for him to take a major course correction immediately.
The embassy says that Ambassador Ricciardone’s quote was taken out of context; please read my follow-up post – https://ottomansandzionists.com/2013/04/18/more-on-ambassador-ricciardone-and-fazil-say/