Beatrice White

When the Innocence of Muslims film first came to public attention in Turkey it was met with general disapproval from the public, fierce condemnations from politicians, especially those belonging to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and barely a scattering of protests.

Reports in some Western media conveyed a sense of uniform outrage across the Muslim world, illustrated by pictures of Turks demonstrating, placed alongside images of protests in countries such as Afghanistan and Libya, a small number of which turned violent. Despite these sensational images, the reaction from most of the population in Turkey seems to have been rather muted.

Nuri Çolakoğlu, the veteran journalist and president of Doğan Media International, was dismissive of the reaction. “This country is 99 per cent Muslim and people are offended by such things – whether it’s a pastor burning the Koran or the Mohammed cartoons – it does lead to a reaction, but nothing terribly out of proportion.”40

He admits there were protests but of little significance, “In central Istanbul, every day there are 10 to 20 demonstrations in the centre. Every two hours a new group shows up. It’s like the Hyde Park of Turkey.”

It was reported that around 500 people gathered in central Istanbul’s Taksim Square on September 14th 2012, chanting and burning US and Israeli flags in protest at the film’s unflattering depiction of the Prophet Mohammed.(41)

The Hürriyet Daily News reported that the group, “who dubbed themselves ‘Lovers of the Prophet,’ left peacefully” after the demonstration. Around the same time, a smaller group of 50 protesters gathered in front of the US embassy in the Turkish capital Ankara. Both demonstrations were described as peaceful.(42)

Although it was difficult to determine exactly who was behind the demonstration, a connection to certain political interests seems fairly clear. Some participants in the protest held posters and placards bearing the name of the Saadet Party (Turkish Felicity Party), a religious conservative party not represented in the Turkish parliament.(43)

Esra Arsan, a professor of Journalism at Bilgi University and media analyst, believes the sharp rise in the use of social media in Turkey may have played a role in the gatherings, “There are lots of groups like this, organising protests. With social media – which starts as a cluster of ideas and groups – people get together and organise protests under names like ‘defenders of the prophet.”

Arsan adds that it is often difficult to tell if these crowds have any real influence in Muslim society, or if, in this case, they were composed primarily of opportunistic social media users.

Doğan Tiliç, journalist and professor of media and cultural studies at Ankara’s Middle-East Technical University, says the reaction of the mainstream media to these kinds of controversies can generally be as- signed to three factors; the stance of the government, the interests of media owners, and the feelings of the general public. If one or more of these are particularly forceful or prominent, the media generally takes that line.(45)

Conversely, he says, if there is a strong wish from one of these parties to suppress an issue, the media generally complies. If all three of these interests coincide, the media treatment will be most emphatic, even to the point of overriding well-established principles of ethical journalism.

Following the film’s emergence in Turkey, Çolakoğlu says, “Newspapers carried stories – editorials, columns were written about it, pictures appeared, but that was the end of it. There were of course marginal Islamist papers that portrayed it in a provocative way – but that didn’t cause much of a stir.”

The ombudsman for Hürriyet newspaper, Faruk Bildirici, took a rather more somber view of some of the coverage. According to him, certain newspapers are guilty of stirring up antagonism in controversial cases such as these.

He referred to the example of the Turkish daily Sabah, which, after the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were attacked apparently publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, covered the news in a celebratory and triumphal tone.

“This coverage was not right or honest,” said Bildirici. “As a newspaper, we generally try to show what is happening without telling the reader what to think. In the case of the cartoons, we wrote about them without describing or showing them. I think if we had shown the cartoons, readers would be able to decide for themselves whether they were insulting or not.

“But instead we just spoke about ‘the caricatures that insult the prophet.’ So citizens are getting angry because in France or Denmark the prophet was insulted. But in my view these cartoons were not insulting; it was just freedom of speech.” Bildirici admits however that he is likely to be in a minority with this opinion.(46)

In the wake of the violent episodes in Libya, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke out about the film, describing it as a “provocation” and telling people not to resort to violence.(47) This statement came shortly after the prime minister received a phone-call from United States President Barack Obama, requesting his assistance to diffuse tensions regarding the film.(48)

Çolakoğlu believes Erdoğan’s efforts to suppress strong reactions stemmed from his party’s current position in power, despite its “pro- Islamist” leanings. “Had they been in opposition, they might have thought of taking advantage of the situation to mobilise people.” Tiliç echoed these statements, adding that “no government wants trouble in the streets of a country.”

Arsan believes Erdoğan was eager to take a leading role in the reaction to the lm, “Although the movie has no connection to Turkey, Erdoğan likes to consider himself the leader of the Muslim community all over the world,” and for this reason took it upon himself to speak up and take action to defend their rights.

Despite his calls for calm, Erdoğan’s condemnation of the film was unequivocal. “Insulting the Prophet cannot be justified as freedom of expression,” he said.49 “We are observing that extreme rightist moves and racism target Muslims, this time Europe- wide; we are worried that it will escalate in Europe.”

Erdoğan further pointed out that while Turkey recognised anti-Semitism as a hate crime, not a single Western country recognised Islamophobia as such, going even further to say, “the West hasn’t recognised Islamophobia as a crime against humanity – it has encouraged it.”(50)

Erdoğan said he would address the matter with the UN General Assembly. “There should be international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred.” Erdoğan promised the government would immediately start working on legislation against blasphemous and offensive remarks. “Turkey could be a leading example for the rest of the world on this,” he said.(51)

This promise was followed up with a series of initiatives, including an invitation of foreign ministers of Brazil and Sweden to the annual gathering of Turkish ambassadors from January 2nd to 9th 2012 in İzmir to discuss a joint initiative to “prevent assaults against sacred values.” The initiative, “three soft powers from three continents,” started working on the documents for the initiative, which they said they expected to present to the UN in 2013.(52)

In the debate following the film’s emergence, there has been much discussion in Turkey about freedom of speech, hate speech and hate crimes, and about what is covered or not covered under each of these.

In an article about the film posted to his blog on September 29th entitled “Hate Crimes Should Be Fought,” linguist and author Sevan Nişanyan wrote that, “Mocking an Arab leader – who claimed that he contacted God hundreds years ago and who gained political, financial and sexual profit from this – is not hate crime. Almost at the level of kindergarten, it is a test case of the thing called ‘freedom of expression.”(53)

Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said Nişanyan’s words amounted
to a crime worthy of prosecution.54 Later, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTÜK) ned private broadcaster CNN Türk for “insulting the Prophet Muhammad” in a TV show presented by Enver Aysever, broadcast on October 15, during which Nişanyan was a guest in a discussion about the film.(55)

Arsan disagrees with Nişanyan, “In order for there to be hate speech, there must be demands for violence against a particular group or community. Because this movie targets Muslims as a community, it can be described as hate speech. And as we know, hate speech can give way to violence and hate crimes.” This being said, she also feels that, “Talking about Islamophobia in a country where 95 per cent of the country is Muslim – of various denominations – is ridiculous, because they are the majority of the population.”

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) requested a comprehensive law to address the problem of hate crimes after publishing its own study on the subject.(56)

CHP Bursa deputy Aykan Erdemir said at the time, “the issue cannot be reduced only to Islamophobia, and we should be very careful not to limit the freedom of speech or media freedom when fighting against hate crimes. The deputy called for the establishment of new institutions and mechanisms to monitor and track hate crimes in Turkey, and made clear the focus of the study, “For now, we must focus on hate crimes, because dealing with hate speech is a very delicate issue.”(57)

Arsan believes the problem of hate speech in Turkey to be particularly pernicious for some segments of society. He says, “Turkish media workers use hate speech freely against certain communities, such as Kurds, Armenians, and members of the LGBT community – the ‘others’ of the society.”

Arsan has previously been targeted by the media herself, “for supporting BDP [the Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party] and writing on sensitive topics, such as Kurdish issues. A newspaper singled me out as a supporter of terrorism, an enemy of the state.” For Arsan, the experience was a frightening one, particularly in light of cases such as Hrant Dink, the Armenian journalist who was murdered following a campaign of hate speech against him by nationalist media, a case which shocked Turkish society and the establishment into finally acknowledging the problem of hate speech in the country.

Especially when it comes to controversial topics, “the media is publishing news that shouldn’t be published,” says Bildirici. He believes that while this reporting does not directly cause violent acts to occur, “they are preparing the background, the atmosphere for violence. Hate is the background for violence, and there are newspapers in Turkey that are inciting hatred.”

Sharing this view of cause and effect, Arsan says she would “support a law on hate speech rather than hate crime – because it is the first step – if you stop hate speech no one can be targeted. There is also a problem of racism and fascism in Europe – against Turks, Roma, and other minorities. So we need international legislation, through the EU, UN and so on.”

“Blasphemy should be part of freedom of speech,” she says, “we should be able to talk negatively about religion and criticize it. This is very different from “imposing hate speech against a group of believers that can lead to crime.”

Bildirici agrees. “Hate speech cannot be regarded as a part of freedom of expression; rather it is a crime – something illegal.” In the same way, “you cannot consider the insult as hate speech.”

But public sentiment is in favour of restrictions says Tiliç who believes that the measures to curb so-called blasphemy would be supported by most of the population, “Probably if you asked people if they were in favour of some measure of protection against insults to religion, they would mostly agree.”

Arsan says many have concerns that “the prime minister is trying to create a hate speech law, just to protect Islam from hate speech – not other minorities. He is not interested in protecting their rights and freedoms – only in limiting freedom of speech against Islam.” Arsan fears that “at the end of this legislative process, we might have a new law which is not defending freedom of speech, but also limiting the poor freedom of press that exists.”

Deniz Ergürel, President of the Media Association also feels that “a hate crime with existing laws would be harmful for freedom of expression,” adding that in his opinion, “These should be taken as ethical rules not criminal laws.”(58)

According to Ergürel, Journalism has improved substantially in Turkey, mainly due to greater economic prosperity. “People are looking for better content and this creates a space for better journalism and greater diversity. Because there are more voices, more sources of information than before, this creates a balance, there is less chance for misinformation, and this seems to make media more responsible.”

Yet some problems remain. Ergürel believes that media ownership and low salaries for journalists are two of the most significant issues. “The media has been seen as a business by owners, who see media as a tool to leverage their business rather than as an end in itself. When there are business interests, you cannot do proper reporting and be independent.”

He says the level of responsibility among the mainstream media is not all it could be, “We still see more emotions than facts in the news. In Turkish newspapers, even the front page is full of opinions and emotions.”

This permeation of coverage by opinion and emotion is of course not restricted to Turkey, however, but Bildirici believes that progress has been made, “In the past, there was far more hate speech in the mainstream media, but in recent years it is decreasing.”

He attributes this to a greater emphasis on ethics, laid out for media workers in the form of clear written guidelines. However, “In other areas of the media, such as the local, nationalist and Islamic papers, hate speech has not decreased.”

Çolakoğlu worries about freedom of speech from a perspective of democracy. In his opinion, “tolerance in Turkey is dimming down. Lack of tolerance in society is to my mind the biggest threat – not only to freedom of speech but also to life – you can be killed if someone doesn’t like you. We have a track record of this, in the 1970s around the time of the military coup, people were killing each other for being leftist or rightist. So there is that tendency dormant out there.”

It is a view that resonates with Ersan, “There is no tolerance in this country. People should have a dialogue first and then react. This is a weakness in Turkey: if we don’t like what people say, we feel they should disappear from society completely. In Turkey, we have a hegemonic ideology, and if someone goes against this, we try to exclude them from society. This is very dangerous. Media is the major tool of this kind of ideology in society, and the new law could be another tool for the elimination of the enemies of the hegemonic ideology.”

According to Bildirici, “the heightened tensions and rise of minority Islamic groups can be traced back to 9/11. Generally speaking, we are going in the direction of more limits to and pressures on freedom of expression.” Bildirici said he had witnessed a rise in the number of complaints based on perceived insults to religion or content deemed “indecent” in the media.

He believes this is connected to the religious policies of the AKP and their influence. All religions should have dialogue; we should be able to

talk about religion without arguing or causing offence. But it is becoming impossible day by day to talk about Islam in the Muslim world as it is always taken as criticism. Every day we are getting further away from secularism.” When it comes to religious affairs, “In Turkey, we are becoming less tolerant and understanding of each other day by day.”

But generally speaking, there are few stereotypes about Westerners in the mainstream media, says Colakoglu, with only a minority portraying events in a provocative manner, and these are generally marginalized by the majority of the population.

Ergürel believes the response to stereotypes on both sides lies in dialogue between communities. “Journalists have a big role in informing the public and creating bridges,” he believes. “When journalists write stories based on the emotions, and feelings of the people, they stir up hatred between different groups of people.”

He gives the example of Turkish news broadcasts showing extensive footage of the grieving relatives of soldiers. “This creates friction on both sides. I think in the media, we need to create the language not only of war reporting but also peace reporting.

(44) Arsan adds that it is often difficult to tell if these crowds have any real influence in Muslim society, or if, in this case, they were composed

(40) Interview conducted in Istanbul on February 22, 2013

(41) Film protests are peaceful in Serbia, Greece, Turkey, SETimes, 24/09/2012, (http://www.setimes.com/cocoon/setimes/xhtml/en_GB/features/setimes/features/2012/09/24/feature-04)

(42) Daily News September/24/2012

(43) Muslim Protests Spread Around the Globe, The Atlantic, Sep 14, 2012 (http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/09/muslim-protests-spread-around-the-globe/100369/)

(44) Interview at Bilgi University on February 19, 2013

(50) PM Erdoğan: Islamophobia should be recognized as crime against humanity , Today’s Zaman, 16 September 2012

(51) Ibid

(52) October/26/2012 – Daily News

(53) October/05/2012 – Daily News

(54) Ibid

(55) Daily news, December/13/2012

(56) October/19/2012, Daily News


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