The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Let’s support the atheist Turkish pianist Fazil Say in his fight against the religious intolerance of Islam. Leave a comment of protest and support. | June 30, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Offhand, I can’t think of many Turkish pianists who have stood out in their interpretations of Western classical music.

But the young keyboard wizard Fazil Say (below), 42, is one of the exceptions.

Maybe the only one.

Say, who is also a composer and who plays and performs jazz, has the impressive technique — the chops if you will — plus the interpretive ability and artistic affinity to leave you deeply impressed with his reading of, say, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Ravel among others.

Just look at all the 5-star User Ratings his CDs get on

Here is a link to his official fan website:

But now it looks as if Say, who admits to being secular and to supporting a secular government in his native Turkey, will have to take up a home in exile (probably in Japan, he says) because he has been charged with the equivalent of heresy or blasphemy by Turkey’s government and threatened with arrest, trial and prison. (Below is the famed Blue Mosque in Turkey.)

Specifically, he is accuse of, and investigated for, insulting Islam, and other religions, because he Tweeted that he is an atheist. He was indicted and a trial is set for Oct. 18.

It all sounds very similar to what happened to the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk (below) who was charging with libeling or insulting the Turkish government because he referred to the Armenian genocide by Turkey in 1915 — which Turkey officially denies ever took place, despite the testimony and evidence provided by many experts and historians.

After worldwide protest, Turkey dropped those charges,

Maybe the same outcome could happen for Fazil Say (below and at bottom, playing ironically Mozart’s “Turkish” Rondo).

Here are links to stories and other blogs about Say’s unfortunate predicament:

No matter what the right-wing here says about the need for more state-sponsored religion, now you can see why the Founders wisely wanted in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to establish a wall of separation between church and state. In their own lifetimes, they had seen what the mix of religion and government or politics did in Europe and elsewhere.

So: Looks like it’s time to speak up for free speech, artistic freedom and freedom of religious in Turkey.

What do you say about Say and his plight?

Leave a note of protest and support in the COMMENTS section. Maybe it will persuade Turkish authorities to relent – although I wouldn’t count on it.

Shame on Turkey!

Shame on Islam, Christianity, Judaism and all other forms of religious intolerance and oppression!

Shame on religious zealots of all kinds in all places and at all times!


  1. Jake,

    As one who lived/worked in Japan for 35 years, I can confirm that Say will not suffer there because of his religious beliefs or lack thereof. In fact, most Japanese are both Shinto and Buddhist. The former generally deals with rites of passage; e.g., coming of age, marriage, etc. while the latter takes care of funerals, cremations, etc. Despite Christian missionaries having been in Japan since the 16th century, they’ve been able to interest/convert less than about 5% of the population. Despite that, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Mormons, et. al. have constructed large churches and do have followers.

    Theology aside, Japan is a mecca for classical musicians. Tokyo has more professional symphonies than it can support well and even in Okinawa, considered the hillbilly prefecture, I attended many world class pro classical concerts/recitals. I played third in a semi-pro trombone quintet in Fukuoka and recorder in the Dazaifu Recorder Consort & loved those groups. I suspect that Say will be happy, greatly appreciated, and successful in Japan. Best of luck to him.

    Comment by Larry Retzack — July 12, 2012 @ 11:49 am

    • Hi Larry,
      Thank you for replying from such a personal and factual basis.
      Despite Japan’s reputation for cultural insularity and ethnic homogeneity, it sure sounds like a tolerant place when it comes to religion.
      And I have heard before of the tremendous classical music scene in Japan.
      So I suspect you are right on both counts about pianist Fazil Say leaving Turkey andy going into exile in Japan.
      And I agree with you completely: Good luck to him in his new home.
      And bad luck to the oppressive regime, though not its people, of his old home.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 12, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

  2. Of course, we have the civil right to declare our beliefs and I thought that Turkie was a secular state or secular Government, but I think I’m wrong. I was in Turkey for three times and last year I’ve realized that Mister Erdogan is CLEARLY FOR AN ISLAMIC STATE. I say that because of the public behaviour of the women as they wear the Islamic clothes like BURKA, HIJJAB, NIKAB AND OTHERS–in my opinion ridiculous clothes— very different from the past!! I’m a Brazilian girl and I was born in Rio de Janeiro, and like this, people in Rio and in general in Brasil, don’t wear a lot of clothes. We don’t like that and this religeous people says we have a lot of pleasure with our bodies and in ISLAM the pleasure is forbidden!!). I saw this even in ISTANBUL!!! Well, I’m atheist and I hate all religions because they are responsable for the war, the discrimination, the sexism, the misogyny, the racism and the supremacist … and all miserable myths in order to do the social control!! It’s worst , in the case of Islam and the reasons come from its history. (Perhaps, until nowadays they don’t accept they have had really a GREAT EMPIRE on the past –LIKE OTHERS ROMAIN, GREEK, — and they lost it, definitely…). That’s the “religion of peace,” unfortunately! If it’s true, I would ask: what’s the religeon of war??? We must fight against the world Islamization and its repressive system. I can’t agree with this stupid religeon that doesn’t accept differences and pluralistic values!! So let’s go! Mister Say can’t be treated like a criminal and the world must say that to Mister Erdogan! On the other hand Mister Say must have his civil and humans rights respected! We must save free speech and the the free choice of religion, or the free choice of atheism, or free thought and free expression!! If Mister Say wants, he can come from Turkey TO BRAZIL, SPECIFICALLY TO RIO DE JANEIRO AS IT’S THE BRAZILIAN CITY WITH THE MOST SPIRITUAL POPULATION. I MEAN THE SPIRITUALISTS (allan kardec spiritism, Buddhist, Hindu, Umbanda, satya say baba religion, candomble and others polytheist religions). WE ACCEPT THE MOST DIFFERENT PEOPLE HERE, INCLUDING ATHEISTS AND AGNOSTICS!

    Comment by REXLION — July 4, 2012 @ 1:12 am

  3. I’d like to also wish Mr. Say an excellent stay in Japan; hopefully his exile will end favorably and he’ll be able to return home one day. News items such as this one remind me of precisely how easy I have it here! That said, I am also an atheist, and I stand with Fazil Say!

    Comment by Christopher Dozoryst — June 30, 2012 @ 10:52 am

  4. […] Offhand, I can't think of many Turkish pianists who have stood out in their interpretations of Western classical music. But the young keyboard wizard Fazil Say (below), 42, is one of the exceptions. Maybe the only one.  […]

    Pingback by Classical music news: Let's support the atheist Turkish pianist Fazil ... | Music House | — June 30, 2012 @ 10:26 am

  5. Declaring one’s a-theism is VITAL. I am doing so here, for the record. Condemning anyone for their beliefs or lack thereof is simply not the point.
    Governments and political systems that do not value freedom of expression are no different than religious systems that are similarly organized. Resistance to one is resistance to the other.
    ALL of us who are U.S. citizens get the “best” of both worlds. We get to express our religious sentiments,or independence from same, and our political points of view without direct fear of reprisal. There is always a social cost to being opposed to the stauts quo or prevailing viewpoint.
    If we as a free nation, and we as musicians want to support this guy, and I certainly do, we ought to Buy his Recordings, and go see him play whenever possible. There is nothing like the support of seeing that one’s listeners are putting their lira or dollars where their ears are.
    So, I am going to collect all the CD audio and DVD video this gentleman has for sale. Jazz and Ravel, two of my favorite things.
    As an aside, our best family friend is an Armenian music lover and amateur pianist. I’d do this for her sake, if no one else’s.
    Being careful about condemnations might be prudent, but not making any cultural judgements is living in an idealized world where all points of view are culturally equivalent. I do not want such a world, and we do not live in such a world. Medieval attitudes, entrenched superstitions, and other patterns of irrational thinking and behaving not only need to be opposed, they need to be given alternatives that will enlighten and enrich the lives of people who live under the sway or the boot of ignorance. Music since Beethoven’s time has stood for this concept. The Romantic movement was just such a clarion call to freedom of thought and expression. Let’s make sure that its spirit is kept alive for the parts of the world that need it today.

    Comment by Michael BB — June 30, 2012 @ 9:05 am

  6. I think we should be careful in our denunciations. To demonize an entire religion is to give a victory to polarizing extremists. The enemy here is not Islam or Turkey. The enemy is religious fanaticism. Christianity has its own black record in that department, as much as Islam has, and it still flourishes in foul force in our own country. Turkey itself, too, is a tricky case. It totters on the margin of modernization and reaction. Mr. Say and the splendid Orhan Pamuk do what they must, and their persecution is the work of one of the factional elements in Turkey that are at war with each other. I know many Turks who are open-minded, and hardly to be lumped into a bloc for condemnation. I have one friend who is educated and cosmopolitan, and is yet a devout and practicing Muslim. She worries about trends in her country, and is suspicious of Premier Erdogan. But, give him credit for walking a fine line that contributes to modernizing Turkey as much as to making concessions to powerful Islamist elements. As the Scriptural admonition goes, pluck the mote out of one’s own eye before condemning the beam in another’s. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone — are we so pure as to condemn others for weaknesses we ourselves share?
    — John W. Barker, Madison WI

    Comment by John W. Barker — June 30, 2012 @ 8:42 am

    • Hi John,
      I agree completely that the enemy is religious fanaticism of all stripes.
      But I having said that, I must also say that all the people I now who have read the Koran — I myself have not — say that the text is much more violent, militant and intolerant in its precepts than even the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.
      In addition, I keep hearing about the hope of moderate and liberal Islam; but nowhere do I see it in the ascendancy. What am I not seeing?
      It is the fundamentalists who seem to be gaining ground not only in Islam but also in Christianity and Judaism. Faith over facts seems to be the reeling principle.
      Tolerance is all that I seek, though sometimes it seems that the essence of religious belief is to believe you have an exclusive hold on truth and are justified in oppressing or punishing those “non-believers” who disagree with you or question you.
      I also have to disagree in one way: in Fazil Say’s specific case, the enemy is indeed the government of Turkey and the Islamic officials who are fanatical or fundamentalist and exclusive of others.
      I think it was Voltaire who remarked once about the dangers of tolerating intolerance.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 1, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

  7. Why must one declare him or herself as believer or atheist? Why coerce such conformity on people? It appears to be political with the aim of being governed by an Islamic state. That might be because the people are poor and suffering and hoping that their lot in life will be improved. Wasn’t that why the Austrians wanted to unite with Germany, because there was more prosperity initially in a totalitarian regime? Mr. Say may love living in Japan, and I hope so and wish him well.

    Comment by Shirley Engstrom — June 30, 2012 @ 1:01 am

    • Dear Shirley,
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      I don’t think one should have to declare one’s beliefs.
      But neither should one be compelled from fear to hide it.
      Japan represents exile from home for Fazil Say; he shouldn’t have to hope to enjoy it simply because of his personal beliefs force him there.
      This is just more proof, along with current American politics, of religion invading the social and political realms in a destructive way.
      People and governments and religious leaders should know better, especially with the lessons of intolerance all around us and with the speed of the today’s media in communicating the consequences to others.
      Totalitarianism of all kinds is rooted in fear, not envy.
      From what I understand, though, Japan is pretty tolerant of religious belief, so Mr, Say will at least not suffer on that score.
      Then again, maybe Turkish officials will come to their senses and drop the charges against Say and change their policy, as they did with the writer Pamuk.
      One can hope.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 1, 2012 @ 10:09 pm

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