Nişanyan’s ordeal started in 2012 when he wrote a blog post about free speech arguing for the right to criticise the Prophet Mohammed. Through notes passed out of his high security prison via his lawyer, Nişanyan told Index what he believes happened next:
“Mr Erdoğan, the then-prime minister, believes in micromanaging the country. He was evidently incensed.
“I received a call from his office inquiring whether I stood by my, erm, ‘bold views’ and letting me know that there was much commotion ‘up here’ about the essay. The director of religious affairs, the top Islamic official of the land, emerged from a meeting with Erdoğan to denounce me as a ‘madman’ and ‘mentally deranged’ for insulting ‘our dearly beloved prophet’.
“A top dog of the governing party, who later became justice minister, went on air to assure us that throughout history, no ‘filthy attempt to besmirch the name of our holy prophet’ has ever been left unpunished. Groups of so- called ‘concerned citizens’ brought complaints of blasphemy against me in almost every one of our 81 provinces. Several indictments were made, and eventually I was convicted for a year and three months for ‘injuring the religious sensibilities of the public’.”
But what happened afterwards was even more sinister. He found himself, while in prison, facing eleven lawsuits relating to a village he was building with the mathematician and philanthropist Ali Nesin. Nişanyan has been involved for many years in a project to reconstruct in traditional style the village of Şirince, near Ephesus, on Turkey’s Western seaboard. It is now a heritage site and popular tourist destination. And nearby, he and Nesin have built a mathematics village which offers courses to mathematicians from all over Turkey and operates as a retreat for maths departments in other countries. They hope it will be the beginnings of a “free” university.