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Turkey and Academic Freedom


Academics and citizens from all over the world have watched the events unfolding in Turkey since the beginning of 2016 with growing concern. The spillover from the war in Syria, the renewed militarization of Kurdish areas in Southern and Eastern Turkey and the blatant restriction of individual and collective freedoms by increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan-led governments are the hallmarks of the domestic and international policies emanating from Ankara. In this short piece, I will focus on the government’s attacks on academic freedom as a lens through which to assess the broader re-configuration of authoritarian politics in Turkey. I will conclusively argue that this is a concern for all, not only Turkish academics, because similar measures restrictive of academic freedom are being implemented by European ‘liberal’ governments as well.


While we all remember the sacking of intellectuals, journalists and academics after the attempted coup in July 2016, it is important to remember that the AKP government instigated a punishment campaign against ‘Academics for Peace’ as early as January 2016, as over 2,000 academics signed a letter calling on the government to stop the destruction and civilian killings in the Kurdish areas. After the coup, thousands of academics were fired in the context of a broader crackdown against anyone suspected of opposing the government. According to the website Turkey Purge, nearly 130,000 among state officials, teachers, bureaucrats, security forces and academics have been dismissed by governmental decrees since July 2016; over 93,000 are detained; over 46,000 are arrested; 2,000 universities and dormitories were shut down. The number of academics that lost their job is over 7,300. These governmental actions have severely undermined the reputation of Turkey’s higher education sector as a reliable partner for scholarly activities, as the 2016 report of the organisation Scholars at Risk pointed out. Sacked academics left Turkey and sought employment abroad with mixed feelings. Dr Halil Ibrahim Yenigün, fired from the Commerce University in Istanbul and currently in Germany (in Dublin for the international conference ‘Turkey and the Middle East crisis: What’s the price of stability?’ 24th March 2017 at Dublin City University), shared his sorrow for not being able to contribute to the intellectual development of Turkish youth. 

The repression was followed by legal steps taken by the government in order to formalise its grip over universities and, more generally, the education system. As the journalist Mustafa Akyol wrote, universities are the ‘latest domino in Erdoğan’s path’ and with the goal of controlling them, the government has approved the infamous Executive Order (EO) 676, issued in October 2016, which further strengthen a political system based on the concentration of power in the President’s hands. The order gives the President the power to appoint all university rectors in the country, de facto putting all institutions under his direct control.

This measure is implanted on the already existing legislation, which can hardly be regarded as fostering academic independence and the autonomy of universities. The EO 676, for instance, changes the previous procedures for the selection of rectors; but even in the past, such procedures have always been under the control of the government through the Higher Education Board (YOK) whose head was appointed by the President. In the past, the President appointed university rectors, but he did so on the basis of YOK’s recommendations and of the results of intra-university elections, during which staff members voted for competing candidates. Today elections are gone and this is valid for private universities too, which previously selected rectors with no or little interference.

On the top of this, the Higher Education Law outlines a rigid ideological framework which all teaching and research philosophies need to obey. Article 4 and 5 of the Law offers examples of this, elevating the figure and thought of Atatürk and ethnic nationalism to unquestionable matters. The goal of higher education is to make sure that ‘students develop a sense of duty in line with Atatürk’s reforms and principles, loyal to Atatürk’s nationalism’, in accord with ‘the national, ethical, human, spiritual and cultural values of the Turkish Nation and conscious of the privilege of being a Turk’. No surprise then, as noted by Sinem Adar, that the discursive techniques deployed by the government to blackmail critical academics and intellectuals is to depict them as enemies of the nation, terrorists, ‘fifth columns’ and spies.

The broader context

Such measures suggest that a broader plan is in place. As academics are persecuted for their views and even for the mildest criticism against the central government, in fact, the Turkish state is going through a restructuring of its ruling institutions, with an upcoming referendum that will further increase the President’s powers, and repressive apparatus. Meanwhile, AKP-friendly state clerks replace those that have lost their jobs at different levels of the administrative sectors. Başak Ertürk and James Martel argue that this situation has many resemblances with past situations in the national history of Turkey. It is along these lines that discussions about ‘the return to the 1980s’, the era of the coup d’etat and wild anti-leftist repression in Turkey, need to be understood. Along with other scholars, such as Asli Bali, the two authors however argue that significant differences are in place and cannot be overlooked because they speak to a broader, international dynamic that is the reconfiguration of authoritarian and democratic politics. I argue that the two are not clearly distinguishable anymore, as authoritarian countries have introduced cosmetic democratic arrangements, such as multi-party elections, while democratic polities have adopted illiberal and even non-democratic policies, such as widespread surveillance and incarceration, often in the name of security and anti-terror measures.

In the case of Turkey, the ideological taking-over of the ruling AKP is accompanied by a reorganisation of the state’s security apparatus and the consolidation of the extended power to the national police and the army, under the control of the President. While in the past the security apparatus was a staunch Kemalist anti-Islamist sector, today, purged of non-loyal elements, is key to the stabilisation of AKP’s hegemony. This is true despite the attempted coup in July, argues Asli Bali, whose failure was as much a testament to the resistance of ordinary Turks to military rule as it is to the survival skills of President Erdoğan. Sinem Adar details the changes that the AKP government has implemented in the state security apparatus. The reorganisation of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) under the Council of Ministers and the expansion of the MIT’s access to personal and private information outlines an expansion of the surveillance powers of the state, while the increased power given to government-appointed mayors over the deployment of security measures, particularly at the local level, strengthen the connection between the central government and local politics.

The physical means through which such hegemony takes form are the war against the Kurds and the repression of dissidence, both on and off campus. The arrest of Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas in November 2016, the two co-chairs of the opposition pro-Kurdish party Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) along with other 2,500 members, is only the latest example of how these two elements are connected. After all, the repression of academics started with a famous petition calling for the end of state violence against Kurds at the beginning of 2016, suggesting that physical and institutional violence against Turkey’s Kurdish citizens happens in conjunction with a legal and political war against any form of dissidence. In fact, both the (Kurdish and non-Kurdish) citizens active in pro-Kurdish campaigns and dissident academics represent the type of citizens the AKP government deeply dislike, as they symbolise, albeit in two different ways, what resists to and stands in the way of AKP’s complete domination over Turkey’s society and state. They embody an unruly subjectivity that troubles AKP’s citizenry project, according to which subjects are socially conservative and economically compliant with AKP’s neo-liberal vision, as Erdoğan’s merciless repression of the ideologically diverse Gezi Park movement has exposed.

Sadly enough, this story is of little interest to European and other international authorities. It seems that they do not care what price they will pay for keeping Turkey politically stable, given the current regional crisis, or for keeping asylum-seekers away from European shores. They, and the EU particularly, will just pay. Bilge Yabanci and Kerem Oktem have exposed how contradictory this is, considering that the EU’s advertised values are staunchly liberal or that the EU celebrate the protection of human rights as an imperative. Realpolitik however is the only imperative that seems to be relevant here.

Turkey is not alone

Academic freedom is neither a-historical nor non-political. Its definition and uses are deeply embedded in current discussion and debates around higher education and political vision. When authorities consider freedom and rights as suspicious, academic freedom hardly is protected or promoted.   

There are very few states that do not adopt a securitarian approach to research, and liberal democracies often securitise critical inquiry. For instance, many on-campus scientific initiatives and events critical of Israeli policies against the Palestinians have reportedly been censored, with the case of Steven Salaita, who lost his position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign over criticism of Netanyahu, becoming the symbol of heavy securitisation of research and academic labour. James Fitzgerald, my colleague at Dublin City University, reports on his experience of being temporarily detained and questioned at Heathrow airport for possessing some academic books on terrorism. Amory Starr, Luis Fernandez and Christian Scholl offer an analysis of how critical inquiry and activism are discouraged in Western Europe and the United States, especially if are related to protest policing and surveillance of activists.

These testimonies echo Olivier Dabène, Vincent Geisser, Gilles Massardier’s and Francesco Cavatorta’s work. They argue that the classical distinction between democratic and non-democratic systems, pivoted around the notion of ‘limited pluralism’ that authoritarianisms allow and ‘liberal policies’ that democracies implement, does not hold any more. Limited pluralism is no longer a distinctive marker, rather the most diffused type of pluralism in contemporary regimes, with democracies being composed of non-pluralist spaces and implementing starkly illiberal policies. It is therefore this convergence of governance that is harmful to academic freedom, as one type of freedom among others. This should worry us all. In this sense, Turkey is not alone: it is only one among the many countries that have securitised their public spheres and, with them, universities.

Anthony Richards, reflecting on the UK anti-terror plan ‘Prevent’ which actively involves university staff in identifying among colleagues and pupils potential terrorists, explains that ‘Prevent’ shifts the focus from fighting against violent acts committed in the name of ideology, to ideologies that are considered ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’. Paradoxically, radical non-violence can be targeted as an extreme and therefore terrorist ideology, with Mahatma Gandhi becoming a terrorist. This shift from action to ideology is concerning at best, because it punishes people for what they think.

While questioning people’s thought is a murky area to navigate, it provides great room for manoeuvring to those who are willing to restrict free discussion and debates. The containment of on-campus pro-Palestinian activism in the UK, which is part of the ‘Prevent’ strategy, goes in this direction. Under this scheme, debates around key-theme such as ‘support for Palestine’ and ‘criticism of wars in the Middle East’ have to be reported by staff as part of their Prevent Duty obligations, as the website, Safe Campus Communities, created to help staff to fulfil their duties, highlights. Questioning people’s thought is precisely what Erdoğan did when he accused ‘Academics for Peace’ of terrorism: signing a petition was equated with a terrorist act because of the principle behind it, not the form of action undertaken.

This is why academic freedom in Turkey is a concern for us all, not only for our Turkish colleagues. It is time for academics to extend solidarity because our colleagues look to us when they are wrongfully fired, imprisoned, attacked, and bombed, and because we may look to them should the same happen to us.

Published: 10 Mar 2017  Categories: Politics

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Paola Rivetti is a lecturer in Politics of the Middle East and International Relations in the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Ireland.