The Demise of Academia in Erdogan’s Turkey

by Emre Celik

We are seeing reports of academics being investigated and subjected to penalties for expressing their opinions about the conflict in the southeast. While we may not agree with the opinions expressed by those academics, we are nevertheless concerned about this pressure having a chilling effect on legitimate political discourse across Turkish society regarding the sources of and solutions to the ongoing violence. In democratic societies it is imperative that citizens have the opportunity to express their views, even controversial or unpopular ones.

Expressions of concern about violence do not equal support for terrorism. Criticism of government does not equal treason. Turkish democracy is strong enough and resilient enough to embrace free expression of uncomfortable ideas.

This statement by John Bass, US Ambassador to Turkey was issued in response to academics signing a petition on the demise of the Kurdish peace process – it was issued six months before the attempted coup of July 15, 2016.

Such is the burden of being an academic in Turkey. Never has academia had free reign to think and write at will like their counterparts in the West. Turkey’s modern history is scattered with academic abuses.

Since the coup more than 7300 academics (including more than 1500 deans) have been purged and 15 universities expropriated by the Government of President Recep T. Erdogan. So consequential was the purge of deans that at one university, the Rector, Prof Dr Ihsan Gunaydin became the dean of six faculties. This scenario is not unique.

Alongside the attacks on tertiary education and academia, the numbers surrounding other educational sectors are mind boggling: 44,000 staff from the Education Ministry, the great majority of them teachers, 1280 schools, 800 dormitories and 550 foundations (many of them educational). Upwards of 90,000 civilians have been detained, with roughly half arrested, and more than 120,000 have been fired or suspended from their jobs. An extensive list of arrests and purges can be found at which tracks persecution of civil servants and others and expropriation of assets or shut downs by the Government.

A great deal of this is due to perceived or fabricated links to Fethullah Gulen and his wider network of civil society and educational institutions known as the Hizmet Movement. Gulen,who is based in Pennsylvania, known for his advocacy of education and compatibility of Islam and science, democratic values, community service and inclusive societies and interfaith relations is accused by Erdogan of being the mastermind of the coup. Gulen has denied any link and 84 boxes of alleged evidence sent to the US Justice Department have not resulted in any judicial proceedings against Gulen. Erdogan appears obsessed with Gulen in this regard and has attacked Hizmet affiliated institutions world-wide. Gulen has written extensively in the Western press including WSJ, Financial Times and New York Times on issues of radicalism and CVE , freedoms and democracy and is highly regarded in both the West and the Muslim world. The Hizmet Movement is active in more than 160 countries.

Alongside the dismissal and jailing of academics there are also tens of thousands of students affected by the academic disruption, including those transferred to government universities while still paying private tuition fees and numerous students expelled for alleged links to Gulen affiliated institutions.

Many universities and academic associations from around the world have stood by their Turkish colleagues through letters of support or condemnation of the Turkish government including American Association of University Professors, Endangered Scholars Worldwide, Scholars at Risk and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has itself written more than 20 letters since January 2016 to the Turkish Government and on numerous occasions called on the United States Administration to act on behalf of academic freedom in Turkey.

Some have called the dismissals an “intellectual massacre” leading some academics to street protests and others who want to continue their educational dialogue with students to set up informal classes in parks outside of university campuses. One academic said of her dissent by teaching in a park: “Of course, this will be seen as a threat by those who take our presence at the university as a threat, but we are aware that the struggle for democracy, peace and freedoms have a price.”

Such is the psychological trauma and burden faced by scholars who have been dismissed it has sadly led some to suicide. It has also lead to an upsurge in asylum requests by Turkish scholars.

Turkey is in the grips of an existential struggle for the survival of its academia. Scholars are being barred from travel, expressing views and signing petitions – some US citizens of Turkish background now languish in Turkish prisons. One such case is that of NASA scientist Serkan Golge of Newport News, Virginia, who, while visiting family in August 2016 was arrested and locked up due to alleged links to the Hizmet Movement. Seven months on he remains in prison without sentence or court date. It is believed that a neighbor reported him to the authorities alleging he was a spy for the CIA.

Merve Kayikci writes the harrowing story of her jailed academic father and his long-time friend who now share a Turkish cell, being labelled by Pro-Government media as “traitor academics” for allegedly being involved in the 2016 coup. Such are the consequences of the purges and dismissals, that the families of Kayikci (and the like) are ostracized by neighbors and friends who fear appearing to be in support of accused or detained people – fearing for their own livelihood and safety and themselves being accused of “treason”.

Turkey’s current intellectual state is succinctly summarized by Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar:

Widening more by each and every decree, this is now a country resembling Germany of 1930, which ended up chasing out its elite beyond its borders. What I know for certain, that there will no longer be any possibilities for our academicians ‘cleansed’ to find work and, live in decency and honor.

Previous to his jailing Prof Dr Sedat Laciner, a professor of international relations and an expert on foreign policy and former Rector of Canakkale University (2011 -2015) wrote:

All opponents incrementally become a terrorist… Within the scope of this framework, Kurdish, left-winger, Alawi, Gulen group and many other dissident groups were branded as terrorist and criminal.

Now Laciner himself languishes in a Turkish prison for expressing views distasteful to Erdogan and the Turkish Government. In a letter written from his prison cell Laciner aptly describes his situation, reflecting also the precarious and dangerous status of academia in Turkey: “I have no idea when I could see a judge. My life and my family are under deathly risks and we need your support. Please help us.”

At the hands of Erdogan the demise of a free, safe and independent academia in Turkey is nearing.

NOTE: Those interested in supporting Turkish scholars can visit Scholars at Risk.

Emre Celik is president of DC based Rumi Forum a civil society organization dedicated to interfaith dialogue. He is also currently pursuing his PhD in Islamic Studies @emrecelikrumi. Reprinted, with permission, from Huffington Post. Photo by Rasande Tyskar via Flickr.

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