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Turkey’s cautionary tale

The case of Academics for Peace in Turkey shows us academics trapped between authoritarianism and precarity, and why international solidarity has become crucial.

T. Deniz Erkmen
4 July 2016
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Amnesty International. Twitter. Some rights reserved.Within the academic world, the long-awaited summer is the prize one gets after hectic semesters. It offers a welcome break from the immediacy and constancy of teaching, from committees and administrative work, giving one the ability to slow down, to breathe, and focus on research and writing.

For many Turkish academics, however, this one is bound to be a summer of heated legal battles, harassment, and uncertainty instead of being a much needed-break. First, on July 12 and 13, four academics will face the judge in the southern city of Mersin on accounts of “propagating terrorist propaganda” in their Facebook posts. Then on July 20, the Higher Education Council (Yüksek Öğretim Kurulu - YÖK as it is commonly referred to in Turkey), the central body that overlooks the whole higher education system in Turkey, will hear the defences of 25 academics, whose files were sent to YÖK by universities with the request that those academics are removed from their profession and duties as civil servants. If YÖK goes forward with these requests, it will mean that these academics will never be allowed to work at universities in Turkey again.What was maybe more surprising was how that speech then unleashed a massive harassment and smear campaign against academics by various forces, including local police, parts of the judiciary, university administrations, media, and various conservative groups.

What the academics in both cases have in common is that they are signatories to a, by now widely known, peace petition. The petition that stated “We will not be a  party to this crime” was signed by 1128 academics and was read aloud in a press conference on January 11 while military operations were going on in Southeast Turkey where towns have been put under curfew. It was a reaction to the ending of the peace process between PKK and the Turkish state at the hands of the AKP government, and to the massive destruction that was going on in Kurdish towns. This petition and the academics who signed it were immediately taken up and targeted by President Erdoğan in  a furious speech he gave after the Sultanahmet bombing on January 12, in which he called academics ‘dark, cruel people’ and blamed them of treason and supporting terrorism.

The fact that President Erdogan gave such a speech was not that surprising given his track record of using incendiary rhetoric in reaction to major social episodes. What was maybe more surprising was how that speech then unleashed a massive harassment and smear campaign against academics by various forces, including local police, parts of the judiciary, university administrations, media, and various conservative groups.

Six months on, that harassment campaign is still on-going with significant consequences for the livelihood of these academics. Almost all under investigation, a number of them have already been sacked (37) or suspended (39) from their universities. At this point, looking at the way this harassment works might be important in order to think about how authoritarianism functions in Turkey. Specifically one illuminating question might be why is it that while the supposed ‘crime’ is the same, signing a petition, academics are faced with vastly different treatments? In fact, while a number of academics are relatively untouched, others have been dismissed, had to leave the towns in which they have been living, or in the case of four academics, put in prison for 40 days.

Facets of ongoing harassment and repression

First, a summary of what happened in those six months. There are two separate processes going on against the academics. On the one hand there are the disciplinary investigations at universities, initiated by the universities themselves at the prompting of YÖK. On the other hand, there are criminal investigations at the state level initiated by the prosecutors office in multiple cities. These two processes, initiated and carried out by different bodies, both bring with them the possibility of punishment. Through the criminal process, academics have been called to testify and answer to questions at the police stations or prosecutor’s office. There have also been detentions, house searches and as mentioned above, four arrests. With the criminal investigation, the idea seems to be bringing the signatories to court under Article 7 of the Anti-Terror Law (TMK) for “doing propaganda in favour of terrorist organisation” and/or under the articles of 301 and 216 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) for “insulting Turkishness.” But after the release of the 4 academics on April 22nd, it is not clear which path the prosecutor in Istanbul is going to take. And when it comes to the disciplinary investigations, while some academics have been suspended, or some have their files sent to YÖK for dismissal, others were able to continue with their work.

Beyond these investigations, one can talk about an environment of threats, targeting, and mobbing, carried out by various agents like university administrators, other academics, students, local media and hostile civilians. Academics have been threatened, and made a target of in social media as well as government supported media where their photos have been published, and they have been called “traitors” “terrorists” and “so-called academics” in an effort to discredit them. They have also been threatened personally at university campuses, so much so that a number of them had to leave the towns in which they were located.  

Yet really, focusing on the investigations and threats does not quite cover or reflect the various kinds of pressure that academics who are signatories find themselves under. There are for example multiple reports in which universities revoked and continue revoking scholarships and travel funds, academic leave of absences for conferences, research, or sabbaticals. For example there are reports of academics who got post-doc or research support from European universities, yet suddenly and without any explanation, can not get leave of absences from their universities. Academics have also been pulled out of conference programs and research projects because they are signatories.

What this means is that it is academics’ ability to do academic work that is targeted. In fact, the goal seems to be make life harder for these academics to exist in universities. And of course, punishing academics who are signatories like this, works as a warning to others, leading to a culture of self-censoring and silence in the academic world, preventing critical voices in academia. Academics, especially if they are younger, are discouraged from researching and writing about critical subjects.

Why the divergent treatment: Institutional and geographical factors

Let me turn to the question I posed above. Repression in this case is not uniform – that is, there are significant differences in terms of what academics had dealt with after they signed the petition. While all signatories are no doubt seriously affected by what is going on, some are relatively untouched and there are others whose lives have been upended. So how can we explain this divergent treatment and picture? Repression in this case is not uniform – that is, there are significant differences in terms of what academics had dealt with after they signed the petition.

First, the signatories are located in two different types of institution; the majority of them (667) are working at state universities, and a smaller portion (222) at what is called “foundation” universities, or private institutions. First and importantly, all of these institutions are regulated by YÖK, which itself is a remnant of the 1980 military coup. YÖK was established following the coup in order to provide for state-control over higher education, linking education to state principles, and as such putting ideological controls on higher education. Its main goal is to make sure that universities follow the state line, especially when it comes to the unitary and centralist conceptions of statehood. It conducts and controls all administrative decisions at all levels of higher education, including faculty appointments, curricula, and disciplinary procedures.

That is, higher education in Turkey is and has already been very centrally controlled, and YÖK has already been there as an administrative tool. Academic freedoms were already restricted in Turkey, with similar kind of harassments also present, but maybe not on this scale.

Foundation universities are a relatively new phenomenon – the first one, Bilkent, was opened in 1984 and remained as the only foundation university until 1993. After that, there was an explosion in their numbers, with 19 more between 1990 and 2000, another 43 in the next decade. These universities are almost always owned by a wealthy business family or a business group. While a number of them are legitimate and respectable academic institutions, quite a number of others are established by business groups who thought this a low-cost business opportunity, as another item in their portfolio of investments. In fact many of these “universities” are universities only in name, consisting of an apartment building with a parking lot. In many of these cases, boards’ main concern does not seem to be the quality of education, academic research, or in fact academic freedoms, but rather cost calculations. What this translates to is an environment in which the board and administration treat academics as mere items in the budget.

In fact, while one would think that the private universities would be more autonomous from the state, that is not the case. First, as already mentioned, they are regulated by the same central body, YÖK. In fact, a new regulation that was just passed in November 2015 gave YÖK the authority to close down foundation universities if they supported actions that “threatened the indivisible unity of the nation”, allowing the state to confiscate the holdings of the university, passing the management of the university to another state university. This regulation now hangs like Damocles’ sword over foundation universities’ heads. Moreover, as foundation universities have close connections to the business world, boards seem to be afraid to be seen on the wrong side when it comes to relations with the regime. Lastly, the academics working in these universities are bound by different statutes of employment. As academics in foundation universities are private employees, do not have tenure, and work on contract, mostly on a yearly basis, they seem to be rather easier to get rid of. In fact, the majority of early dismissals are recorded in foundation universities (26 dismissal cases out of 37  dismissals in total took place in foundation universities as of June 2016). In these cases, instead of risking the wrath of the regime, universities are willing to get rid of academics who are seen as replaceable, in a way demonstrating how it is not just the authoritarianism of the regime but also precarity that is threatening the academics in this case.

State universities, on the other hand, are another beast and there are huge differences between them in terms of academic quality, as well as the protection of academic freedoms. There are of course cases like the Bosporus University in Istanbul or Middle East Technical University in Ankara, which are known for their academic performances, but also for their relative autonomy where presidents (rektör in Turkish) openly take a stance for academic freedoms against government intervention. However, overall it is hard to talk about institutional autonomy when it comes to state universities in Turkey, either. Especially in the last 10 years or so, commentators have argued that university administrations have been politicized.

One way this has been done is through the appointment of presidents, who come to power with their teams, and who are key players in terms of establishing and regulating the relationship with YÖK. University presidents are appointed by the President of Turkey, after an election in the university and then at YÖK. While there have always been cases where the President of Turkey did not appoint the names with highest votes from the university body, it looks like this has been more common in recent years, and that university presidents were appointed for their ideological stances, and not their merits and achievements.

Importantly, the numbers of state universities, just like the foundation universities, have increased significantly in the last 10 years. Of these new state universities most were opened in smaller rural cities as part of AKPs “a university for each city” campaign. In new state universities, there is an appointed founding president, and the sense is that in these universities, appointment of faculty have been done through patronage networks. The university posts in these institutions can be seen as resources that AKP doled out in order to secure support as well as dominate over civil society. The university posts in these institutions can be seen as resources that AKP doled out in order to secure support as well as dominate over civil society.

As such, there is variation among the state universities regarding presidents’, administrations’ and in fact academics’ attitudes towards institutional autonomy, academic freedoms, and freedom of speech, especially when it concerns topics such as criticism of the government, and the Kurdish conflict. This variation partially explains why for example in some cases the universities’ disciplinary investigation ended with the dismissal or suspension of academics, why some university administrations gave statements about how they detest ‘academics who support terror,’ and why in other institutions administrations took their time in opening investigations. This also explains some of the harassment and mobbing which are initiated by the administration, like denying access to scholarships that have already been granted.

Lastly, this variation has a geographical component. The biggest number of signatories are, not surprisingly, in Istanbul and Ankara, the two most populous cities of Turkey, home to the oldest and most established universities of the country which are also globally connected. The rest, however, are scattered in state universities in multiple smaller cities, which tend to be more conservative and nationalist. Many of the new state universities mentioned above, are located in these smaller Anatolian cities, where there are only one or two signatories.

Historically, the Turkish republic has been imagined and established on an understanding of cultural and linguistic homogeneity. It is the historical state discourse that pits the Kurdish issue against the “indivisible unity of the nation” that is seen as the one and foremost principle to be upheld in all state and in fact, individual actions. It is through the lens of such a historical understanding of nation- and statehood that the Turkish state sees the Kurdish issue and deals with it as “terror”.

The point is that while AKP might be resorting to the same language and approach for tactical reasons, this language resonates greatly with the majority of Turkish citizens. Using the tropes of terror and unity, it is easy for the AKP to demonize academics, especially so given how the AKP dominates and controls mainstream media. For example, when newspapers like Sabah talk about the peace petition they almost always write “the petition that supports the terrorist organisation”, not “claimed to support” not “has been interpreted as supporting”. Given this media climate, it is no surprise that this demonization is taken up by the larger population. This, however, is more of a problem in smaller cities where academics who have signed the petition are smaller in numbers, and lonelier. They become easier targets within their universities and beyond, and do not have extensive support networks to help or protect them.

Of course the non-uniformity of repression is also caused because it is through individual initiative that the prosecutors and some university administrators act in targeting and punishing signatories. This becomes another opportunity for agents, like prosecutors and police chiefs to show and prove their support to the regime. I am not sure how else one can explain why for example academics were detained and their houses searched in Düzce, and not in other places and why again some universities published the statements they did. These do become signs that say “we stand with you on this” to the regime.

A last stand for opposition in Turkey?

Overall, of course this non-standard type of treatment points to the haphazard and political nature of what is going on. In fact, as lawyers who work for the Academics for Peace case have argued many times, there is no crime or in fact a case to begin with, but the already politicized nature of the judiciary aids in the perpetuation of the targeting. This is an attempt at replacing academics with loyalist, but that has already happened in most of the judiciary, police and media which assists with the implementation of this case. That is, what we are seeing is another, and in fact probably the last step in which the AKP regime comes to suppress opposition and assert its dominance over civil society. It exemplifies the way the authoritarian regime in Turkey functions, as the haphazardness and ambivalence are part of the repression itself.

But this haphazard, unpredictable nature of the treatment is also important as it exemplifies the way the authoritarian regime in Turkey functions, as the haphazardness and ambivalence are part of the repression itself. It is the climate of fear, the fear of repression that silences the academics, but it is also the waiting, the not knowing, the randomness, and the lack of impunity. These create a sense of alienation, helplessness, and hopelessness which themselves become mechanisms of repression. Being a signatory is like being branded, and many academics think that if they were to lose their jobs they might not find another. This again can feed into self-censorship and silence.

Of course, signatories have been actively organising in solidarity and support to fight against the repression. However, in an environment like this international solidarity becomes crucial, not only because of the resources it provides, but also in reminding academics that are being silenced that they are in fact part of a global network dedicated to critical thinking, scientific inquiry, and freedom of expression. The challenges of academics in various parts of the world might take on different guises, but against the rising forces of xenophobia and blind nationalism that relies on demonizing rhetoric everywhere, they need to stand in solidarity

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