Turkey’s universities are being purged: we cannot afford to look the other way

We must keep in mind that as academics we are at our best, not when we agree to disagree, but exactly when we disagree to agree.

Julian de Medeiros
23 August 2016

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., 2010.Toby Jorrin/Press Association.All rights reserved. As the Turkish government continues to arrest academics across the country, with little to no judicial oversight, Turkish academia finds itself cast back into the murky uncertainty of the 1980s, and the subsequent censorship and disappearances.

Just this week, another 74 academics were arrested under the auspices of being affiliated to Fetullah Gülen, the self-exiled cleric currently accused of masterminding a failed coup against the Erdogan’s government.

Yet the wave of arrests precedes the recent coup attempt. The Government is settling political scores, and is spreading fear throughout its universities. The country is currently undergoing the beginnings of a cultural revolution, and Turkey’s institutions of higher education are among those to be most ruthlessly purged. If we truly believe that the fight for academic freedom is global, then we cannot afford to look the other way. Turkey’s academic freedom, and our own belief in international academic solidarity, is at stake.

IPSA boycott, solidarity or disharmony?

A good place to demonstrate solidarity would have been the International Political Science Association’s (IPSA) annual world conference, which was set to take place in Istanbul this summer. Yet the abrupt decision by the organizing committee, several months preceding the coup, to withdraw its event from the host city Istanbul, came as a blow. The move was widely interpreted as a failure to stand by Turkish academics, who were already facing a witch-hunt following the government’s explicit targeting of the ‘Academics for Peace Initiative’, a group that had signed a petition critical of Turkey’s foreign policy.

Adding a bitter note of irony to the IPSA withdrawal was that this year’s conference theme was to be ‘Politics in a World of Inequality’. Yet faced with the deteriorating situation in Turkey, the conference organizers cited ‘security concerns’ and relocated the event to Poznan, Poland. The decision was met with disappointment by those academics who had hoped it would represent a much-needed show of solidarity. Indeed, for many Turkey researchers, including myself, the decision to move the conference effectively terminated our plans for panels, networking, and publishing opportunities. More importantly, it meant that we would not be seeing our friends and colleagues in Turkey, and would not have the opportunity to work as closely together as we had anticipated, at least not under the mantle of the IPSA.

Following the IPSA’s formal decision to relocate, the Academics for Peace group therefore announced a boycott. It was adhered to by several hundred academics across the world, and as a result many panels were aborted and trips cancelled. When I emailed them for further information, they sent me a communal reply. Clearly, they were not simply stating the obvious, that the Turkish Government has always had academia in its sights, and now in its crosshairs.

Instead, their critique was also aimed at academia at large, and the trappings of the academic ‘industry’ mentality that requires academics to both promote and carefully guard their careers. In a follow-up email they wrote to me that, “The modern academic machinery resembles assembly-line work”, and warned that the IPSA’s lack of support for Turkish academics would set a precedent that “will likely repeat itself for scholars in other countries in the future”.

The group’s criticism is an urgent one, and deserving of closer consideration. On the face of it, the crackdown on academics in Turkey is but a small part of a much larger picture of widespread crackdowns and indeed a wholesale assault on civil liberties in the country. Yet what stands out in Turkey is that academics there can no longer subside with the idea of a comfortably isolated ethics of detachment. For us, it is now more important than ever to reach out, rather than look elsewhere. To do otherwise sends a message to Turkish academics that we care more about our institutions and conferences than the plight of our colleagues. Yet where would these institutions be without international solidarity? Boycott or not, the crackdown on Turkish academia is not just an inconvenient truth: it is the beginnings of a cultural revolution. For the hundreds of Turkish (doctoral) students, professors, and staff, working at universities here in the UK, it matters greatly how we choose to respond to Turkey.

On a more optimistic note, the Academics for Peace initiative also plans to host its own conference. And many of those who decided not to attend the IPSA conference –myself included – are currently engaged in organizing other events. In many ways, the recent events have brought us closer together, and there is more opportunity and momentum for cooperation than ever before. This is the time when our solidarity counts the most. More importantly, it is a time when a failure to respond would count strongest against us, after a decade of discussing the meaning of ‘impact’.

Institutions are key

Karl Popper, one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, once urged us to strengthen our institutions against totalitarianism lest they become irrelevant: ‘Institutions are like fortresses. They must be well designed and properly manned’, he warned. Following the recent wave of arrests and dismissals across Turkish institutions, including universities, Popper’s warning rings more urgently true than ever. Already, the Turkish Government has accused universities of enjoying a ‘historic’ affiliation with the military, and has announced the suspension of all university deans, and thousands more academics across the country. With a travel ban in place, Turkish academics are now trapped inside their own country.

As academics we cannot pretend that these arrests are legitimate measures. Given that the wave of arrests started well before the coup, in response to the ‘Academics for Peace’ initiative, the coup is clearly providing a convenient excuse to settle scores among an internationally oriented intelligentsia.

Such anti-intellectual sentiments exist elsewhere, for example in the UK and the US. Recall the Iraq war, when academics were accused of supporting terrorists, and the more recent Brexit vote in the UK, widely interpreted as a rebuttal to pro-European sympathies among well-educated voters. Add to this growing accusations that universities are supposed hives of radicalization, or conversely, that they resemble liberal ‘trigger warning’-enamoured slumber zones of the privileged few, and it seems that now the fight for academic freedom is a global one. Events in Turkey should not be seen as an isolated case. Universities across the world are increasingly being vilified, isolated, and blamed for the failures of the state. An attack on Turkish academics is an attack on all of us.

The French poet Mallarmé once wrote that ‘poems are made with words, not thoughts’. And in this case, our well-intended solidarity is not enough. We must also pool our resources to communicate, publish, and keep strengthening the academic freedoms that allow such cooperation in the first place. Whether one agrees with the boycott or not, it is undeniable that the Academics for Peace movement represents one of the most influential groups in the current struggle for the future of Turkish academia. We must keep in mind that as academics we are at our best, not when we agree to disagree, but exactly when we disagree to agree.

So what can academics do outside of Turkey? First of all, we would do well to keep in mind that academia’s strength lies in its willingness to engage in debate, to observe and discuss societal issues from a multitude of angles. Academia may be at its most vibrant exactly when we don’t agree on how to act. This, more than anything is what should differentiate a conference such as the IPSA’s from other political events.  There is no party line in academia, other than to attempt to speak truth to power. 

After fighting for decades to be taken seriously within the international academic community, with many Turkish professors now boasting degrees and doctorates from the world’s most prestigious universities, we cannot afford to abandon the idea of cultivating and encouraging academic exchange in Turkey. Relocating conferences and terminating grants sends the message that academia in Turkey is a lost cause. For anyone who has spent any time at all at Turkish universities, it should be clear there is much to be optimistic about. We would be foolish not to take Turkish academia seriously.

Taking a stand for Turkish academia

As academics we cannot succumb to isolationist or escapist thinking, even when this seems to be the societal trend. And even though academia has the unusual tendency to encourage self-criticism, while seeking to emulate the public relations techniques of the corporate world, we cannot deceive ourselves into thinking that the international community of academia can be silent and relevant at the same time.

The capacity to voice dissent and to do so freely is not a luxury that one should enjoy in private. It requires solidarity, constant repetition, and in the case of Turkey, heightened urgency.

We are more interconnected than ever before and we need to use this to our advantage. To abandon the plight of Turkish academics, and of Turkish academia, under the guise of security concerns or other technical excuses, is to diminish our field into becoming a mere purveyor of talking heads and ‘expert’ opinions.

In order to stand with Turkey we also need to think about what Turkey means to us. It needs to be more than a holiday destination for foreign students. It needs to be more than an exotic-sounding partner for funding opportunities. And it needs to be more than just a collection of elites trained at European and American places of higher learning.

But for this to take shape requires first of all a vibrant and free academic environment, one in which teaching is emphasized, grants are awarded without corruption, and students and staff can speak out as they please, without fearing recriminations from the authorities, let alone their fellow students.

Most of all, it means that we cannot afford to simply dismiss Turkey as yet another lost cause, another failed state. If we do so, we not only diminish our own claim to upholding and championing democracy, but we forfeit our right and obligation to speak truth to power and, most importantly, to assist others in doing so as well. The beauty of international academic solidarity is that it does not rely upon a humanitarian intervention to do any these things. It grows them from the ground up, and what a waste it would be to allow Erdogan’s government to uproot the excellent seeds that have been sown.

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