Monday, 11 July 2016

Why are Academics being Persecuted In Turkey?

The world of Academia can be rewarding at times and punishing at others. While many academics devote their lives to research, the summer break that we are halfway through now, can sometimes give them the opportunity to rest from the stress of teaching and marking. Some academics in Turkey however, can only look forward to a summer of heated legal battles and harassment. Some of them face charges of supporting terrorism using their social media accounts, while others are at risk of never being allowed to teach in Turkey again.  Something all these academics facing legal battles have in common though, is that they all signed a petition, entitled ‘we will not be a party to this crime’, calling on the Turkish Government to end its deliberate massacre of Kurds in Kurdish towns and cities. This came after the Peace process between the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish government was broken off at the end of last year. The reaction from the government to the petition, was to immediately label the academics who had signed the peace treaty ‘terrorists’. This led to a massive harassment and smear campaign against the academics from the police, parts of the Judiciary, the mainstream media, university administrations and various right wing groups. Six months on, that harassment is continuing to persist, with no signs of slowing. While a number of academics have been left relatively untouched, others have been sacked, had to leave their homes or even go into hiding. At this point, Turkish academics are trapped between authoritarianism and precariousness, and as such, international solidarity is more needed than ever.

Harassment and Subjugation

At an official level, there are two major threats faced by Turkish Academics. The first of these is investigations at Turkish Universities, being carried out by higher education authorities. 25 academics are due to make their defence before these education authorities later this month. If their defence fails, then this could result in them being banned from teaching in the country ever again. The second threat is criminal investigations by the state. Academics have been called to answer questions at police stations. There have also been detentions, house raids and four arrests. This clearly shows the authoritarian nature of the Turkish state, and their response to diplomatic process.
Despite this, the pressure on Turkish Academics goes far beyond criminal investigations. Indeed, many of them are even under harassment from their own Universities, who have systematically clamped down on the academics right to travel, to paid leave and their right to have a say in how their universities are run. What this means, is that in addition to their livelihoods being targeted, academics also have their duty to do interesting academic work clamped down on as well. This makes it harder and harder for academics to exist in universities, having the dual effect of acting as a warning to students and lecturers, not to defy the interests of the Turkish state. In my opinion, this shutting down of a critical voice in academia is exactly what needs to be stamped out if we are to have a fair and honest dialogue about politics in turkey and elsewhere.

Divergent Security

It is an important point to make here that there are significant differences in what different academics had to deal with, after they signed the peace petition. Firstly, it needs pointing out that while the majority of Turkish academics are working at state universities, others are working at privately owned ones. Both of these types of universities are regulated by the Higher Education Council (YOK). At first look, it might appear as if the YOK are just your usual inspection authority. However, they were in fact established after a 1980 military coup in order to link education to the principles of the Turkish state, and to put ideological restrictions and controls on learning.
 So why are there differences in the way academics, who signed the peace petition, are treated? We can put his down primarily to economic reasons. Turkey’s toxic blend of neoliberalism and fascism, means that they support the idea of free markets, while at the same time making sure that the state exercises control over all aspects of public life. This contributes to an academic environment, where private universities are often afraid to get on the wrong side of the regime. Staff are put on short term contracts, making them easy to get rid of if they step a foot out of line. Academics being treated as mere items in the budget at these universities, puts them on a precarious footing with authorities and employers, where they have to produce engaging work, without in any way challenging authority.
Despite being of a considerably higher academic standard, state universities are not in any way perfect either. Indeed, the fact that university presidents are appointed by the president of Turkey after a ballot by the university and the YOK, means that they often have an ideological commitment to the Turkish state. Despite this, state universities do offer some more academic freedoms than private universities. In addition to this, you get the occasional state university like the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, where presidents take a stand for academic freedom, against state intervention. This difference between state and private universities goes some way to explaining why some academics for peace still feel safe in their jobs, while others have had their economic security ripped out from under them. However, this is not the whole story.

Nationalism and Propaganda

The difference in the academics treatment is also influenced by where they are based. The biggest number of signatories to the Peace petition were located in Istanbul and Ankara, home to the most established universities in Turkey. The others however, were scattered amongst the country’s smaller cities, where Nationalism and social Conservativism are a much stronger force.
To an extent, the Turkish authorities seem rooted in the past. The Turkish republic has always been seen as one of national and cultural homogeneity. It is this discourse which pits the Kurds against the ‘unity of the nation’ principle, one that the Turkish state thinks should be upheld in all actions, be they academic or personal. Anyone seen to be defying this, is treated as a terrorist and a threat to the country. While the ruling AKP party may be appropriating this rhetoric for tactical reasons, it is a message which resonates with many Turkish citizens. Painting the issue as a straight battle between national unity and terror, makes it extremely easy for the AKP to demonise academics. This is particularly prevalent, given the fact that the government controls nearly all the mainstream media in Turkey. It should come as no surprise then that this has been taken up by the population. This is more of a problem in smaller cities where, as mentioned above, there is stronger nationalist sentiment and academics feel more isolated. Indeed, given what I just explained, the repression of academics by authorities, is another way they can show their support to the regime. How else can you explain the publishing of statements by universities swearing an oath of loyalty to the Turkish State, and academics being detained in their own homes, if not through blind obedience to the AKP?


Conclusively, it needs to be pointed out that this type of treatment being witnessed towards academics in Turkey, is not based on any crime. Despite this, the already politicised nature of Turkish authorities aides in the ongoing targeting of academics. What I believe we are seeing is a last step, in the AKP’s suppression of opposition and assertion of its dominance over Turkish society. The haphazard nature of this targeting of academics is also important, as it assists the climate of fear and constant precariousness that leading academics now find themselves in. Of course, signatories have already been organising against this oppression, but in dark times like this, international solidarity is crucial.

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