Speaking to Independent Turkey before his return, Stephenson said that “These arrests mark a definite turn for the worse. These three academics should be freed immediately.”Turkish academics have increasingly come under fire for expressing alternative or critical perspectives.
In such a climate, we asked Stephenson about the role of academics within society more generally, particularly as a regime becomes more restrictive. “We have the privilege of having our ideas taken more seriously (sometime more seriously than we deserve),” he told Independent Turkey. “We should use this privilege to defend the freedoms and rights of everyone in society.”
Stephenson moved to Turkey in 1991 and has taught at various universities. At the time of his detainment he was teaching Computer Science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. Speaking to the Socialist Worker, Stephenson attributed his release to the dedicated work and support of his students and colleagues. “My students showed tremendous support, and so did in particular a group of women who knew me because I defended their right to wear the headscarf 12 or 13 years ago,” he told the magazine.
Speaking on the effect of the conflict in Turkey’s southeast on academic censorship, Stephenson said, “A situation in which bombs are exploding and guns are being fired is always going to affect freedom of speech and human rights. We need a return to peace.” He added that he hopes “for a cease fire, a return to the peace process.”
The persecution of Turkish academics typically goes under-reported in the media beyond Turkey. Stephenson stressed the need for foreign academics within and outside the country to work for the freedom of their Turkish counterparts.
“What happened to me is as nothing compared to what has happened to many Turkish citizens. We should defend everyone’s freedom of expressions and human rights. As foreign academics we should stand in solidarity with our Turkish colleagues,” he said.
Stephenson also highlighted Turkey’s long history of academic openness and the pursuit of knowledge irrespective of culture or religion – a precedent that should not be forgotten, particularly by foreign academics whose very foreign-ness may give them an increased ability to speak out against injustice and draw media attention to an increasingly restrictive intellectual environment.
“German Jews, and other Germans fleeing Hitler, found a home in Turkey and helped in the founding of the university system. From the Jews fleeing the Spanish İnquisition onward these lands have opened their doors to many guests, all of whom have contributed to society,” said Stephenson. “I don’t feel we have a special role, except in that the privileges given to us sometimes give us an opportunity to have more impact. The peoples of Turkey deserve peace, equality, democracy and freedom of expression. Everyone should work towards that aim.”