International Academics Rally Behind Turkish Counterparts
In Turkey’s latest unfathomable decent into polarization and authoritarianism, the ruling Justice and Development Party has responded with a chilling ‘with us or against us’ attack against academic freedom and freedom of speech; declaring that the Academics for Peace petition signed by 1,128 academics in protest of state violence in the east constituted treason, denigrating Turkishness and terrorism propaganda.
Academics from 89 universities across the country called on the government to stop “breaches of rights” and accused the government of the “deliberate massacre and deportation” of civilians; calling upon the AKP to allow independent observers into the region and end curfews during the army’s military operations against Kurdish rebels in southeast.
The detentions largely targeted academics working for a state university in the city of Kocaeli, in the northwest of the country. In a dawn raid, 18 scholars from Kocaeli University were detained and another 130 from across the country face criminal charges for “propagandising for a terrorist organization” on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This charge seems largely based on the signatories’ choice to solely critique state violence rather than violence from the PKK.
However, a signatory and activist for Academics for Peace, Sinem Arslan, has declared such accusations as “absurd”, underlining that the government, as an elected body, is accountable to the peoples demands and criticizing the government for; “not taking the appropriate measures when it declares the curfews and not prosecuting government officials who commit human rights abuses. This is breaching the constitution and international law.” Arslan told us that “It is our duty to remind them of that.”
Undermining the state’s accusations regarding the petition’s double standards in criticising state violence and not that of the PKKs, Arslan stated that “illegal armed groups are not bounded by the law therefore calling them to obey the law is meaningless. I am represented by the government of Turkey and not the PKK, and as in all democratic countries, the government should be accountable and should listen to my demands.”
She further told us that “Since the AKP came to power, it has been able to gain control of many segments of society like the judiciary and the media, however academia is still not under their full control. They would like full obedience; the ability to appoint the rectors etc. They would like to appoint people who would obey them, however academia is a place for criticism, free speech, so what they want is impossible for us…Therefore they would like to get rid of people like us; people who raise their voice.”
Academics Under Attack
Many academics are now facing possible arrest, dismissal and suspension. These arrests, and subsequent demonization of Turkish intellectuals, have been described by prominent legal experts as “extra-legal”, in blatant disregard for both domestic and international laws on human rights. There are also valid concerns about ultra-nationalist or fascist reprisals as the signatories have been publicly exposed in the press and on social media; their home addressed and personal details regarding religious affiliation and family have also been publicized, and some have even been subject to neo-Nazi style attack with red crosses and offensive graffiti appearing on their office doors.
Mafioso nationalist leader Sedat Peker issued a statement on his website proclaiming; “at that moment, the bell will toll for you all … I would like to say it again: we will spill your blood and we will shower in it!” Given Turkey’s worrying history of the murder and assassination of critical academics, journalists and intellectuals; this is more than an idle threat. Today will mark the anniversary of the murder of famous Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, who too was prosecuted for ‘denigrating Turkishness’ and received numerous death threats from ultra-nationalists before he was assassinated in 2007.
Alongside the recent murder of Tahir Elçi, such events must be seen against the back-drop of a rising tide of anti-intellectualism and growing ideological schisms between AKP supporters and nationalists, and leftists, Gülen supporters, Alevis and Kurds. These attacks also come against the back-drop of the AKPs legitimacy challenge since Gezi Park and the increasingly polarized and repressive political environment which followed. Unable to be persuasive through discourse alone, at least to the other 50 percent, the state has resorted back to coercive power; which has catalysed Turkey’s current and ever spiralling transition from a strong to weak state.
These attacks against academic freedom and freedom of speech have sparked international condemnation and solidarity movements. UK institutions in particular have responded with unequivocal denunciation of these attacks, calling upon the Turkish government to withdraw these threats and bring the violent confrontation in the southeast to an end.
However, with controversial signatories such as Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek, both of whom have come head to head with the Turkish state before, and as one of the governments more bizarre but resonant accusations was of colonialism and treason- the involvement of foreign signatories needs discussing. Turkey’s strong ultra-nationalist tendencies mean that the government may easily disparage internal criticism by claiming it to be an aspect of external intervention or foreign powers; precisely what it has done on this occasion; claiming these Turkish and international academics form a so-called “fifth column” of foreign powers.
Britain’s University and College Union has sent an open letter to the Turkish embassy in London on behalf of 110,000 members and in collaboration with their global union federation, Education international, highlighting the difficulties faced by Turkish educators due to this conflict and urging the government to end the conflict and allow workplace and educational security and integrity.
The Middle East Studies Association of North America, which is the largest association of its kind, has also released a solidarity letter citing Turkey’s signature to various international agreements regarding human rights and freedom of speech, as well as the Turkish constitution, compelling the state to adhere to these agreements.
Other groups such as PEN International, Scholars at Risk and Scholars in Canada in Solidarity with Academics in Turkey have expressed their support and concern over recent events. Most recently, an open letter from UK Academics for Peace will be sent to the UK national press today; speaking out against both state violence and the clamp-down on academic freedom, both of which are contributing to deepening authoritarianism according to the 987 signatories.
When asked about the possible impact of the international community, Sinem Arslan told us that it “it depends on what kind of leverage international institutions can apply. However in the long term, condemning statements will have little effect”, referencing Ankara Mayor, Melih Gokcek’s recent suggestion that the US Ambassador to Turkey should return to his country following critical comments regarding freedom of expression. Arslan did however highlight the success for EU conditionality in regards to the trial of Leyla Zana and the abolishment of the death penalty, but pointed out that while the Syrian refugee crisis is at Turkey’s door, the West’s need for Turkey as an ally removes the hope of any serious leverage.
Thus, the capacity of such activities to intervene in Turkish domestic politics is questionable. The AKP have not previously responded well to international pressure regarding human rights violations and such criticism may well contribute to growing ultra-nationalism and isolationist tendencies as the AKP manipulate populist rhetoric to distract public opinion.
What Future? A Nation Under Siege
The AKP have successfully infiltrated most areas of academic life, with the top bureaucracy in most universities compliant to their demands. This has already had an extremely negative impact on academic freedom, and the ability (and responsibility) of universities and scholars to “speak truth to power.” Turkish scholars suffer censorship, avoiding this only by self-censoring regarding politically sensitive issues. Public discussion is suppressed and politically-driven activities on university grounds are brutally repressed. Furthermore, these attacks on academic freedom, as well as against foreign intellectuals, limit Turkey hugely in terms of international intellectual competition, inhibiting free research, as well as discouraging foreign scholars from working in the country.
Despite recent events, the number of signatories has more the doubled since the start of Erdoğan’s crusade against academic freedom (which includes the successful take-over of Turkey’s Council of Higher Education -YÖK), and almost all of the original signatories have re-declared their stance; showing that Turkish academics will not be silenced. Groups such as Feminists for Peace, Lawyers for Peace and Movie Makers for Peace have amped up their activities and are collecting hundreds of signatures in support of the petition.
Thus one positive to be derived from this is the surge in international solidarity and attention on growing human rights abuses in Turkey. For those who have been long struggling for social justice and democracy, this should hopefully offer a ray of light in the authoritarian darkness pervading the nation. Solidarity from students, journalists and the public, as well as international condemnation may provide some element of protection for academics involved, however given the continued deterioration of Turkey’s human rights credentials, the future is very much unknown for those suffering state attacks against their personal and professional freedom.
Sinem Arslan also told us that; “We are very grateful for our international colleagues and the many foreign government representatives who have shown solidarity with us. Without them this event wouldn’t have been heard. However we need more support. In Turkey whenever someone is raising voice, they are in trouble. We need our foreign friends to apply some leverage on the AKP government. Things cannot continue in this way.”
Stuck in limbo awaiting the prosecutor’s decision- Turkish and Kurdish academics fear for more than job security. For decades, activists, journalists and intellectuals involved in the Kurdish issue have been imprisoned for participation in terrorist activities due to highly debatable links to the PKK’s “civilian wing”. Like those citizens in the southeast these courageous academics were trying to protect; they will fearfully await the state’s decision to attack. But neither is powerless nor silent as these collective solidarity movements have shown. The rapid and widespread expression of global solidarity following these attacks empowers this voice and lends credence to Turkey’s internal struggle for freedom, justice and democracy.