Today’s Turkey is not the same Turkey that I experienced 10 years ago when I first lived there. Those years were filled with optimism, greater civil liberties, significant steps towards democracy, a booming economy and international admiration. Universities had become spaces for critical debates, opening new channels for discussions about some of the most sensitive issues concerning the nation.
In 2005, for example, Istanbul Bilgi University hosted the first conference in the history of the republic that challenged the official narrative concerning the Armenian Genocide in the late Ottoman era. The conference was held despite wide protests, which goes to show that academic freedom in Turkey was in a relatively healthy state in the mid-2000s.
It is telling that the conference was cancelled last year in unclear circumstances. Some say that the pressure grew too high in an already tense political environment; others that it fell victim to administrative problems.
The tale of the conference is the tale of academic freedom in Turkey. We have come a long way from more freedoms to no freedoms. After the attempted coup in July, the restrictions on academic freedom in Turkey have intensified rapidly. The world was first watching in horror when soldiers, tanks and fighter jets appeared in Istanbul and Ankara, aiming to overthrow the democratically elected government. There was a universal condemnation of the attempted coup.
What has followed is an equally tragic situation. In its attempt to bring the perpetrators to justice, the Turkish government has launched a massive witch-hunt, targeting every possible corner of society. Higher education has been one of the main targets of the purge with all university deans asked to resign, tens of universities shut down, thousands of academics forced to resign – and the remaining academic body facing immense pressure to censor their critical voices.
In 2016, Turkey is a country of threatened scholars. Scholars at Risk, a network protecting scholars and the freedom to think, question and share ideas, announced after the coup that it was particularly concerned that the scale and speed of these actions suggest a lack of due process or evidence-based response.
The narrowing down of academic freedom in Turkey has been a gradual process. We did not come to this overnight. Since the start of the year more than one thousand signatories of the Academics for Peace petition have been facing immense pressures and legal charges for defending the right to life, liberty and security of Kurds in Turkey. Declaring that ‘We will not be a party to this crime’ has turned the signatories themselves into potential criminals.
The question of academic freedom in Turkey needs to be discussed in the wider European context because academic freedom is under threat across Europe and beyond. A symposium, ‘Academic Freedom and the Turkish Turmoil’, was organised at the University of Helsinki, Finland, in August.
As a panellist in the symposium, I emphasised that the events in Turkey are not something that are taking place ‘out there’ but ‘in here’. This means that there are different manifestations of the same political developments as in Turkey across Europe, most notably the rise of extreme populism and the aggressive privatisation of public services.
We should not treat them as distinctively Turkish problems but as European problems. We are witnessing an illiberal turn, growing polarisation and restrictions on the freedom of speech, most notably in Hungary and Poland but also in other European countries. Academic freedom is often the first victim of the polarised atmosphere – academics begin to censor themselves.
Last year we asked a number of academics in Finland whether they had faced academic censorship or self-censorship. The impetus came from an incident where a local university called a skilful rhetorical analysis a political statement because it focused on a speech by the prime minister. The incident raised many critical questions about the wider implications of the significant funding cuts in higher education and the heightened political atmosphere in the country.
Were universities beginning to censor more critical voices within their faculty due to a fear of losing more government funding?
How did academics respond to our questionnaire about the state of academic freedom in Finland? It became evident that self-censorship is indeed an issue, and it has become more prevalent in recent years. The problem is most acute in sensitive areas of research, such as Russia or immigration.
There are pressures to only produce a particular type of research. At the same time, there are more aggressive attempts to silence academics with direct personal threats and public discrediting.
In order to adequately respond to the threats to academic freedom in Turkey and beyond, we need to see academic freedom as a process, not as an end result. Just like democracy, it needs to be actively performed and defended. Academic freedom is not something that, once achieved, can then be forgotten about.
This is why we need to defend our Turkish colleagues in all possible ways – not only in solidarity but also to prevent the rest of Europe going down the same path.
Johanna Vuorelma is a doctoral researcher in politics and international studies at the University of Warwick, UK.
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