The Turkish referendum result of 16 April – changing the constitution to bring in an executive presidency – has given more power to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and brought a fresh crackdown on academics, who face intimidation, dismissal and persecution. The situation has brought questions about what academics around the world can do to help their colleagues in Turkey.
How we got to this point
One year and four months ago, a group of academics (Academics for Peace) launched a petition, “We will not be a party to this crime”, and demanded the end of the war in the Kurdish region and resolution of the conflict through a quest for a peaceful and sustainable solution with the Kurdish minority ethnic group who make up 25%-30% of Turkey’s population.
Since the July 2015 breakdown of 'peace talks' between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK to end the decades-long conflict, the Turkish government has recommenced its military operations and imposed round-the-clock curfews on 22 towns and city neighbourhoods in the Kurdistan region.
Human rights organisations and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, have criticised the Turkish government for violations of human rights, “civilian deaths, extrajudicial killings and massive displacement” during the military operations in 2015 and 2016.
During the Turkish state violence in the Kurdish region, academics launched their 'peace petition' which was signed by 1,128 'Academics for Peace' in Turkey and supported by 356 others from 89 universities across the world (including David Harvey, Noam Chomsky, Etienne Balibar, Erik Swyngedouw, Judith Butler and Immanuel Wallerstein). However, the lives of petitioners in Turkey have been completely changed since signing this 'peace petition'.
President Erdogan has accused the signatories of the petition of treason. Hundreds of these academics in Turkey have subsequently been suspended or dismissed from their academic posts. For the sole act of signing the petition, many of them have been implicated in criminal investigations.
Dismissal and exile
The Council of Higher Education in Turkey, or YÖK, which is responsible for the supervision of universities in Turkey, started disciplinary investigations against them. Up to now around 400 Academics for Peace have been sacked.
While a small number of these academics have escaped from the Turkish government’s coercive policy to exile, including to Germany, France, the United States and the United Kingdom, the majority live in Turkey under unimagined politically motivated intimidation, threats and disciplinary investigations and legal persecution by Turkey’s universities, judicial system and security forces.
Those who have been sacked from their academic posts are not allowed to work for education institutions and the passports of some of these academics have been confiscated by the Turkish authorities.
After the failed coup attempt in June 2016, thousands of academics were also fired and around 20 universities shut down. Many have been detained for up to three months, some for longer, and are facing court investigations.
Moreover, currently 11 lawmakers from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including the co-chairs Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas as well as elected Kurdish mayors, are in detention. The number of imprisoned journalists is around 128. Many critical newspapers, news agencies, magazines and TV channels have been shut down over the last year.
There are claims that President Erdogan and his ruling AKP have continued to abuse their power during the constitutional referendum process. Turkish and Kurdish opposition parties allege the ruling party was involved in referendum fraud on 16 April 2017. Referendum observers have also highlighted voting irregularities on the day of the referendum.
The constitutional referendum vote gives more undemocratic powers to Erdogan. It means that the Erdogan regime will be able to control the judiciary and legislature without accountability. Erdogan is also empowered to appoint all public university vice-chancellors. Many current vice-chancellors were undemocratically appointed by the Turkish president Erdogan and they are loyal to the Erdogan regime.
Academics for Peace has called for international solidarity to help them stand up to the Turkish government’s oppressive policies and its loyal vice-chancellors. There has been global solidarity with the Academics for Peace as people around the world seek to defend academic freedom and freedom of expression in universities.
However, these campaigns have remained limited to signing petitions against the ongoing crackdown of the Turkish government on academics and on academic freedom. Moreover, the Turkish government has ignored these petitions and letters from international solidarity groups and education institutions so far.
There have been further discussions in Turkey, the UK, Germany, France and other countries about how to widen solidarity with the academics in Turkey and prevent further prosecutions, disciplinary investigations, intimidation and arrest of academics.
Here are some relevant points to have been come out from the ongoing discussions:
- Turkish universities have been taking disciplinary action against Academics for Peace and sacking them and have therefore lost their credibility as academic institutions. An international academic boycott of Turkish universities, research institutions, trusts and foundations can no longer be avoided.
Therefore, the memoranda of understanding signed with these Turkish universities, research and education institutions should be suspended and any joint research projects or conferences organised with or by these universities should categorically be boycotted until the Turkish government and universities respect academic freedom and protect free expression.
That means ending all measures to penalise signatories of the petition and start to reinstate and compensate all the academics suspended or expelled during the persecution campaign and ensure the signatories are protected against public threats of bodily harm that have been made against them.
- The vice-chancellors and deans who were involved in making the decisions to undertake disciplinary investigations, dismiss or take other unlawful action against the Academics for Peace should not be invited to any conference or academic meeting and their names should be removed from any academic journal’s editorial board and they should be blocked from any other international academic duties.
- The dismissed academics will not be able to find any academic post in Turkey. Therefore, as part of the international solidarity campaign, academics around the world are being urged to help academics at risk in Turkey to find an academic post abroad.
Check if your university is a member of CARA – the Council for At-Risk Academics – or Scholars at Risk. If yes, then encourage your university vice-chancellor to engage with CARA or Scholars at Risk and create a two- to three- year academic post for an academic at risk in Turkey.
- Inviting Academics for Peace to talk at your university, conferences or seminars will give them a great opportunity to continue their academic engagement and disseminate knowledge about the struggle of academics for academic freedom, democracy and against the war on the Kurds in Turkey.
- Support Academics for Peace financially, for example, contribute to the Education International Solidarity Fund to help Academics for Peace so they can pay for their living and legal expenses.
- Continue to sign the petitions and open letters of support for academics in Turkey and ask your government, trade union and university to communicate with the Turkish government and Turkish authorities (the Turkish embassies, university vice-chancellors in Turkey and government officials) and condemn the political persecution of Academics for Peace and the war on the Kurdish people in Turkey.
Dr Janroj Yilmaz Keles is a research fellow at Middlesex University, United Kingdom. For details on financial support for Turkey's dismissed teachers click here.
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