The quest to quell opposition leads to ‘academocide’

Turkey’s Islamist government dismissed 330 academics from state service under a state of emergency decree last week, without any legal due process or evidence. Half of them are from Academics for Peace, a group of more than 2,000 academics who signed the January 2016 petition “We will not be party to this crime”, urging the government to stop violence against civilian Kurds.

I am among those who were dismissed by an earlier decree on 1 September 2016 for being a Gülenist, a follower of the man blamed by the Turkish government for being behind last year’s coup attempt.

As an openly secular, atheist person and a vocal critic of Fethullah Gülen and political Islam in general, my dismissal as a Gülenist was like a bad joke. Three days after the dismissal, my office and home were searched by the police and I was detained. A book by Gülen found in my university office was enough of a reason for my detention. This was again like a bad joke, because, for one thing, reading Gülen’s books is not a crime and, for another, I had used passages from that book against Gülen in social media.

Although the court released me the next day, it cancelled my passport (in addition to taking administrative measures which in any case cancel the passports of those who have been dismissed from their posts) and placed a block on my credit cards, bank accounts and on my car. I am still under legal investigation and the court still neither indicts me nor acquits me, keeping me in a state of suspension.

The government recently announced by decree that a seven-member commission will deal with objections to dismissals, but in practice this is just another trick that is meant to delay applications to the European Court of Human Rights. The judiciary in Turkey has been silenced and turned into an obedient tool of government because judges and prosecutors are afraid of being arrested as Gülenists if they don’t comply with the demands of the government.

Daily arrests

The newly dismissed academics include some of the best professors from various fields of study, like for example, Constitutional Law Professor Ibrahim Kaboglu, who is critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to change the constitution to get drastic powers for himself. Another example is Professor Ozdemir Aktan, one of the best surgeons in Turkey.

While public employees and rectors openly support Erdogan’s plan, in defiance of the law, opponents are being arrested every day for making propaganda against the proposed constitutional change.

Ankara University was hit most severely this time round: 72 of its academics were dismissed. Among them are the best faculty in the departments of theatre, communications, law and political science. At the faculty of political science alone, around 40 undergraduate and postgraduate courses and 50 theses now have no instructor or supervisor.

The dismissals target the best academics in Turkey and aim to liquidate universities as such and replace them with something along the lines of submissive high schools. I believe this process can be defined as 'academocide'.

So far the two best state universities (Bogazici University in Istanbul and Middle East Technical University in Ankara) have not been affected by dismissals, but it is only a matter of time. A few months ago, relying again on state of emergency powers, Erdogan did not appoint Bogazici University’s elected rector who got 86% of the votes, instead choosing another professor who did not even participate in the elections.

Since the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, about which information remains largely obscure, the government has gradually dismissed more than 5,000 academics, among more than 100,000 public employees, on charges of belonging to or being affiliated with the Gülenist or other loosely defined terrorist organisations.

Meanwhile many top-level Gülenists are believed to still be in senior posts, including rectors and the ruling Islamist party’s MPs. Rectors are influential in preparing lists of those to be dismissed.

As noted by so many observers of Turkey, I believe the government is using the coup attempt as an excuse for its crackdown on the opposition. Thousands of secular opposition figures, journalists, academics and Kurdish politicians have been dismissed or arrested along with suspected Gülenists, who until recently were allowed by the government to infiltrate universities with dubious diplomas and degrees won in Central Asian ex-Soviet republics and through corrupt university administrations.

Those academics who are dismissed by decree cannot work in any other state or private university, neither can they go abroad because their passports are cancelled. Thus people like me cannot use fellowships, scholarships or jobs offered by European or American universities or other institutions.

Dismissed people even lose their right to retirement. With the latest round of dismissals, even those who had previously resigned from their posts have been dismissed, making them permanently deprived of the right to perform their job, that is, to teach. By depriving people of their means of work and living, the Islamists want to condemn their opponents to a civil death since, for reasons of lack of space in prisons, they cannot imprison them all.

Attack on secularism

Academics for Peace were at first accused of making PKK – Kurdistan Workers’ Party – propaganda, although many of us are neither Kurdish nor pro-PKK. After the coup attempt, we are now being dismissed as 'Gülenist coupists'. By this move, the government wants to persuade its constituency (as well as the Turkish nationalists or fascists) that the PKK and Gülenists are working together.

Since the 1990s, Turkish Islamists have very effectively used the ban on the headscarf in universities as a way of suggesting they are victims as part of their march for power. Many liberals, leftists and pro-Kurdish activists in Turkey and abroad thought that the issue was about freedom of religion and freedom of education. However, the Islamists were not interested in women’s rights. They used it only as a tool.

The AKP – Justice and Development Party – was supported by United States governments, by the European Union and by international business because it was seen as 'moderate Islam' and as economically liberal. It was also seen as more democratic than the Kemalist army’s tutelage over politics.

Now in power, Islamists move towards an undeclared Sharia regime and a society of submission to one leader. The lesson should be clear: political Islam is not compatible with any notion of democracy and the 'moderate Islam' recipe for Turkey has utterly failed. Secularism needs to be defended.

Candan Badem was associate professor of history at Munzur University in Tunceli, Turkey.