Descent into ignorance as critical voices are silenced

Last year was difficult for Turkey in terms of academic rights and free speech violations and their possible consequences for the education system. Unfortunately, it seems 2017 will not be any better.

Turkey experienced a failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016. The Turkish government blamed a religious group led by the cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former mentor of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has a network of schools all over the world.

Pro-coup soldiers closed the Bosphorus Bridge and the Turkish Parliament building was bombed by military planes. Some 161 citizens died while trying to prevent the coup.

Although socialists, Kurds and Kemalists (neo-Republicans) had realised the danger represented by Gülen for years, neo-Islamists were forced to acknowledge it after the failed coup attempt.

After that, a state of emergency was declared and the Turkish government started re-engineering Turkish society through the education system.

However, instead of blaming themselves for giving Gülen-affiliated academics teaching and research positions and other administrative duties, the government and university administrations continued to target those who signed the Academics for Peace petition against the government crackdown on the Kurds, under the pretext of purging Gülen-affiliated individuals from public service.

As Academics for Peace stated in a letter entitled “Urgent call for solidarity”: “The government was taking advantage of the state of emergency rule to crack down on all critical voices, including those who have no relation to the Gülen organisation or the coup attempt.”

But why is the Turkish government so angry with us?

One signatory academic, Zeynep Korkman, describes the peace petition as “a gesture of solidarity”. The thing that made the government mad was that gesture – because throughout the history of Turkey, Kurds were only supported by Kurds.

This gesture marked a milestone for Turkey because it was independent of ethnicity and it came from intellectuals and academicians. The academics had also dared to openly oppose the state.

So why are the ‘peace signatories’ including myself, who have been investigated for "making propaganda of the PKK terrorist organisation", now accused of "being a member of the FETÖ” – the so-called Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation?

First, the government is trying to convince the Turkish people that they have been working together. Second, the government wants to cut off international support for the academics by establishing a link with radical Islamic terror and the coup attempt.

Thus, 312 of the 4,811 academics dismissed since the failed coup are ‘peace signatory’ academics. The government's executive orders against us can be considered the product of a retaliatory mindset.
A new curriculum for a new Turkey

The Turkish government did not only punish academics, but also dismissed 28,163 school teachers from public service.

The most obvious feature of fascist systems is to use unpredictable, uncertain and unknown tactics to create disorientation and fear. The government's decisions have become completely unpredictable. For instance, 89 teachers were dismissed on Friday and reinstated on Monday by two different executive orders.

The dismissal of teachers has begun this process of reconstruction. When school started after the 15 July Democracy Victory and Martyrs Day, primary schoolchildren were taught how to keep a democracy vigil against other possible coup attempts and anti-coup demonstrations were re-enacted. Unfortunately, some of the children had to act as coup plotters.

A new curriculum has been created which includes activities commemorating 15 July, but some schools have gone further. Manuals have been created for schoolchildren that include Erdogan’s pictures and words.

One teacher who wanted the death sentence for Fethullah Gülen and all ‘traitors’ took a photo of some primary school pupils with execution nooses in their hands. Even kindergarten children have been practising to be martyrs by learning to lie down in front of tanks when required. Many lessons have been completely removed from the high school curriculum, such as those on Darwin's theory of evolution.

Instead of secular and positive science education for children, books on issues such as Islamic family, worship and marriage have been distributed by some school head teachers. The curriculum is being completely transformed along patriarchal and non-secular lines.

Higher education in trouble

With regard to higher education, losing 4,000 academic staff after the coup attempt has had a substantial impact on educational and administrative activities.

The lectures that I was giving at my university have recently been given by young graduates who do not even have a masters degree. There is no academic criterion for the selection of academic staff. They only have to be pro-government.

What will happen?

Professor Bülent Ari, a member of the supervisory board of the Council of Higher Education, or YÖK, recently said: "The growing number of educated people has exasperated me.

“We need an ignorant generation for the future of the country. Those who have harmed the country are those who have been well educated. Those who will save this country are people who have not even graduated from primary school. We trust them for the new Turkey.”

This was not an ironic comment. Will our students be taught by those with similar views?

Protecting the dignity of the academy

On 7 February 2017, 330 academics, including myself, were dismissed from public service.

During peaceful protest against this action, professors were beaten and dragged along the ground by police officers. The police officers, who are around 20 years old and whose education background is unknown, not only physically beat academics – including veteran professors – but humiliated them.

These scenes send a clear message that any dissident voice will be punished with the most severe violence and that no group will be exempted from this violence. Often symbolic destruction has much more force than physical action. To crush academic robes under the feet of police officers signifies to ignore science, intelligence and the free mind.

What is more, our students witnessed how thought and speech freedom could be punished. In this way, besides keeping them ignorant, we are creating a future generation that is cowed and unable to express any opinion.

The need for a third option

A new empire of fear is being built in Turkey. Colleagues, family members and neighbours denounce each other to the state as terrorists.

As Hisyar Ozsoy, deputy president of the pro-minority HDP party, said recently: “We live in strange times in Turkey. Nowadays, there are only two camps in the country: either you are pro-government or you are a coup supporter, a terrorist or a traitor, and often all three simultaneously. Erdogan has left no space for a third option.”

Since Turkey suffered a lot as a result of previous military coups, the last thing I want is for it to be exposed to another coup. I also believe that other peace signatories think the same.

However, there should be a third option. It must be possible to be both anti-coup and critical of the government.

Governments should be freely criticised and this should not be punished by expulsion from academic positions or the country. I believe we need a little more time to get through these difficult times so that we can reach this third option.

Eda Erdener is former assistant professor in the psychology department at Bingöl University in south-eastern Turkey and currently a Visiting Scholar at Risk at Pomona College in Claremont, California.