Call for withdrawal of doctorate for Turkish premier

A petition has been launched by the student union at Technische Universität Berlin, or TU Berlin, calling for the withdrawal of an honorary doctorate awarded to Turkish Premier Binali Yildirim, maintaining that he “plays a crucial role in the authoritarian restructuring of the country”, which has included the arbitrary dismissal of thousands of academics and the detention without due process of some.

On 18 February, Yildirim, who also chairs Turkey’s ruling AKP party, came to Oberhausen in North Rhine-Westphalia, where he addressed a rally of around 10,000 Turks living in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands to raise support for a referendum on constitutional reform. On 16 April, Turkey’s citizens are to decide whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powers are to be extended.

In 2011, TU Berlin awarded Yildirim, then minister of transport, shipping and communication, an honorary doctorate in engineering in recognition of his role in establishing the German-Turkish University and the German-Turkish Advanced Research Centre for Information and Communication Technologies. TU Berlin also stressed his achievements in supporting training, dissemination and research in information and communication technology.

“Minister Binali Yildirim has committed himself to the task of combining the strengths of Germany and Turkey in the field of information and communication technology. He has made considerable efforts to build bridges between our countries,” Annette Schavan, then education and research minister, said in her eulogy. Just over a year later, Schavan was stripped of her own academic degree following plagiarism allegations and stepped down from her post.

The student union petition calls the university’s praise for Yildirim’s role in developing information and communication technology “grotesque”, given that “during the Gezi Park protests in 2013, the constant expansion of internet surveillance and restrictions on free access to the internet were proceeding apace under his responsibility”.

The petition also claims that Yildirim “has been instrumental in pushing ahead with the elimination of critical opinion, the forcing into line of media, the liquidation of many critical outlets and the incarceration of journalists, as well as the arrest and persecution of countless high-ranking politicians”.

It demands that TU Berlin “distance itself clearly from the policies pushed by the bearer of its award, and take a position on this by revoking his honours – for the victims of the authoritarian and repressive policies of the Turkish government”. More than 100 academics have already signed the petition, among them former university vice-president Wolfgang Neef and some academics from Turkey.

In January 2016, 2,212 scholars in Turkey, now known as the 'Academics for Peace', signed a petition called ‘We will not be a party to this crime’, addressing human rights violations during military operations affecting Kurds in Turkey.

Since the coup attempt in July 2016, 312 of the Academics for Peace have been dismissed from public service through emergency decrees. Their passports and those of their marital partners have been confiscated. With the latest emergency decree, the number of signatories who lost their jobs through dismissal, forced resignation and forced retirement has now reached 400.

They are among nearly 5,000 academics from 112 universities who have been discharged by emergency decrees since July, according to Bianet News, a rights-based journalism website funded by the Swedish government.

The Turkish government blamed a religious group led by the cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former mentor of President Erdogan who has a network of schools all over the world, for the coup attempt. But many observers and Academics for Peace in Turkey believe the Turkish government is using it as an excuse to crack down on all critical voices including those with no links to the Gülen movement or the failed coup.

Writing in University World News last week, one of the petition signatories, Eda Erdener, a former assistant professor in the psychology department at Bingöl University in south-eastern Turkey – who herself was dismissed earlier this month – said the Academics for Peace petition was a gesture of solidarity that incensed the government “because throughout the history of Turkey, Kurds were only supported by Kurds”.

This month, the newly founded Academics for Peace-Germany called on academics at universities to devote an hour to discussions on issues such as nationalism, populism and racism in support of their persecuted colleagues. The campaign met with considerable response throughout Germany. Academics for Peace-Germany also seeks to draw attention to the situation in the Kurdish regions of Turkey.

Michael Gardner Email: