Resisting Turkey’s ‘war on academe’
The figures are mind-boggling. Since the attempted coup on 15 July 2016, a total of 5,717 academics in 117 universities have been sacked from their jobs in Turkey, according to Bianet.org; 15 universities have been shut down altogether; and, according to the Ministry of Justice, 69,301 students have been incarcerated as of the end of 2016, which accounts for one-third of the total number of prisoners in the whole country.
Most of those who have managed to keep their jobs have been affected by the atmosphere of increasing oppression, often – quite understandably – practising a form of self-censorship to avoid persecution. As the sociologist Nilufer Gole put it in a recent interview on the state of academic freedom in Turkey: “Our freedom of speech is under attack, our personal voices are silenced and our words are penalised.”
A simple headcount or fancy infographics are not enough to fully grasp the consequences of the Turkish government’s war on academe.
What we are facing is nothing less than what some have called an ‘academicide’, a real carnage with real victims – former academics who commit suicide in desperation or lose their lives while working in hazardous temporary jobs; families ripped apart due to the travel ban imposed on discharged academic personnel; financial hardship resulting from the inability to find employment either in the public sector or indeed the private sector, which is reluctant to hire the ‘unwanted’ as it seeks to avoid potential trouble with the government.
Deprived of the means to secure a livelihood and their basic freedoms, the purged academics are trapped, if not inside concrete walls, then in a void, a dark present with no future.
No wonder, then, that academics and students who are already abroad are no longer returning to Turkey and those who have not yet been purged or banned from travelling seek every opportunity to continue their career and education elsewhere while they still can.
“Turkey loses it brains”, wrote journalist Zia Weise in an article on the unprecedented level of brain drain from Turkey, pointing to the sharp increase in the number of applications to various institutions such as Scholars at Risk or Scholar Rescue Fund from Turkish scholars.
Defying the new norms
And yet, resistance is not absent, even under a suffocating autocracy. These acts or ‘performances’ of resistance are both overt and formal, often carried out in public spaces in defiance of the new norms Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey is trying to inculcate and enforce; or covert and informal, more like the forms of everyday resistance described by James C Scott in his classic Weapons of the Weak, masked by ‘symbolic conformity’ to avoid persecution.
So since the purges first took place, discharged faculty members have started giving lectures in ‘atypical’ ways. In April 2016, Associate Professor Latife Akyuz gave a lecture in Ankara University gardens after being dismissed from her position along with 1,260 fellow academics with an executive decree which carries the force of law (the KHK) under the State of Emergency, declared just after the 15 July coup attempt.
Later, in February 2017, Professor Yuksel Taskin, accompanied by his colleagues and several deputies from the opposition Republican People’s Party or CHP, gave an ‘alternative lecture’ in the snow in the Abbasaga Park in Istanbul where he declared that he would “patiently resist”.
These lectures have continued with the support of other associations. In March 2017, the Green Thought Association (Yesil Dusunce Dernegi) organised a lecture series in solidarity with the purged academics under the motto 'Academia is not shutting down, the lectures are going on!' (Akademi susmuyor, dersler devam ediyor!), where academics gave lectures to a group of voluntary participants.
In the summer of 2017, Istanbul Solidarity Academy (Istanbul Dayanisma Akademisi) was established in Istanbul by academics who were expelled by decree. Their first event was organised in World Peace Park (Dunya Baris Parki), a public park in Besiktas, Istanbul.
There have been several other cases where academics have been invited to give their lectures or conference talks via via Skype. Moreover, calls for papers have begun to specify that submissions will be accepted from “scholars whose rights to travel are taken away from them and will be able to join via Skype”.
More recently, Associate Professor Ertugrul Uzun announced that he had begun “teaching in the best university of the world, YouTube!”, where he uploaded an introduction to law course. In one week, Uzun uploaded three lectures, which have been viewed several thousand times.
At the beginning of September 2017, three academics who were among the signatories of the infamous ‘Academics for Peace’ petition opened a place called Kulturhane (meaning culture house) in Mersin province in southern Turkey.
Associate Professor Ulas Bayraktar, one of the three co-founders of Kulturhane, describes this place as “an orchard for science, for academia”. Kulturhane consists of a library filled with books donated by other academics who have been sacked from their positions and a café where people are welcome to read and organise workshops, book launches and lecture series in solidarity with purged academics.
Turning a blind eye to these various acts of resistance, Erdogan continues to fire his salvos against academe. “For God’s sake, what is this assistant professorship position?” he asked at a public gathering dedicated to the establishment of a common platform of higher education in the ‘Islamic world’.
The growth of such posts is partly a response to the growing need for new academics to fill the places of the thousands who have been sacked from their positions. It did not even take 24 hours for the chairman of the Higher Education Council or YOK, Yekta Sarac, to announce that they have started working on a ‘concrete proposal’ to abolish the assistant professorship role.
In any event, what is happening is not about titles and positions. The founders of Kulturhane eloquently addressed this in their fundraising campaign: “We will prove to all those who expelled us from our public posts that we do not need their titles and functions to be able to do our job and to keep our relationship with the public.”
To go back to Albert Camus with whom we opened this essay, these acts of resistance, this “hopeless hope is what sustains us in difficult moments”. All we need is to be “more patient than the executioners and more numerous than the bullets”.
Umut Ozkirimli and Pinar Dinc are based at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University, Sweden.