Intellectual freedom the target of illiberal regimes

A literature professor on hunger strike has become the symbol of the mass purge of academics in Turkey, where the current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is undermining the country’s status as an international centre for learning and intellectual exchange through increasing authoritarian control aimed at consolidating power.

The purge is a good example of how Turkey has swapped one form of nationalism for another. Under its founding leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a form of secular fundamentalism evolved which Erdogan has now replaced with a form of authoritarian, nationalist, moderate Islamism.

This was the analysis of Brendan O’Malley, managing editor of University World News, speaking on a panel at the New Nationalism and Universities conference held at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education on 16 November – for which University World News was a media partner.

He said Nuriye Gülmen, a literature professor at Selcuk University in Konya, started a protest against being dismissed from her job a year ago and began a hunger strike in March.

Along with a primary school teacher protesting alongside her, she was arrested and jailed in May on charges of being a “member of an armed terrorist organisation”, “violating the law on demonstrations and meetings” and “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation”, facing sentences of up to 20 years in jail. She was accused of belonging to a banned far-left group.

The two had been making their daily protests in front of the human rights monument in Ankara and demanded to be allowed to go back to work.

In September Gülmen was taken into a hospital ward and held there in detention – from where she was eventually, in December, forced to make her defence from a stretcher instead of in court as she demanded and was sentenced to six years and three months in prison but was released pending appeal.

According to a report in November, on the 245th day of their hunger strike, Gülmen, a tall woman at five feet eleven inches, had reduced in weight to just 37kg.

O’Malley said she was one of 5,717 academics in 117 universities who have been sacked from their jobs in Turkey, according to the reliable independent source,, ostensibly in relation to two events.

These were an ‘Academics for Peace’ petition published in January 2016, signed by 1,128 academics and calling for an end to military operations in civilian areas in south-east Turkey and opening of a dialogue to achieve peace; and the failed attempted coup on 15 July 2016, in which 240 people were killed, and 1,535 people wounded.

Erdogan blames the coup attempt on his erstwhile ally, Fethullah Gülen, a moderate Islamist leader who denies any involvement but has many supporters and had great influence in Turkey, where his movement has funded many schools.

The Scholars at Risk network has described the number of academics who have faced criminal investigations, detentions, prosecutions, mass dismissal, expulsion and restrictions on travel, as staggering. According to the Turkish Ministry of Justice, there were also 69,301 students in prison by the end of 2016 – although it is not clear how many of them are there due to charges related to the coup attempt.

O’Malley said for some academics this had led to suicide, for others their families had been ripped apart by the travel ban or faced financial hardship because those dismissed can’t get an academic job in the public or private sector and can’t move abroad to work.

In cases like those of Candan Badem, former associate professor of history at Munzur University in Tunceli, Turkey, who wrote about his ordeal in University World News in February, academics have had their passport, credit cards and bank accounts and cars blocked, while they were placed on an indefinite suspension as an individual under illegal investigation but with no court indicting or acquitting them.

O’Malley said Erdogan was retaliating against academics for exercising academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association and this was part of an ongoing attempt to move away from the legacy of Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Atatürk took severe measures to turn Turkey into a Westernised Europe-leaning secular republic. This had been protected for decades by the military who had an elevated position as guardians of the republic, from which they had intervened many times to overthrow or curtail democratic governments.

Erdogan has used his growing power, secured through elections, to reintroduce religious freedoms, among other things. The most symbolic example is his success in winning the battle to allow headscarves to be worn in universities, overturning a ban that had been advocated by the military.

The Council of Higher Education or YÖK had implemented the ban with zeal against divided opinion in universities but under Erdogan there has been a change of guard.

Stifling independent voices

Jason Wittenberg, associate professor in the department of political science at UC Berkeley, said Hungary is in the spotlight because of the case of a particular institution, the Central European University or CEU in Budapest, which has been under attack by the conservative nationalist ruling party in Hungary.

This was because CEU is not a Hungarian university like most other universities there.

“Its language is English, it is accredited in New York State, its faculty trend left-liberal, and it’s funded not by the Hungarian government but from an endowment established by George Soros in the 1990s. And therein lies a problem,” he said.

“The ruling Fidesz party doesn’t like independent voices, especially those promoting liberalism, democracy and human rights. And even more especially if the source is George Soros, whom Fidesz has demonised as an avatar of the liberalism Prime Minister [Viktor] Orban despises.”

Wittenberg said Fidesz is “not so crass as to round people up on false charges” but “likes to pass laws that achieve a similar silencing purpose”.

In the case of CEU the government sought to regulate hiring and the curriculum and impose other conditions that would make it difficult for CEU to remain in Hungary.

“It is all accomplished through procedurally democratic means because Fidesz controls the parliament. We call this rule by law instead of rule of law,” Wittenberg said.

But the prominence of the CEU case underlined a grim reality for academic freedom, that “there has been a gradual suffocation of the higher education system more broadly” in Hungary.

Fidesz had passed a higher education law some years ago that allows the government to veto candidates for rector that had been approved by the faculty senate and appoint its own choice instead, even someone who did not apply. This had been used to put loyalists in charge of universities, Wittenberg said.

But he warned that the control over higher education was causing academics in both the humanities and STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – to leave for other countries where individual rights are respected and in the long run this type of brain drain will undermine Fidesz’s own goal of forming a vibrant competitive economy.

Illiberal regimes

John Connelly, professor of history at UC Berkeley, who moderated the panel, said the Turkish case is “far more drastic than the Hungarian case. You don’t have thousands of academics and professors being fired and arrested in Hungary but in both places you do see illiberal regimes, departing from norms of liberal democracy, and things are getting worse in recent months with particular focus on higher education.”

He said internationally universities are sometimes sources of political protest, as they had been in 1956 in Eastern Europe, 1968 and 1989, and there have been a number of times in history where universities, and students in particular, have produced protests against political regimes, particularly authoritarian regimes.

“But perhaps in more cases universities are sources of political support, resources of conformity. They use conformist professors to produce conformist students, to produce a conformist bureaucracy, for example in Nazi Germany.”

O’Malley pointed out that in Turkey, Erdogan remains popular and many people support his stance on the coup attempt, but he is using it to consolidate power, and there is evidence of some university leaders supporting this.

But he said it was difficult to gauge support for or opposition to Erdogan’s approach more generally among academics in an atmosphere where many media outlets had been closed down and thousands of academics purged, making people fearful of speaking out and losing their livelihood or ending up in detention on dubious charges.

He cited the case of Badem, mentioned earlier, who was accused of being a Gülenist – a follower of moderate religious leader Fethullah Gülen, whom the government accuses of being behind the coup attempt – despite being openly secular, an atheist and vocal critic of Gülen and political Islam.

He was originally dismissed and detained because he had in his university office a book by Gülen, even though he had used it to criticise him.

The source of the number of detained students was incorrectly attributed to SAR in the first version of this article and has been corrected on 18 December to the Turkish Ministry of Justice.