Turkey purge: dark cloud of oppression hangs over country’s universities

The targeting of Turkey’s top academics, in the country’s most established institutions, has caused outrage, writes Gulcin Ozkan

February 16, 2017
People underneath a Turkish flag
Source: Alamy

A select group of top Turkish academics has become the latest casualty of the country’s state of emergency. Some 330 academics were among the thousands of public sector employees purged by an emergency decree issued on 7 February.

Such decrees are now part of life in a country that is still traumatised by last year’s attempted coup, which claimed hundreds of lives. The state of emergency put in place swiftly in its wake grants sweeping powers to the authorities. Indeed, a large number of drastic rulings that would have been near impossible to imagine in normal times were introduced, including rulings that led to the closure of 15 private universities and the abolishment of the nationwide elections of vice-chancellors.

Some believe that the primary target of the early decrees was the Gulen movement – led by Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric based in the US – members of which have been alleged to be behind the attempted coup. The numbers are staggering: by November 2016, more than a 100,000 people had been dismissed from public service including one-third of all judges and more than 100 generals. Despite their scale, these operations did not face much opposition in the early stages. What was more alarming for most was the alleged extent of the infiltration by Gulenists into the higher echelons of power, particularly in the army and the judiciary.

Yet the purge on 7 February caused outrage. This is primarily due to who was in the firing line. Among the names were some of Turkey’s top academics who are based in the country’s most established institutions. For example, İbrahim Kaboğlu, a leading constitutional law specialist who I am currently collaborating with on a book about constitutional reform, has been dismissed from Marmara University. Others affected include Murat Sevinç, another leading constitutional law expert; Yüksel Taşkın, a top political historian; Öget Öktem Tanör, the country’s first specialist in neuropsychology, as well as almost the entire faculty of the department of theatre at Ankara University.

It became immediately clear that the newly dismissed included many who could not be linked to violence in any form, much less to a terrorist plot – the official accusation underlying many of the previous dismissals. One common feature of 115 of the 330 expelled scholars was that they were all signatories to a peace declaration in January 2016 that criticised the security operations in southeastern Turkey and also called on the government to resume talks with representatives of the Kurdish community in the hope of achieving a peaceful solution.

A good number of those who were dismissed have also been vocal opponents of the government’s increasingly authoritarian stance and of the proposed constitutional changes that will be voted on at the forthcoming referendum on 16 April.

Academia in Turkey is no stranger to such purges on political and ideological bases. Indeed, they were repeated with such regularity in the past that most, if not all, prospective academics in the country view the risk of dismissal as part of the job; almost like the risk of accident for someone considering a genuinely dangerous profession. Korkut Boratav, a veteran, has said poignantly this week: “the 1940s purge dismissed my father from academia, the 1980s [one] dismissed me, and today’s decree dismissed my last assistant”.

Even so, the current situation is much worse than the mass exodus from universities in the early 1980s. There is nothing surprising about a military regime being ruthless over freedom of thought, freedom of speech and, hence, against academia. The tragedy of the current crackdown is that it is taking place under a civil and democratically elected government which, ironically, came to power on a manifesto promising to advance democratic rights and freedoms.

However damaging the dismissals are for the academics in question – and they are extremely damaging – they are worse for current and future generations of students. I know this from my personal experience as an economics student at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara in the mid-1980s. When we arrived in 1984, universities had become skeletons of their former selves in the aftermath of the military coup.

A large number of academics had left in protest over the treatment of their colleagues. The METU economics department that I joined, which used to be home to one of the strongest economic history teams before 1980, had lost all its economic historians by the time that we enrolled and was unable to appoint anyone in the field until the mid-1990s.

It is not just the loss of academics, either. Even as a supposedly carefree student, you could almost taste the oppression pervading every aspect of university life and hanging over you like a dark cloud. An environment where there is fear about speaking out is no place for teaching the value of critical thinking.

Although most of those expelled in the early 1980s returned to academia later, having successfully appealed against the expulsion decision – an avenue not yet open to the currently purged – the masses of students who had completed their studies in the meantime had lost out permanently.

Students today will lose, both through missing out on being taught by some outstanding academics, and also because higher education is transformed into something completely different in such authoritarian periods. The end result will be generations of graduates who have to settle for what is on offer, without questioning the merit of what is presented to them, and who have to accept knowledge as a given rather than seeking the truth.

It is only to be expected that a society made up of individuals ready to accept whatever is fed to them would also be a place where “alternative facts” can flourish.

Gulcin Ozkan is a professor of economics at the University of York.

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