Turkey’s anti-intellectual crusade is pure Orwell

Turkey’s president was unwise to evoke Animal Farm when his attack on academics has eerie echoes of George Orwell’s novel, says Umut Özkirımli

October 28, 2017
George Orwell

It was one of those awkward moments.

“In Animal Farm,” said Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his address to the parliamentary group of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) earlier this month, “George Orwell criticises an order where ‘some are more equal than others’, like the [international] order which restricts United Nations Security Council membership to five countries. Very meaningful indeed.”

Obviously, neither the president nor his speechwriters were aware of what Orwell’s allegorical fable – a satire on the Russian Revolution and Stalinism – was criticising. Had they read the book, they would have probably refrained from any references to it for fear of evoking parallels between Erdoğan’s unabashedly authoritarian “New Turkey” and the farm run by Orwell’s pigs.

Academics have been on top of the regime’s enemy list ever since January 2016, when a petition pointing to the state’s human rights violations in its war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was made public. The 1,128 signatories of what has come to be known as the “Academics for Peace” petition immediately drew the ire of the president, who depicted them as “pseudo-intellectuals” engaged in terrorist propaganda.

This was followed by a number of disciplinary investigations initiated either by the Higher Education Council (YÖK) or individual universities, suspensions and the detentions of four academics, Esra Mungan, Muzaffer Kaya, Kıvanc ̧Ersoy, and Meral Camcı, who were released after several weeks in prison pending trial.

The crackdown on academic freedom and dissent reached an unprecedented level in the wake of last year’s coup attempt.

Armed with the power to issue executive decrees not subject to parliamentary scrutiny or judicial appeal through a state of emergency declared on 21 July 2016 for 90 days, but extended for a fifth time at the time of writing, the government embarked on the largest purge in republican history, reportedly dismissing more than 100,000 state employees from their jobs. This has included thousands of academics.

A lifetime ban from employment as civil servants has been imposed on most of the dismissed academic personnel; their passports have been confiscated or cancelled; and their right to access public housing has been revoked.

And, almost two years after the publication of the Academics for Peace petition, an indictment was filed against its signatories this month by the Istanbul Public Chief Prosecutor’s Office. Accused of “propagandising for a terrorist organisation”, the academics face up to seven and a half years in prison under the Turkish Anti-Terror Act, which states: “Any person making propaganda for a terrorist organisation shall be punished with imprisonment from one to five years. If this crime is committed through means of mass media, the penalty shall be aggravated by one half.”

The exact number of academics charged remains unknown to this day as the lawsuits are being filed separately. According to lawyer Oya Meriç Eyüboğlu, this is a deliberate strategy to keep the academics apart, to prevent any collective action or display of solidarity that could slow down the process.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that most of those who managed to keep their jobs (and their passports) are cowed into silence, if not submission, and that several others are frantically filling in application forms for external grants and scholarships that could enable them to escape Erdoğan’s farm.

A few others, some of them senior advisers to the president, have chosen to become part of the regime’s relentless propaganda machine. 

“I used to say that the West has a blind spot when reading Turkey. Recent events alarmingly show there are several – they’re totally in the dark”, one of them tweeted, eerily echoing one of the characters in Orwell’s dystopian fable. “Bravery is not enough…Loyalty and obedience are more important.”

But bravery counts, even if it is not enough. There are also those who stay in the farm and fight against oppression through everyday acts of resistance, by organising “alternative” lectures outside university campuses or online, by establishing coffee houses or libraries to cater to the needs of dispelled academics and students.

They are the ones who deserve our support, however symbolic and intangible, and our solidarity.

Umut Özkırımlı is a visiting professor of political science at the London School of Economics's Middle East Centre and the University of Sussex's Centre for Advanced International Theory.

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