Silencing a secular voice

August 22, 2013

On 5 August, a court in Turkey convicted Kemal Gürüz, one of the country’s most distinguished scholars, on charges relating to an attempted coup in 2007 and sentenced him to 13 years and 11 months in prison. Many believe that the charges against Professor Gürüz, a secularist in a country with an Islamist government, are politically motivated and groundless. He had been held in prison without trial since June 2012, with his initial detention relating to another apparently politically motivated case. The circumstances of his detention and trial coupled with the harsh treatment he received led Professor Gürüz to attempt suicide on 14 June this year.

Professor Gürüz, 66, is a retired professor of chemical engineering at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. He has served as head of Turkey’s Council of Higher Education, where he was a champion of the secular values enshrined in Turkey’s Constitution – which no doubt added to his troubles with today’s government. He has also headed Turkey’s research agency.

Professor Gürüz is also a respected international educator. He is author of Higher Education and International Student Mobility in the Global Knowledge Economy (2008). He was the first recipient of the Chancellor John W. Ryan Fellowship for International Education at the State University of New York. In 2004-05, while a visiting scholar at Harvard University, he was also affiliated with the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, where I came to value his ideas, his perspectives on and his commitment to the internationalisation of higher education. His work at the Council of Higher Education laid some of the groundwork for Turkey’s impressive recent academic development. He is exactly the kind of visionary educator that countries such as Turkey need.

By his own admission, Professor Gürüz publicly supported secularists and attempts to keep the country’s universities free of religious influence, speaking out about the always contentious “headscarf” issue and arguing for keeping the long-standing ban on wearing them on campus.

He upheld the values maintained by the international community of scholars and pushed the development of modern management practices in higher education. He was convinced that Turkish universities, public and private, had to respect and share the values of academic freedom, transparency and unencumbered research that underpin all world-class universities globally. Today, in considerable part because of the work done by him and many of his Turkish colleagues, Turkey has arguably the best academic system in the Middle East, including several high-quality, non-profit, private universities.

The mistreatment of Professor Gürüz is a clear message that the authorities in Turkey are going in a distressing direction – to the long-term detriment of universities. In countries with a relatively short history of academic development, it is easy to destroy the progress that has been made. Turkish higher education hangs in the balance – and its international reputation is significantly damaged by the vendetta against Professor Gürüz.

Unfortunately, Turkey’s government and legal system have turned a deaf ear to the numerous demands for Professor Gürüz to be treated fairly. The US-based Committee of Concerned Scientists and numerous other groups and individuals have written letters and circulated petitions, but to no avail. Scholars at Risk, an advocacy group for academic freedom and the fair treatment of academics worldwide, is attempting to raise consciousness in the light of Professor Gürüz’s conviction. I invite you to share your outrage by connecting to the protest at its website.

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