Turkey purge: crackdown may cause exodus of top scholars

Unprecedented ’cleansing’ of academia may force many leading minds to leave the country, scholar warns

July 23, 2016
Turkish police officer standing in front of poster of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Source: PA

Many of Turkey’s leading scholars will have “no option but to leave the country” if the purge of the nation’s academy continues apace, a UK-Turkish academic has warned.

In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt, Turkey’s higher education council has demanded the resignation of all university faculty deans as part of the drive to root out supporters of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of masterminding the plot against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The action against 1,577 senior university managers is part of what the council has described as a “cleansing” of pro-Gulen elements in academia, which has also led to the sacking of four university presidents.

Turkish academics have been banned from travelling abroad for work purposes, while about 20,000 education staff have been fired or suspended since the bloody events of 15 July.

Some academics have claimed that President Erdoğan is using the botched coup as an excuse to further pursue his “witch-hunt” against critics within academia, whom he has previously labelled “traitors”.

The crackdown has been compared to Nazi Germany after the 1933 Reichstag fire, when Hitler used an arson attack on parliament to introduce emergency measures undermining liberal democracy.

“Judging by the actions of the government thus far, the government isn’t just targeting the Gulenists, supporters of his erstwhile ally-turned-nemesis, but all of the dissident forces within Turkey,” said Veli Yadirgi, an expert in Turkish politics based at the department for development studies at Soas, University of London.

Opposition television channels, which immediately condemned the coup, have been shut down, he pointed out. And one of the prosecutors suspended last week had actually died several months ago, raising concerns that the list of 60,000 people fired, suspended or jailed thus far had been compiled months earlier.

To claim that academia, regarded as one of the pillars of secular Turkey, supported the Islamic preacher Mr Gulen, who denies any involvement in the rebellion, was “absurd and untrue”, added dual national Dr Yadirgi.

In fact, the recent flourishing within academia of religious formations such as the Gulenist movement was largely caused by President Erdoğan’s “ideological, political and financial support” for non-secular groups, he added.

“The best way of eradicating [them] is via systematically and unflinchingly upholding democracy, equality, freedom of expression and secular education in Turkey,” Dr Yadirgi said.

The upcoming trial of some of the 1,000 academics accused of “propagating terrorism” for signing a letter in support of peace in southeastern Turkey, where government forces are fighting Kurdish separatists, would be a “bellwether of whether or not this operation will be used to further suppress dissent in this sector”, he added.

“The more these precious values are attacked…innovative and talented academics, who are the backbone of Turkey’s academia, will be left with no option but to leave the country, even if they are not forced to resign from their posts,” Dr Yadirgi said.


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