Legal vindication does not end the problems for Turkey’s Academics for Peace

Those fired and imprisoned for signing a 2016 statement condemning Turkish military action still have a long struggle ahead, says Mehmet Ugur

August 13, 2019
Map of Turkey
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Turkey’s Constitutional Court has ruled with a razor-thin majority that the signatories of the Academics for Peace declaration did not commit the “crime of propagandising for a terrorist organisation”. The ruling is good news for Academics for Peace and their families, whose lives have been in ruins since the declaration was published in 2016 in response to Turkey’s military action in the Kurdish region. Many have been fired or imprisoned.

The ruling also goes a very small way to restoring some trust in rule of law previously squandered by judges and prosecutors, who have succumbed to political pressure instead of distributing justice.

However, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the future. First, there are legitimate concerns that the ruling may merely reflect a pragmatic approach aimed at placating the European Court of Human Rights, which has been concerned about the extreme load it faces due to individual appeals from Turkey.

Second, the delicate balance in the Constitutional Court’s current composition is likely to be tilted in the government’s favour as the president appoints more hawkish judges. Third, the Turkish government is preparing for another incursion into northern Syria, with a predictable increase in nationalism and jingoism, towards which the Turkish judiciary has shown receptiveness.

An even more worrying concern is the reaction from some corners of Turkish “academia”. The rectors of Ağrı İbrahim Çeçen University, Istanbul Aydın University and Istanbul Medeniyet University have instructed their staff to campaign against all “institutions and initiatives that hinder Turkey’s fight against terrorism”, including the Constitutional Court. Then came a similar statement from the rectors of Turkey’s two largest and oldest universities, Istanbul University and Istanbul Technical University.

Next, a sizeable group of zealot “academics” concocted a declaration with about 1,000 signatures accusing the Constitutional Court of legitimising terrorism. Indeed, the Turkish higher education system contains a worryingly large contingent who would be happy to see their colleagues sent to prison for signing a declaration for peace and are likely to act upon further calls from the Higher Education Council or president Erdoğan or both.

Since the witch hunt began, the Turkish higher education system has been caught in a downward spiral of state fetishism and mediocrity. “Loyalist” academics have been promoted to fill the vacuum created by the dismissal of the Academics for Peace. Loyalists are more militant and vocal in universities and faculties that aim to recruit the sons and daughters of the regime’s non-elite supporters, or students unable to meet the entry criteria of the universities with better academic standards. Indeed, academics who care about standards have issued declarations calling for reinstitution and compensation of the Academics for Peace.

Nevertheless, academics unhappy with the turn of events remain fearful of losing their jobs. Most have been forced to change research areas or to focus on less contentious issues. As a result, bad science is crowding out good science. This has meant high-volume but low-quality output – an undesirable mix facilitated, among other things, by the proliferation of domestic journals lavishly supported by the Scientific and Technological Research Council (TUBITAK).

Therefore, Turkey is in a respectable 20th place in the Scimago Journal & Country Rank in terms of volume, but is 171st with respect to citations per document. The ranking also shows that Turkey’s research performance has fallen since 2016, the annus horribilis for academic freedom.

Low quality is also evident in teaching. Undergraduate unemployment exceeds 1 million and rising. There were also more than a million university dropouts in 2018, which is interpreted as a sign of declining trust in the system.

The Academics for Peace have received tremendous support from the international community. Some overseas universities have provided externally or internally funded positions to soften the blow for those who were able to leave Turkey. Higher education unions, such as the UK’s University and College Union, have loudly called on the international academic community to think twice before collaborating with institutions and universities complicit in the witch hunt.

However, many of us have also been critical of those institutions and individuals that have turned a blind eye and continued to collaborate with complicit Turkish universities. They have underestimated the value of academic freedom as a public good and the risk of lending legitimacy to those who violate it.

Even though the witch hunt is now proven to be in contravention of Turkish law – not to mention international standards – greater international solidarity remains important. The Academics for Peace still have a long struggle ahead to reclaim the rights they have been denied, let alone to secure compensation for the damage they have sustained since 2016.

We will continue to value the support of our concerned peers and will not tire of reminding academics across the world of our joint interest in defending academic freedom.

Mehmet Ugur is professor of economics and institutions and a member of the Greenwich Political Economy Research Centre at the University of Greenwich.

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