Turkey has started a wave of criminal investigations, arrests, and dismissals of university faculty members in what appears to be the biggest crackdown on academics in decades. Last week, an Istanbul court jailed three professors on suspicion of “making terrorist propaganda.”
The moves come after a petition, signed initially by 1,128 academics, was made public at an Istanbul news conference on January 11. More than 1,000 additional academics have signed the appeal since then. The petition condemns the government’s security operations against Kurdish fighters in southeast Turkey because of the disastrous impact on the Kurdish civilian population.
In a region not famous for its academic freedom, Turkey had been a country with a reputation for leaving academics alone to pursue their interests, at least relative to its Arab neighbors. Many Arab students and even faculty members have moved to Turkish institutions in recent years. But the recent crackdown could lessen Turkey’s academic appeal.
Last July, Turkish authorities resumed attacks against Kurdish militants, ending a two-year truce and peace negotiations. Since the beginning of the year, government attacks on Kurdish targets in towns and cities in southeast Turkey have increased.
“We will not be party to this crime,” the petition says. It calls for a resumption of peace talks with the main armed group, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded by vilifying the academics in at least five speeches, promising they would pay a price for their “treachery.”
In addition to the three scholars who were placed in pretrial detention, at least 30 other academics have been dismissed and 27 suspended from their universities pending investigation, according to Human Rights Watch, a New York–based organization.
Prosecutors and university disciplinary bodies in at least 89 institutions across Turkey are reportedly investigating hundreds more on suspicion that they “made terrorism propaganda” and “insulted the Turkish nation or state institutions.” A number of professors have been temporarily detained for questioning or have had their offices searched and, in some cases, their computers confiscated.
“It’s extremely troubling,” says Robert Quinn, director of Scholars at Risk Network. The group, based at New York University, helps academics around the world who are persecuted for expressing their ideas. “Calling into question their loyalty to the nation has to have an effect on the open discourse of ideas.”
A number of faculty members who signed the petition have been denounced and even threatened on social media. Some have received intimidating visits in their campus offices by groups of right-wing students, according to Lami Bertan Tokuzlu. He is an assistant professor of constitutional and human rights law at Istanbul Bilgi University.
Tokuzlu, who spoke with Al-Fanar Media by telephone from Istanbul, said the crackdown is widespread and having a chilling effect on the willingness of scholars to speak out on sensitive issues: “This is not a good development for Turkey.”
Ten days after the release of the petition in January sparked the crackdown, a number of national and international academic organizations signed a letter of concern to the Turkish president. The groups, which include the European University Association and the German and Polish rectors’ conferences, called the crackdown a violation of academic freedom.
Within Turkey, a climate of fear seems to exist. Very few individuals or academic groups have spoken out in defense of the targeted academics. The country’s powerful Higher Education Council, which oversees Turkey’s higher education system, makes sure that all university leaders support government policy, especially on security issues. The council, known by its Turkish initials, YÖK, has pushed both the public universities and the newer “foundation” (private) institutions to investigate those who signed the petition.
The arrests have come at a time of growing turmoil both inside and outside Turkey’s borders. The civil war in Syria has destabilized Turkey’s southern border and pushed some 2.5 million refugees into Turkey. And Turkey’s two main cities, Istanbul and the capital Ankara, have been hit by five deadly terrorist bombings in the last five months. The bombings have been attributed to Kurdish groups and the Islamic State.
The arrests of the three academics came a day after President Erdoğan called for a broadening of the definition of terrorism. He said there was no difference between “a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their position and pen to serve the aims” of terrorists.
Erdogan added that this could be a journalist, a lawmaker or an activist. His comments came a day after a bomb attack in the Turkish capital Ankara killed 37 people. According to many observers, the crackdown on academics is part of broader moves by President Erdoğan to stifle criticism of government policies and restrict liberties in the country. A number of journalists have been imprisoned in recent months, and earlier in March the government seized the offices of an opposition newspaper, Zaman, which is the second largest newspaper in the country.
Mostafa Minawi, an assistant professor and director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative at Cornell University in New York, says past moves against academic freedom in Turkey have been met with protests from the United States and Europe. Not so this time, however, as the West focuses on its alliance with Turkey to counter the Islamic State extremists, and Europe has just negotiated a controversial agreement in which Turkey would take back Syrian refugees who try to flee to Greece, the aim of which is to stop the wave of refugees heading into Western Europe.
“Basically, the [Turkish] academics are stuck in this geo-political game,” he says.
The three academics placed in pretrial detention are Kıvanç Ersoy, Muzaffer Kaya and Esra Mungan. Ersoy teaches in the Mathematics Department at Mimar Sinan University and Mungan teaches in the Psychology Department at Boğaziçi University. Kaya was recently dismissed from the Social Work Department at Nişantaşı University for signing the petition.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch said, “Imprisoning advocates for peace who have criticized government policy not only flouts international standards, but will do nothing to prevent terrorism or bring justice for the victims of the Ankara bombing.”