Turkey’s already embattled universities now face the fall-out from a failed military coup. Just days after part of Turkey’s army attempted to overthrow the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authorities called for the resignation of the country’s 1,577 deans and issued a travel ban for professors, calling on those outside the country to immediately return.
The crackdown on university campuses risks “undermining Turkey’s investment in the future of its higher education sector,” says Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk, an international network dedicated to upholding academic freedom. That concern is shared by Turkish academics, although many are reluctant to speak out.
A professor at a Turkish university who asked to remain anonymous wrote to Al-Fanar Media that at his institution the atmosphere was “chaotic” and that all summer leave has been cancelled. Colleagues who had been planning to attend international conferences have had to back out.
“Despite all the political pressure on academia in Turkey, Turkish universities are increasingly growing international,” wrote the professor. “There are many exchange programs with Europe, North America, Japan and Southeast Asia. Some of our universities regularly make it to the list of the top 500, and three are among the top 200. There is a brilliant generation of young people eager to obtain a university degree. What concerns me most is the way political insecurity and nepotism are undermining quality research and education.”
The firings and travel bans for academics are just one of many retaliatory measures taken in a sweeping post-coup crackdown aimed at “cleansing” public institutions of alleged plotters. The crackdown has focused on the army, schools, and the judiciary—up to 50,000 people have reportedly been dismissed or detained. The country has declared a three-month state of emergency and suspended its adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights.
The government actions taken against academics have drawn widespread international condemnation. “The crackdown on the education sector creates the appearance of a purge of those deemed inadequately loyal to the current government,” said a statement signed by at least 10 scholarly organizations, including the Middle East Studies Association.
Joshua Hendrick, a professor of sociology at Loyola University who studies Turkey, says it is no surprise that universities have been targeted. Erdoğan and his government claim the Gülen movement—an Islamist movement led by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the United States—is behind the coup.
“The Gülen community has been active for over 40 years and it’s not a secret that they’re very well represented in many institutions of state,” including universities, says Hendrick. In fact, “the Gülen movement’s primary recruitment has been among university students.”
The Gülen movement was once a key Erdoğan ally. But in recent years there has been a dramatic falling out, with Erdoğan accusing his fellow Islamists of running a parallel state and trying to topple him. Over the past year, Gülen-owned businesses and universities have been put under state trusteeship. In May 2016, Turkish officials designated the group as a terrorist organization.
Recep Şentürk, director of the Alliance of Civilizations Institute at Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakif University in Istanbul and a supporter of President Erdoğan, said that those who were involved in the coup should be punished. But he said that while deans had been asked for their resignations, most were still in their jobs.
“So what is going to happen,” he said, is that “those who are members of the Fethullah terrorist group, their resignation will be accepted, and those who were not involved in anything, they will remain.”
Police have long held the names of Gülen-linked academics as they identified them over the years, Senturk said. “These lists, they are in the hands of the government now. So they are taking them to court, and everything is happening within the legal boundaries.”
But in its statement issued on July 19, Scholars at Risk argued that “the scale and speed of these actions [against academics] belie any due process or evidence-based response to the attempted coup of July 15th.” Fethullah Gülen has denied any involvement in the coup. If the Gülen movement’s involvement is proven, it will undermine the group’s public record of espousing values such as moderation, dialogue, service and education.
The only way to learn the truth will be if the state conducts a “transparent criminal investigation,” says Hendrick. He studies the ways that national identity is defined in Turkey and fears that given the current instability, it will become “more conspiratorial and more insecure.”
While President Erdoğan and his ruling AKP party have a solid base of support, he has become increasingly authoritarian in recent years, harassing media outlets, suing and jailing journalists, and using inflammatory language to paint critics and protesters as traitors and agents of foreign powers. He has been pushing for constitutional reform that would expand his own powers as president. And he has escalated rather than tried to ease the conflict with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
Earlier this year, the state retaliated when over 2,000 Turkish academics signed a petition condemning security operations against Kurdish fighters in southeast Turkey because of their impact on the Kurdish civilian population. Three professors were put on trial for “making terrorist propaganda” and hundreds of other were fired from their positions or questioned by university administrators.
Halil Ibrahim Yenigün, a former politics professor at Istanbul Commerce University, was fired for signing the petition. He’s now a human rights advocate and research fellow at Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Center. He says that although the target of the current purge is Gülen followers, academics who are human-rights advocates are also being caught up in it.
Turkey’s political parties — including those at loggerheads with Erdoğan’s AKP — and civil society and the media were quick to condemn the coup.
“We hope officials realize it is the resilience of civil society that helped resist the coup,” says Quinn, and that universities are key to nourishing that resilience. It’s important to recognize that “there’s a difference between critical discourse and disloyalty — if you equate the two then you’re looking at the end of democracy.”
Yet at the moment, academics in Turkey are anxious and afraid to speak out. Some worry that their telephone and email communications are being monitored. Far from being able to contribute to scholarly or public debate at a time of historical crisis, they have been intimidated into silence.
“The official reason for the purges is, of course, to suspend pro-Gülen academics and rectors,” wrote the professor who asked for anonymity. “But demanding all of Turkey’s deans resign is way out of proportion—it might signal the government’s broader design of placing its own sympathizers. The university is still a bastion of critical thought, despite the fact that the prosecution of professors who refuse to comply with the establishment’s taboos has a long history in Turkey. The purges are intended to silence and repress non-complying academics and institutions.”
An Al-Fanar Media correspondent in Turkey contributed to this article.