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[OPINION] Turkey’s academics: traitors to an unconstitutional regime

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Mehmet Efe Çaman

We know Turkey is no longer a democracy. What does that mean for academics? What does it mean for universities? Regardless of the credibility of the accusations brought forward by the government’s Board of Higher Education, the university administration or those who put my name on a list in one of the regime’s unconstitutional decrees, I often think this incident changed my and my family’s life, possibly forever. The reason: I signed a petition. The petition I signed, titled “We will not be party to this crime,” condemned asymmetric and disproportionate attacks in predominantly Kurdish provinces and the plight of people in eastern Turkey. It also highlighted that as a result of policies related to these attacks, the government violated fundamental human rights. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan slandered the petition, calling its signatories – which included me as well — “traitors” and “dark people” committing the same crime as the “fifth column for terrorists.” Some of those who signed it had been under investigation by provincial prosecutors and the administrations of their universities, which were following orders from the Board of Higher Education. The petition’s signatories were charged with “disseminating propaganda for a terrorist organization” and “denigrating the Turkish nation and government.”

Some of the signatories, myself included, lost their tenured positions at universities as a result of pressure from the Board of Higher Education, and some were even arrested. After the public criminalization of the signatories by Mr. Erdoğan, the majority of scholars at Turkish universities lived in fear of this political and social suppression.  These fears were amplified by intimidating statements made by nationalist students and ultra-right-wing nationalist crooks and crime bosses who vowed to “shower in the blood” of those who signed the petition. In a state with a well-established and functioning rule of law, criticizing the government is a normal thing. It is also fairly normal that politicians and parties can disagree with the opinions of academics, intellectuals, authors, thinkers and opposition groups that criticize the government. They cannot, however, forbid the free expression of opinion, which is a fundamental human right. It is imperative, especially for academic freedoms, that academics be able to communicate, teach, write and express their opinions without fear of censorship or institutional consequences. It is their duty to analyze and interpret sociopolitical conflicts and advise, caution or criticize the government regarding the potential consequences of its decisions. As mentioned above, these standards are, of course, assured only in democratic, pluralist and open societies.

Erdoğan continued to push his power beyond constitutional limits by means of his propaganda machine and the manipulation of public perceptions. The entire judiciary came under the control of Erdoğan and his circle of power. Consequently, the executive increased its de facto power to an extent that seriously impeded the independence of Turkish courts, especially after corruption scandals in 2013 that involved several key Justice and Development Party (AKP) politicians, including Erdoğan himself. The scandal posed one of the major challenges of Erdoğan’s 12-year rule, leading three cabinet members to quit. Erdoğan’s response of tightening control over the Internet and banning Twitter for two weeks drew international criticism. Thousands of judges, prosecutors, police officers and other public servants — most notably the officials leading the corruption investigations — have been reassigned or even dismissed, and the government has passed a law increasing government control of the judiciary. The High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which now answers directly to the justice minister, launched an investigation into the former deputy chief Istanbul prosecutor who led the corruption investigations until he was replaced weeks later. All these developments indicated a de facto regime change in Turkey which provided Erdoğan with sweeping powers that were incompatible with the democratic rule of law and an open, pluralist society.

Erdoğan’s strategy to stay in power was based on simple but effective dichotomies of identities and generated artificial internal enemy figures. Everybody who pointed out the possible risks in terms of the long-term unity of Turkey and its people have been eliminated – either jailed or forced to leave the country. Erdoğan broke off the Solution Process (talks with Kurds) and initiated a course of military action in order to undermine the snowballing positive perception of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and used a new Islamist-nationalist rhetoric to increase the AKP’s decreasing votes. Erdoğan favored strengthening his power and advancing his goal of a Turkish presidential system over a peaceful and democratic solution to the Kurdish problem. His strategy has proven very effective. Beyond the outlawed, separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) terrorism or Turkish nationalist “deep state reflexes” inherited from the 1990s, an unscrupulous and Machiavellian political decision engineered by Erdoğan and his allies (the deep state) has manifested itself in the tragedy in southeastern Turkey and numerous civilian casualties.

It was imperative to stand up and reject shortsighted strategies based on the selfish interests of political decision-makers who would create more bloodshed and failing-state conditions in Turkey’s Kurdish provinces. The peace talks had to continue – this was the only reason why the petition was signed by academics. Erdoğan’s witch-hunt against academics due to their expression of opinion was both undemocratic and bizarre. It was not the academics who were denigrating Turkey, but Erdoğan and his allies who were violating basic human rights and obliterating the democratic order and the rule of law – the foundations of any democratic system, including Turkey’s constitutional order.

Meanwhile, not only academics who signed the peace petition but also everybody who criticizes Erdoğan’s de facto regime is in jeopardy. To date, 380 academics who signed the petition have been discharged from their tenured positions and also barred from public service by state of emergency decrees, and another 83 academics have been dismissed by their institutions without being barred. Besides the purge of the peace petition signatories, Erdoğan signed several decrees enabling the closure of 15 universities, and the Board of Higher Education ordered a crackdown on academics in the wake of a failed military coup in July 2016. Some universities and high schools were designated “terrorist organizations,” while some 8,000 academics and more than 15,000 schoolteachers were designated “terrorists” and lost their jobs and licenses to teach. Those people were dismissed not because they misused their positions, but because of their opposition to the de-facto and unconstitutional rule of Erdoğan and his allies. They were also blacklisted on a national social security database in order to frighten potential employers in the private job market. The crackdown on possible coup-plotters has since been turned into an extreme witch-hunt not only against alleged Gulen movement followers but also leftists, Kurds and anyone critical of the regime. Erdoğan’s regime also closed all military academies of the Turkish Armed Forces. The Board of Higher Education called for all 1,577 of the country’s university deans to leave their posts. This move was planned to ensure that the regime maintains tight political control over the education sector, following earlier persecutions of the country’s military, judiciary and police. In the past two years Turkey has become like an open-air prison. The regime calls arrests and detentions “a precautionary and pre-emptive measure,” which means presumptive allegations are seen as adequate to justify arbitrary imprisonment. Sometimes a book you have on your bookshelf, sometimes an article you wrote and sometimes even a citation you made can be considered a reason for criminalization. What Turkish academia is experiencing is a massive and virtually unprecedented assault on the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression. It is not only about closing universities, discharging professors or teachers or firing deans. It is also not even about jailing them. But it is about generating an environment of horror in which free thought gradually diminishes and eventually disappears in the terrible mangle of self-censorship.

Much worse than all those things is the social exclusion that purged academics have to face on a daily basis. All those who have been branded as traitors lose not only their careers or academic/professional reputation but also their credibility and social status, their families and their friends. They are marginalized, rejected and excluded. Sometimes I have the feeling I’m in a different time and dimension, far from the bitter reality of the lack of fidelity of my colleagues, some of my friends and even family members who abandoned me on the basis of the regime’s official narrative, which called me and others like me traitors. This social extrajudicial execution is the highest price purged academics have to pay.

Perhaps in the distant future there will be a normalization and re-democratization in Turkey that will restore our reputations, give back our academic positions and even compensate all material loss that occurred. However, as regards the wrong and the deep injustice connected with the social and psychological consequences, the healing process will take much longer.

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