On July 16, 2016, in the hours following the failed coup attempt against Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the coup “a gift from God,” as he vowed retribution against mutinous soldiers.
Amidst traumatizing scenes of military tanks running over civilians on the streets of Ankara, it should have been difficult to comprehend why the country’s president considered the bloody night a God-given gift. To those who had been uneasily watching the escalating power struggle between President Erdogan and the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, the alleged mastermind of the coup plot, the controversial statement did not come as a surprise. As Erdogan himself elaborated, the failed coup was an opportunity for the AKP to cleanse Turkey’s security apparatus of Gulenists. How far the “cleansing” would go was yet to be seen.
The “Cleansing” of Turkish Academia
On February 7, the government issued a new state of emergency decree, which dismissed a total of 330 academics from various universities across Turkey. In response to the decree, hundreds of students and professors gathered at Ankara University’s campus to protest against the mass expulsion of academics. At the university’s Faculty of Political Science alone, twenty-three faculty members were dismissed, leaving twenty-four undergraduate and fourteen graduate courses without an instructor, and fifty master’s students without a supervisor.
Academics have been a major target of the massive post-coup purge executed by the AKP government, with the February 7 decree being the latest of several blows that have hit Turkey’s academic community.
The pressure on academia began last year when 1,128 academics and researchers, known as Academics for Peace, signed a petition calling on the government to halt military operations in Kurdish-majority cities in southeastern Turkey. The strongly worded declaration received a fierce response from President Erdogan, who started a smear campaign against its signatories. Four academics, who publicly declared their commitment to the petition, were arrested on charges of “terror propaganda” and jailed for months. Many other signatories came under criminal investigation on similar charges or faced disciplinary action at their home institutions. Others were threatened and harassed at work, forcing them to withdraw their names from the petition.
To date, more than 4,000 academics have been dismissed from universities across the country, post-coup. The latest round of dismissals, however, is considered a turning point, as it has largely targeted respected scholars who have no affiliation with the coup-plotting network. Included in the blacklist are academics who are “guilty” of being too loud in criticizing the government and refusing to remain silent about Turkey’s steady decline into authoritarianism. Unsurprisingly, more than half of the 330 academics expelled through the latest decree were signatories of the peace petition.
How the Purge Touches the Lives of Turkey’s Students
In the face of the academia purge, many commentators have expressed concern about the eroding quality of Turkish higher education and the danger of brain drain.
As universities lose their independence and academic freedom, an increasing number of Turkish academics are applying for jobs at universities abroad. International solidarity networks for at-risk scholars have reported receiving a record number of applications from Turkish academics who fear political persecution at home. Additionally, for many future academics currently pursuing their graduate studies abroad, moving back to Turkey is no longer as desirable an option as it used to be.
However disturbing, these consequences are to be expected. What has received less attention, and is perhaps more important, is how the vilification and repression of academics has affected the daily lives of Turkish students. Many university students, most notably those whose professors and advisors have been dismissed, have been stripped of the opportunity to learn from or engage in academic exchanges with experienced educators. For example, after the latest decree, there are only four professors (out of the eleven-member faculty that preceded the decree) teaching at Ankara University’s Theater Department. This has effectively neutered the department and left its students without meaningful instruction.
The psychological impact on students from the purge of critical academic voices is also concerning. Witnessing their respected professors systematically persecuted for criticizing the government, younger generations will inevitably internalize this fear. The message to Turkey’s youth is loud and clear: you can think and act “freely,” as long as you do not step outside the boundaries of acceptable dissent.
From the Campus to the Streets
At the same time, the strategy that President Erdogan is using to repress dissent could have the opposite effect, namely, of radicalizing individuals. While fear of persecution is painfully real for all vocal government critics in Turkey, academics and students, galvanized by the unlawful dismissal of their colleagues and teachers, are finding it increasingly difficult to confine their criticism within acceptable limits.
Since February 7, thousands have joined protests at university campuses across the country, with the slogans #HayirGitmiyoruz (“No, we are not leaving”) and #HocamaDokunma (“Hands off my professor”) spreading across demonstrations. A new platform titled “They Do Not Leave and They are Not Alone” was recently launched on social media, with international scholars from all around the world sending solidarity messages to the Turkish Academics for Peace who were let go as part of the February decree.
Meanwhile, dismissed academics are fighting back with the tools they know best: education. An academic-led initiative called Street Academy organizes public lessons every two weeks around Ankara, bringing together students and professors who have been dismissed or are at risk of dismissal. Organized mainly in the parks as free public events, Street Academy provides a space for expelled academics to deliver lectures on a range of topics, such as class relations, identity, and social resistance. Their slogan, inspired by Theodor Adorno’s famous quote, sends a powerful message of defiance: “science needs those who disobey it.”
Recognizing the importance of the growing solidarity among academics, the state has used force against protestors standing up against the academic purge. On February 10, academics, students, and teachers’ unions, who were demonstrating in Ankara University against the February 7 decree, were greeted by police with tear gas and rubber bullets. Amongst the troubling scenes, policemen stepped on the gowns that academics had laid down in protest.
While painful to see, this protest and others like it are a harbinger of growing commitment among academics to not to leave the campus, despite being stripped of their positions. In Turkey today, “those who can’t teach, do,” with their colleagues and students standing by them, in solidarity.