The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Turkey’s government is threatening academic freedom

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses after he received an honorary doctorate from Bayburt University in Bayburt, Turkey, Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Yasin Bulbul, Presidential Press Service, Pool )

Turkey is making international news. And, unsurprisingly, the news is gloomy yet again. Emboldened by his party’s electoral victory in November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has set out on a crusade against academics. After 1,128 academics signed a petition to the Turkish government imploring an end to the violence in southeastern Turkey, prosecutors launched a criminal investigation against all signatories. University administrations have begun investigating these academics, who have in some cases been detained or suspended.

According to state officials, military action in the region is aimed at curbing PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the left-wing militant Kurdish group) violence. However, according to outside observers, the military campaign does not only target PKK militants but also perpetrates direct and indirect violence against civilians, primarily Kurdish ones, in the region. Reports indicate that hundreds of civilians died and several hundreds more were wounded as a result of the violence since June 7, 2015. Likewise, many towns have experienced curfews “round-the-clock” for days – and in some cases like Sur for weeks  – on end, sparking significant emigration from the region.

The details of this episode have been widely publicized in recent days. The broader context, however, remains less known. The current government has been waging a long and systematic drive to take control of Turkish higher education. Despite its earlier criticisms of the centralized structure of the higher education system under the Council of Higher Education (YÖK), Erdogan’s AKP  government has progressively brought this institution under its control since late 2007, justifying its involvement on the grounds of lifting the headscarf ban. As in the case of many other state agencies such as the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), the AKP (Justice and Development Party) was critical of state control over higher education, that is, until the party itself controlled the state.

For example, with a recent regulation, YÖK granted itself the power to take over private universities (called foundation universities in Turkey), suspend their activities, and even shut down an entire university indefinitely on the grounds of violations against the “indivisible integrity” of the Turkish state. Such violations can be “triggered” by failure to provide YÖK with documentation for its inspections. Such extensive state powers undermine academic freedom and violate security of property rights, at the very least, of these privately-funded universities.

Another example comes from one of the prized institutions of Turkish higher education, Middle East Technical University (METU). In addition to its academic reputation, METU made a name for itself for being the hotbed of leftist student protest movements. In a recent episode of campus upheaval, leftist student groups and some conservatives clashed over prayer space on campus. In a telling turn of events, several AKP officials railed against the university and called for razing the university campus with security forces and creating multiple universities on the same grounds.

The persecution of these 1,128 academics is not an isolated incident, which begs the question: what are the undercurrents of this troubling chapter in Turkish politics? Two dynamics are at work. First, Turkish society is embracing an increasingly anti-intellectual disposition. The value of an educated person is judged less by her inherent intellectual qualities and more by the ideological support she can offer for a political cause or the immediate material benefits her position accrues. A culture of intellectual exchange has largely waned; academics are reduced merely to their ideologies. Even the best universities in Turkey fail to surmount the monumental challenge posed by anti-intellectualism and ideological schisms. Hiring processes, grant decisions and tenure awards are increasingly determined by non-academic factors.

Second, power politics is on full display. While most other sectors of Turkish society – including the media, Kurds, Alevis and Gulen movement affiliated groups – have been under attack for the past several years, surprisingly, academics were left relatively unscathed in this increasingly repressive political environment. But this latest episode has changed that. It is becoming undeniably clear that Erdogan and his party have little tolerance for dissent.

The anti-intellectualism endemic in Turkish society is best illustrated by those who wield political power. The Islamist-leaning AKP displays a fetish for political power, which reveals itself as anti-intellectualism par excellence. Education is reduced to a set of mechanical classroom teachings and – in an unmistakable testament to the value of the booming construction sector to the ruling AKP – new school buildings. The significance of the statements by some AKP officials urging the creation of multiple new universities on current METU campus emanates from the fact that it represents this anti-intellectual attitude perfectly. Scholarly activity and accumulation of knowledge are no match to erecting school buildings. Erdogan himself has displayed this attitude on multiple occasions. For example, he crassly mocked Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, holder of a doctoral degree, former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and his opponent in presidential elections in the summer of 2014, for being too educated. Along the same lines, in his attacks against the petition-signing academics, Erdogan charged them with being “fifth columns” of foreign powers and “so-called intellectuals.”

This latest effort by Erdogan amounts to no less than a redesign of academia in his own image, as in many other sectors of life in the country. Turkish academia, long considered among conservative circles to be a bastion of secular, modern and anti-religion intelligentsia, is being overhauled. The administrators are fully compliant with the demands of the political top brass. Likewise, faculty in most universities internalized the extraordinary influence Erdogan and his cadres exert over virtually all aspects of life in Turkey and fall in line accordingly. Erdogan’s attack on the petition-signing scholars is not about the content of the petition. It primarily aims to domesticate the remaining oppositional voices within the academia. The fact that prosecutors acted immediately after Erdogan’s criticism evokes the possibility of a systematic campaign against academia.

Such targeting comes with dire consequences. Academic freedom and freedom of expression have been the most notable casualties. University professors’ statements face speedy prosecutions in a judicial system otherwise marked by sluggishness. Concern with career and livelihood lead to self-censoring on the part of academics. As a result, scholars cannot, or will not, conduct research on many politically sensitive, but vital, topics such as the Kurdish issue, the state of Alevis and other religious minorities, European Union integration, and the Armenian issue. Even if they conduct research on these topics, public discussion of such issues remains non-existent and largely securitized. Perspectives that do not reflect those of the government are viewed with suspicion and are accused of threatening the national interest. The mere prospect of a conflict with the dominant ideology of power holders stifles academia. As a result, the quality of scholarly production drops significantly.

Moreover, anti-academia discourse and prosecutions lead to threats and direct attacks against academics. A notorious mafia leader, Sedat Peker, who is noted for his vitriolic attacks against Turkish opposition and expressed support for AKP in the period leading up to the November elections, suggested, “We will spill your blood in streams and we will shower in your blood,” in a statement that smacked of a heavy dose of the increasingly statist, Turkish-nationalist and intolerant milieu in the country. In deeply personal attacks that carry a resemblance to Krystallnacht, office doors of academics are marked in red and left with hateful notes targeting them for their support of the petition.

This latest episode of repression in Turkey constitutes an element of what appears to be a systematic effort by Erdogan to have absolute control of all public discourse and stifle legitimate dissent in any form. When viewed in light of his comment seeking inspiration in Hitler’s Germany for his glorified presidential system and an effective form of government – albeit a statement from the presidential office suggesting that Erdogan’s comment was “distorted” – such developments against academia are even more worrisome.

A.Kadir Yildirim is a research scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. His main research interests include democratization, political economy, political Islam, the politics of the Middle East and Turkish politics.