What Academic Freedom in Turkey

In January 2016, the group called Academics for Peace issued a petition. It is an initiative run predominantly by intellectuals in Turkey concerned with the need to prevent further conflict in south-east Turkey, supporting the return to a peace process as soon as possible. This particular petition, however, dubbed ‘we will not be party to this crime’ greatest far more consternation than was intended. The AKP government, led by Tayyip Erdogan, took a particularly strong approach that ultimately vilified and stigmatised scholars speaking out in general and of the petitioners in particular, with many facing permanent setbacks to their careers, with others imprisoned, arrested or suspended indefinitely.

In early 2016, I randomly met at passport checks at Istanbul Atatürk Airport my good friend and colleague, Anja Zalta, whom I have known for many years through the conference circuit. We were both concerned about the ways in which scholars in Turkey faced the wrath of the state and what it meant for academic freedom in Turkey in general, especially in the current climate where there is a particular surge of authoritarianism and a focus on redefining Turkishness with a neo-Ottoman gleam. The latter has uprooted the traditional social and political order in Turkey, leading to conflict and uncertainty in spite of the (uneven) economic growth of the nation.

Anja and I took it upon ourselves to take on the challenge of determining a greater understanding of what happened to these signatories. We wanted to explore what the episode meant for the intellectual freedom to explore difficult social and political research questions in Turkey. We were also interested in gender, and we wanted to ensure that this was fully covered, as it was clear that female scholars were being disproportionately affected by the actions of the state.

After a series of interactions with various people involved with the Academics for Peace group, chiefly led by Anja, we managed to gain the trust of Turkish scholars and eventually access to the list, which allowed us to send us a survey to respondents in both English and Turkish. The hope was that individuals implicated in the repressive responses on the part of the state would feel confident to speak out in a social science study that would protect their anonymity. To this end, our survey returned from the field last June.

Unsurprisingly, we found that there was a great deal of demonisation of intellectualism, but also specifically directed personalised repressive actions that silenced these voices, in many cases under extreme duress, threats from university management systems and the wider cultural expression of indignation towards all things seemingly targeting the government. The capitulation on the part of senior managers and universities, the bias of journalists and writers in the newspapers keenly sensitive to the loss of employment and the absolute threat of repression meant few were able to show solidarity, let alone critically challenge the workings of hegemonic power.

Challenging Turkishness is regarded as a particular problem facing scholars per se, especially since the 1980 coup when the constitution was rewritten to make unlawful actions that seemingly questioned the essence of Turkishness, which was defined by the state, out of the centre and with disregard for the periphery. In the light of globalisation and neoliberalism affecting the state of the nation as it looks East and West, however, we would have expected some improvements to the intellectual space. Certainly not the systematic suppression, belittlement and subjugation of scholars. After all, their roles and functions, particularly within the social sciences, are to ask challenging questions that help to improve understanding and eventually the workings of society itself.

The paper has now finally been published in Turkish Studies and it can be accessed from the link here.