What is now happening in Turkey has happened before, but it is a relief to find that a generation raised on so-called Western-style education are now speaking out in support of Turkish professors and others who have become victims of the backlash following the failed “coup attempt.”
The crackdown on academics, judges and other professionals now being undertaken by the Turkish government is both highly contentious in itself and arbitrary in its application. The measures being taken go far beyond anything that could be required by legitimate national security concerns.
As a graduate of Caucasus University in Georgia wrote in a letter to be delivered to the Turkish authorities, “It is totally unacceptable for the government and security services to interfere with the academic community for political reasons, by restricting the travel of academic staff and forcing them from their positions.”
He and others fully understand that no actual evidence has been presented to justify the taking of such harsh measures. There is nothing to even suggest that the academic community directly participated in the coup attempt. Those working in universities are not connected in any systemic way to the thousands of military personnel who allegedly took part in the coup attempt.
The graduate student concerned was taking a course in academic English when I first encountered him. His thesis was about academic freedom, and whether it existed at Georgian universities. This was a very controversial subject, especially during the Saakashvili government’s time, when professors at public universities and public school teachers were also purged, not for participating in a coup but for being older and out of step with the new political reality, or in many instances for belonging to the wrong political faction or not delivering votes for the ruling United National Movement at election time.
Attack on academic freedom
The professional standard of academic freedom is defined by the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which was developed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
This stipulates that when college and university teachers speak as citizens, they remain “scholars and educational officers,” and so “should . . . make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” As reported in the Russian media, the Turkish higher board of education has banned all academics from traveling abroad. A Turkish official told Reuters that it was a temporary measure to prevent any alleged plotters behind the failed military coup from escaping under the pretext of professional duties.
The Washington Post reports that the travel restrictions on educators officially apply only to work-related trips. “There are no restrictions to personal travel,” said a senior Turkish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government protocol. He described the travel ban as a “temporary measure.”
However some professors and others in academic fields claim that their administrators have told them that they cannot leave the country for any reason. Several university professors have also confirmed that their supervisors have told them to cancel vacations and other leave plans indefinitely.
A statement by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which represents 3,000 scholars, explains the real motivation for the restrictions. MESA concludes that “the crackdown on the education sector creates the appearance of a purge of those deemed inadequately loyal to the current government. Moreover, the removal of all of the deans across the country represents a direct assault on the institutional autonomy of Turkey’s universities. The replacement of every university’s administration simultaneously by the executive-controlled Higher Education Council effectively gives the government direct administrative control of all Turkish universities.”
“It is a clear and serious attack on academic freedom,” Professor Fiona de Londras, Chair of Global Legal Studies at the University of Birmingham’s law school, told Russia Today. She has launched a petition concerning this on change.org, calling for the immediate revocation of the ban and a restoration of academic freedom in Turkey.
“Friends abroad” all over again
Georgian students have also expressed their solidarity with and support for all the professors who are now becoming victims of a political purge. They know from the history of the Soviet Union that what is now going on in Turkey has no basis other than a political one, as the similarity of method, rhetoric and motivation involved is disturbingly similar to those used in that most repressive of states in previous generations.
As the say in their own petition, “We also express our solidarity with Turkish students, who will suffer by not being exposed to diversity of thought, example and practice in their courses. We consider the aim of such behaviour to be to weaken the university – an independent institution – and clamp down on critical thinking. As such, it is an attack on the fundamental principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom which the university system represents.”
It is clear that the persecution and repression of academia also make students the victims of a state indoctrination campaign. The Georgian students maintain that all students, regardless of country, should have access to independent and high quality education which is free from political pressure and censorship.
Each student should have the right to participate in creative processes and at the same time enjoy full civil rights. At this difficult historical moment, they are urging students in other countries to send a firm and friendly message to their Turkish counterparts, assuring them that they are not alone in the defence of the progressive ideas of academic freedom and liberal values.
As their statement continues, “Where these values are absent, the rights of students and citizens alike are violated. A progressive society needs unconditional access to independent and high quality education. Students and faculty alike must be able to undertake research, hold diverse opinions and freely participate in the creative process. By standing up for the academic community and the plight of the Turkish academic community we are in fact standing up for the civil rights of all.”
The latest moves have seen the Turkish authorities suspend around 6,500 education ministry staff and close 626 institutions, according to various reports. As of now, around 50,000-60,000 soldiers, police, civil servants and teachers have been targeted by the programme of checks or suspensions launched by the Turkish government.
Officially, Turkish intelligence estimates that at least 100,000 people were involved in planning the coup. This is debatable, however, primarily because a military coup planned by 100,000 people, acting together, would undoubtedly have succeeded. It is also very difficult to define what “planning the coup” might mean, as there is no way that 100,000 people could have sat together in rooms around the country, or communicated by phone or message, without it becoming known to the security forces and ant action nipped in the bud before it got as far as it did.
“The governments’ most creative and significant duty is education.”
Atatürk regarded education as the force which would galvanize the nation into social and economic development. For this reason, he once said that after the War of Independence he would have liked to have served as Minister of Education. As President of the Republic, he spared no effort to stimulate and expand education at all levels for all segments of the society.
The so-called “failed coup attempt” has provided the pretext for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to conduct his own private coup, aimed at achieving entirely the opposite thing. He is trying to destroy that very segment of society, the educated classes, which understands only too well that their president does not stand for Turkish values, and is but a tin horn dictator who poses a threat to the secular state.
Attacking education is an effective way to scare the populace and consolidate power. Moreover, it “dumbs down” the next generation and sends a message to simple teachers across the country to toe the line, and not teach critical thinking to future generations.
The most recent crackdown is not an isolated case but part of a larger trend. In January Turkey rounded up academics for signing a petition denouncing the brutal attacks on the Kurdish population. Scores of people signed this petition, which called for an end to the ‘massacre’ of Kurdish people, only to find themselves arrested. Most were later released after the US Embassy took an interest in their case.
Even the US Embassy expressed concern about what its staunch strategic ally did on that occasion. The US Ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, delivered a rare public criticism of the Turkish government.
“While we may not agree with the opinions expressed by those academics, we are nevertheless concerned about this pressure having a chilling effect on legitimate political discourse across Turkish society regarding the sources of and solutions to the ongoing violence.”
Beginning of the end
Aside from being rabid coup plotters, Turkish academics are often accused of engaging in “terrorist propaganda” and insulting the state. We will be hearing more about the lack of academic freedom and freedom of speech in Turkey, because “terrorist propaganda” means saying you are happy to have Kurds living alongside you. This latest demonstration that Turkey has become a police state run by a brutal dictator is as ugly as any previous ones, and this is not by happenstance.
The Turkish military have taken over the country several times before. No one would plot a coup in which all the benefits fall into the hands of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has wanted to purge the education system for a long time, and spoke about it just a few months ago. Now he has suddenly been given a golden opportunity to do so.
Now, instead of being independent voices in the blank conformity of censorship, Turkish Universities will take on a new role. As the National Review states, “Turkish academics are going to be nothing more than a megaphone for Erdogan as the suppression of dissenting scholars reverberates throughout its institutions.”
One of the most critical ways Turkey can achieve international standards, and thereby get closer to joining European and international institutions and not being seen as a pariah within them, is to improve higher education, the starting point of the ongoing modernisation programme begun almost 100 years ago under Atatürk. Now Turkey has chosen to go in a different direction. A lot of countries are cocking a snook at international institutions right now, but this is one battle Turkey and everyone associated with it cannot win.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.