'We Live in an Orwellian State'

Turkish Academics Are the Latest Victims of Erdogan's Purges

A Turkish researcher shocked the audience at an Athens conference recently when she described the fear rife in Turkish academia, where pursuing one's field of research becomes fraught with danger

Riot police detain a demonstrator during a protest against the dismissal of academics from universities following a post-coup emergency decree, outside the Cebeci campus of Ankara University in Ankara, Turkey, February 10, 2017.
UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS

In a quiet and relaxed tone, as if she were talking about events occurring thousands of miles from her homeland, Dr. A. described the fear of the government and its representatives that prevails among Turkish media outlets today. The remarks A. made during the 15 minutes allotted to her at a recent media conference in Athens shocked the audience – academicians from around the world who'd come to present their latest research.

I cannot disclose A.’s full name, even though it appears on the list of speakers, nor is it a good idea to mention the university at which she teaches.

“I’m not sure I’ll have a job after today’s lecture” she told participants at the event, later offering me a more detailed explanation.

“University administrators and lecturers are being fired daily," A. said. "Deans have been replaced three times in the last three months. One doesn’t know any more what the government wants from us. Tomorrow, I or any of my colleagues could be called to the dean’s office and fired. They don’t say why, they only say they’ve been ordered to do it. There is no one to turn to in order to appeal the decision.”

Fields of research that are the pride of the important institution at which A. teaches have been particularly hard hit.

Turkish academic Nuriye Gulmen, seated left, and primary school teacher Semih Ozakca, right, who are on a hunger strike to protest government purges of media people, academics and others, in Ankara, May 12, 2017.

A.: “Every university has a committee that examines potential topics of research. It is authorized to disqualify a subject or to 'recommend' a different angle. As a veteran lecturer I already know how to word descriptions of my studies so they avoid most of the prohibitions. But young researchers are at risk, so I guide and counsel them on how to avoid falling into a trap."

One of A.'s colleagues, a young woman who also studies the media, noted that it is almost impossible now to conduct field studies in this discipline in Turkey.

“You have to interview journalists, ask complex questions such as about self-censorship or the intervention of editors in writing or broadcasting materials. These are not topics that Turkish journalists are in any rush to answer. Journalists exhibit a lot of courage when they have to cover a war zone, but now a different kind of courage is being demanded of them. Not everyone can afford to lose a job for the sake of their principles – and, besides, what’s the point? If you’re fired or arrested you won’t be able to fulfill your mission anyway. If you bend down, keep your mouth shut and don’t argue, you might have some chance of wielding influence over something. That’s the prevailing journalistic rationale nowadays.”

That is also the rationale of many university lecturers, as well as teachers in high schools and kindergartens, who are also prey to the deep purges conducted by the Turkish government, reaching into any remote alleyway in which criticism might be voiced.

While the lecturer from Turkey was talking about her research in the relaxed atmosphere of Athens, Nuriye Gulmen and Semih Ozakca were continuing their hunger strike – now in its 68th day – on Yuksel Street in Ankara.

Nuriye, a university lecturer, and Semih, a primary school teacher, were both fired several months ago without any explanation. They are trying to raise national and international awareness concerning the harsh dismissals of thousands of Turkish teachers and government employees. Their medical condition is fast deteriorating and they are already being talked about as martyrs, since, despite numerous appeals from foreign organizations, the Turkish opposition and well-known local personalities – it does not appear that the government is impressed by their hunger strike.

“They [government officials] are worried that if they yield to these two, thousands of other people who were dismissed will also go on a hunger strike,” said Hakan A., another attendee at the Athens confab, who admitted that he's less worried than his colleagues there. “I study music, what could be problematic with music?”

Well, Hakan must be aware of the arrest of seven members of the very popular, leftist folk band Grup Yurom last November. They were accused, as is fairly typical, of harming state security and inciting others to commit terror acts. The recording equipment and $575 that were seized from one band member were seen as evidence of their support for terrorism.

“There is no field in Turkey today that is safe to research,” a professor at one of Istanbul’s prestigious universities told Haaretz at the media symposium. In the past this academic had no problem giving interviews under his full name, even on political issues.

“We now live in an Orwellian state," he continued. "You can start doing research, and even get funding for it. You employ research assistants and develop contacts with colleagues abroad, you go to conferences and everything seems normal. But then you get an email or phone call, telling you there have been some cuts and that your work cannot be funded anymore, or suggesting that perhaps you might find another topic or stop employing a particular assistant and take on another one. You go to the dean to find out why, and he lowers his eyes and says he’s not the one making decisions. There is a committee and you can appeal there. Have you ever tried appealing to a wall?”

Turkey hasn’t yet lost all its academic resources and researchers there continue to do important and original work, but the feeling is one of “a group with a bulls-eye on its back,” in the words of this professor. “This reminds us of the years of the military coups, in which the universities were the immediate targets that were pounced on by the new regime. But this time it’s not a coup. Now it’s an attempt to reconstruct the politics of academia from its very foundations, and the regime is doing so openly and unabashedly.”