In May, Human Rights Watch reported that Turkey’s use of censorship, mass arrests, and firings has hollowed out academic freedom across the nation.
In early 2016, 1,262 Turkish academics signed a petition calling on the government to resume peace talks with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) after a peace deal brokered in 2013 fell apart. Shortly after, 146 signatories were arrested and placed in pre-trial detention, another 500 were summarily fired from their teaching positions.
Later in 2016, after an attempted coup, 5,822 academics were fired for ties to the Gülen movement, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for initiating the uprising. Many of those laid off were liberals or leftists critical of Erdogan’s policies surrounding the PKK, the rule of law, and Turkey’s constitution. After the coup, the government perceived criticism as an existential threat to the government.
It wasn’t always this way. Erdogan’s early years in power were marked by a blossoming of academic freedom. Scholars felt free to take on previously taboo subjects. The prestigious Boğaziçi University in Istanbul allowed women to wear headscarves, an act previously outlawed. Professors were able to study the edifices of Turkish democracy and even produce scholarship on Turkey’s long-running conflict with the PKK.
Unlike other nations in the Middle East, Turkey has had some sort of academic freedom since at least 1933. Fully autonomous universities began guaranteeing academic freedom in 1973, leading to increased academic autonomy in the decades after. In contrast, throughout the region many governments continue to suppress academics.
I was able to see this freedom firsthand in 2015 on a short study trip to Turkey. My fellow students and I were graciously hosted by Bilkent University in the capital, Ankara. At the time, Turkey’s politics were calm, although the nearby Syrian Civil War, then already raging for four years, was beginning to strain Turkey’s short peace.
As we wandered the countryside, it seemed as if Turkey was really becoming a part of the West. Our discussions ranged from the fraying peace deal with the PKK, the June elections, and how Turkish fashion portrays women. My hosts felt like Turkey was on the verge of something great. Many of their hopes were dashed.
Turkey's universities are highly politicized and more so today. Reforms, such as the such as law 2252 attempted to separate faculty highering from political decisions. Over time, this led to increased academic freedom but reversed course with Erdogan's use of emergency powers to handpick university administrators. Government power to handpick faculty and the resulting self-censorship is a reminder of the precariousness of politicizing the academy.
While I was there, Erdogan had already begun his push toward Islamic nationalism and Ottoman nostalgia and away from the values of academic freedom and liberalism. This is a setback for Turkey, and many urban Turks agreed. Without the brightest minds to study and offer solutions to Turkey’s problems, the government is likely to stumble into otherwise avoidable mistakes. Turkey’s economy is already suffering from a state-sponsored breakdown in the rule of law, censorship, and sacking of academics who would otherwise be free to study and publish at will.
Academic freedom is the grease which keeps the wheels spinning from hypothesis to publication. Without it, the study of science and the humanities corrodes and freezes in persistent acts of state coercion. Academic freedom in Turkey is running dry; will Erdogan risk its disappearance?