Turkey’s Academics Unwillingly Embrace Silence

The day after Turkey voted in a referendum to enact a Venezuelan-style presidential system in mid-April, Professor Yasemin Gursoy returned to her post-graduate class at an Istanbul university. Only to find students bewildered with the result, primarily seeking an answer to one question among many: What is going to happen now?

“I, too, was imploding in disappointment but I didn’t know what to tell them and not see my job, my freedom, or worse, my family jeopardized as a result. I just told them to carry on; that the country’s regime should not have been a concern when we rather had curricular subjects to discuss. That was totally unlike me, and the students could easily tell I was afraid. I still am.”

Mrs. Gursoy agreed to discuss the state of academic freedom in Turkey with The Globe Post in an upscale Istanbul cafe, yet specifically asked to be identified with that pseudonym and not be photographed in any way. “Never before in my life have I had more friends in jail or exile than I could count. I am petrified,” she explains why, whispering in a diminishing voice.

That state of mind marked an utter contrast to the early 2000s when she decided to take up that faculty position. Having spent a decade in the U.S. for Ph.D. and post-doctoral research, Mrs. Gursoy had alternatives to returning to Turkey. Back then, she said the country appeared on the right path to consolidate its democracy, and she wanted to be a part of its success story.

”It is now with sadness beyond words could tell that I see it was the worst mistake of my life. I should not have been lured into that deceitful dream and come back.”

Mrs. Gursoy has retained her job, despite the fact that more than 6,000 academics were gradually removed from their positions in the aftermath of a violent coup attempt last year. Hundreds among them were also arrested and sent to prison on terror charges as the government further tightened screws on universities during an emergency rule it declared days after mobilized masses helped beat the putschist soldiers on the streets.

And in the meantime, the country approved in a controversial April 16 vote, mired in allegations of fraud, a set of government-proposed changes to its constitution, lending even more powers to its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the chief architect of an increasingly more authoritarian rule stretching over 14 years.

The professor characterized the regime as “an empire of fear,” with academics unwillingly becoming its “quiet subjects, learning to keep our mouths shut or see doors shut behind us.” Those who resisted have been made bitter examples, and the rest of them are condemned to self-censorship, she underlined.

As she laments, many have paid the price with their jobs or freedoms, many more have been taught what it would take to keep both: Silence. Criticism has, therefore, often originated from beyond Turkey’s borders.

In May, Professors Stef Craps of Ghent University in Belgium and Roger Luckhurst of Birkbeck College in the UK boycotted a symposium at Ege University in Izmir, where they were invited to deliver keynote lectures. In a letter widely circulated on social media, western European scholars pointed to “worsening attacks on academic freedom” in Turkey as a justification not to be part of “normalizing an unacceptable situation” by carrying on with academic business as usual. The conference was held as scheduled in their absence.

Similar protests have, however, also led to the cancellation of planned academic gatherings after being named and shamed.

This week, Istanbul’s leading private university Koc rejected papers by two U.S.-based Turkish academics for being “politically very sensitive.” Yasemin Yilmaz from the City University of New York and Orcun Selcuk from Florida International University were told that they couldn’t present their papers at a workshop by a Turkish Political Economy Society (TPES).

The rejection letter, which went viral on the social media, caused such an uproar that the university was forced to cancel the workshop altogether. The organizers pinned the blame on an “apparent attempt to paint the scholarly event to a government-friendly color” due to “miscommunication among the steering committee members.” The committee released a written apology. Only a few were satisfied.

That rare recognition of what she described as “the least of all violations of academic freedom that have become common at all universities, public or private, now” is far from giving Mrs. Gursoy any hope of a better future for Turkey’s academia.

The professor is rather impressed by the “reckless courage” of students though. She slowly wipes away tears as she watches a video from the graduation ceremony of Bogazici University on June 22, showing graduates, with some waving pro-LGBTI rainbow flags, turn their backs as the prestigious college’s Erdogan-appointed new rector gave his speech: These kids could succeed where we failed. Silence is not in their nature.

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