The dramatic plight of academics in Erdogan’s Turkey
Istanbul - Formerly a sociology lecturer at a major Turkish University, Ayse Yilmaz said she did not plan to spend half the year in several European countries trapped between multiple visa applications and fearing having to return to Turkey, a country where, she said, she did not feel safe anymore.
“I loved my students in Turkey. I had not planned to leave at all,” she said recently. “I miss it very much.”
She was one of many caught in the maelstrom of Turkey’s ongoing crackdown. Almost a year after the coup attempt of July 15, 2016, more than 130,000 people have been dismissed from state jobs, monitoring group Turkey Purge said, and more than 50,000 have been jailed on terrorism charges. Included in that figure are military personnel, police officers, journalists, civil servants and academics. More than 8,270 scholars have been fired and 15 universities have been shut down.
The government initially claimed that the purges targeted supporters of the Gulen movement that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) blamed for the coup attempt. Soon, however, all government critics were cast as coup plotters and traitors, including human rights activists, Kurdish politicians or the secular opposition. The massive crackdown has left universities gutted and some departments desperately understaffed.
Yilmaz, a pseudonym used for safety reasons, said that the purges and the dismissals via government decree provided a convenient cover for increasing repression of all dissent in Turkey. “Before the government put pressure on the universities to discipline or fire critics. With the coup attempt, the state of emergency and the possibility to fire people via decree the purges became very easy,” Yilmaz said.
She is among the more than 2,200 Turkish academics who signed a peace petition in January 2016, urging the Turkish government to end the violent crackdown on the population in south-eastern Turkey and find a peaceful solution to the Kurdish conflict, which has killed more than 40,000 people since it began more than three decades ago.
Nationalist students at her university threatened her after she put her name to the petition. Some left menacing notes at her office door.
“I felt stuck between the violence of the state and the violence at the university,” she said, adding that many students were very supportive. “The pressure was not the same for everyone who had signed the petition. Some universities almost immediately fired those who had signed but those who remained were all aware that we could be next.”
The AKP government declared the “peace academics” to be “traitors.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan targeted the petitioners in no less than five public speeches and a convicted crime lord announced that he wished “to shower in their blood.”
“The potential of violence increased a lot after the coup attempt,” Yilmaz said. “The government decrees made it possible to fire people overnight, making resistance against the pressure much harder because everything became more arbitrary.
She said she did not want to leave Turkey “but it became harder to just do your job.”
She said that, in February, following an especially violent police crackdown on protests against the purge of academics, she decided to leave Turkey. “That night, as I washed the tear gas off my face I started to wonder about a way out,” Yilmaz said.
Having been accepted to a long-coveted post-doctoral programme at a German university, she said she was worried that the Turkish government might confiscate her passport and bar her from leaving the country, as they had done with tens of thousands of others.
Yilmaz said she used to enjoy travelling for her job and spent considerable time abroad during her studies. “But this time is different,” she said. “I did not want to leave. I was exiled from Turkey.”
She is not the only one. Hundreds are thought to have left Turkey in this forced brain drain. The US-based solidarity network Scholars at Risk reported to have received more than 300 applications from academics in Turkey since last July, more than they have received from the country since the network began in 1999.
The Scholar Rescue Fund also reports that application numbers from Turkey are “unprecedented.” Some academics were driven to suicide over their dismissal and academic Nuriye Gulmen and primary school teacher Semih Ozakca, have been on hunger strike for more than 100 days to be reinstated into their jobs.
Academia was never free in Turkey. The state controls all universities via the Higher Education Council (YOK), founded after the brutal military coup in 1980. The council has been involved in policing and firing of academics since the 2016 coup attempt. Many scholars in Turkey have long been involved in struggles for women’s rights, Kurdish rights and the freedom to wear a headscarf at university. Now, with the breakdown of the judiciary in Turkey, the situation has become more arbitrary, and therefore, in many ways, worse.
“There is no more academia in Turkey now,” said Nil Mutluer, a professor of sociology and a long-time human rights activist. It is not the first time she has been blacklisted in Turkey and the AKP government is not the first targeting her for being “a traitor,” she said.
“Things are getting worse,” Mutluer said. “The worst thing is that the purges have weakened the state. It will take a very long time to restore these purged institutions. The legal system was never proper or just but at least the state used to feel the need to create evidence or erase evidence. Now nobody cares about the evidence anymore. This means that there is no functioning state now, everything is arbitrary. We don’t know where the red lines are.”
Putting her signature on the call for peace in the Kurdish region was not a big thing in her eyes.
“They won’t fire you for [the petition]. It’s the lamest thing you ever did,” a friend of hers joked then. He was wrong. Before she was dismissed from her job in February 2016, she was the head of the sociology department of Nisantasi University in Istanbul. Now she is a Philipp Schwartz Fellow at Humboldt University’s Diversity and Social Conflict Department in Berlin, a fellowship awarded to scholars at risk.
Mutluer said she is grateful for the support and the solidarity she has received but stressed that European countries need to be self-critical and go beyond the verbal vilification of Erdogan and his AKP government.
“The refugee deal and the weapons they sell in the region perpetuate violent conflict, repression and suffering,” she said. “There also needs to be a harsher reaction to what is happening in Turkey, for example economic sanctions.”
She also said she has not given up hope. “Better times will come and we will continue fighting for them,” Mutluer said.