Turkey’s trampling of freedoms is Europe’s problem too


Date posted: October 26, 2016

Johanna Vuorelma

Today’s Turkey is not the same Turkey that I experienced 10 years ago when I first lived there. Those years were filled with optimism, greater civil liberties, significant steps towards democracy, a booming economy and international admiration. Universities had become spaces for critical debates, opening new channels for discussions about some of the most sensitive issues concerning the nation.

In 2005, for example, Istanbul Bilgi University hosted the first conference in the history of the republic that challenged the official narrative concerning the Armenian Genocide in the late Ottoman era. The conference was held despite wide protests, which goes to show that academic freedom in Turkey was in a relatively healthy state in the mid-2000s.

It is telling that the conference was cancelled last year in unclear circumstances. Some say that the pressure grew too high in an already tense political environment; others that it fell victim to administrative problems.

The tale of the conference is the tale of academic freedom in Turkey. We have come a long way from more freedoms to no freedoms. After the attempted coup in July, the restrictions on academic freedom in Turkey have intensified rapidly. The world was first watching in horror when soldiers, tanks and fighter jets appeared in Istanbul and Ankara, aiming to overthrow the democratically elected government. There was a universal condemnation of the attempted coup.

What has followed is an equally tragic situation. In its attempt to bring the perpetrators to justice, the Turkish government has launched a massive witch-hunt, targeting every possible corner of society. Higher education has been one of the main targets of the purge with all university deans asked to resign, tens of universities shut down, thousands of academics forced to resign – and the remaining academic body facing immense pressure to censor their critical voices.

Withdrawing freedom

In 2016, Turkey is a country of threatened scholars. Scholars at Risk, a network protecting scholars and the freedom to think, question and share ideas, announced after the coup that it was particularly concerned that the scale and speed of these actions suggest a lack of due process or evidence-based response.

The narrowing down of academic freedom in Turkey has been a gradual process. We did not come to this overnight. Since the start of the year more than one thousand signatories of the Academics for Peace petition have been facing immense pressures and legal charges for defending the right to life, liberty and security of Kurds in Turkey. Declaring that ‘We will not be a party to this crime’ has turned the signatories themselves into potential criminals.

The question of academic freedom in Turkey needs to be discussed in the wider European context because academic freedom is under threat across Europe and beyond. A symposium, ‘Academic Freedom and the Turkish Turmoil’, was organised at the University of Helsinki, Finland, in August.

As a panellist in the symposium, I emphasised that the events in Turkey are not something that are taking place ‘out there’ but ‘in here’. This means that there are different manifestations of the same political developments as in Turkey across Europe, most notably the rise of extreme populism and the aggressive privatisation of public services.

European problems

We should not treat them as distinctively Turkish problems but as European problems. We are witnessing an illiberal turn, growing polarisation and restrictions on the freedom of speech, most notably in Hungary and Poland but also in other European countries. Academic freedom is often the first victim of the polarised atmosphere – academics begin to censor themselves.

Last year we asked a number of academics in Finland whether they had faced academic censorship or self-censorship. The impetus came from an incident where a local university called a skilful rhetorical analysis a political statement because it focused on a speech by the prime minister. The incident raised many critical questions about the wider implications of the significant funding cuts in higher education and the heightened political atmosphere in the country.

Were universities beginning to censor more critical voices within their faculty due to a fear of losing more government funding?

How did academics respond to our questionnaire about the state of academic freedom in Finland? It became evident that self-censorship is indeed an issue, and it has become more prevalent in recent years. The problem is most acute in sensitive areas of research, such as Russia or immigration.

There are pressures to only produce a particular type of research. At the same time, there are more aggressive attempts to silence academics with direct personal threats and public discrediting.

In order to adequately respond to the threats to academic freedom in Turkey and beyond, we need to see academic freedom as a process, not as an end result. Just like democracy, it needs to be actively performed and defended. Academic freedom is not something that, once achieved, can then be forgotten about.

This is why we need to defend our Turkish colleagues in all possible ways – not only in solidarity but also to prevent the rest of Europe going down the same path.


Johanna Vuorelma is a doctoral researcher in politics and international studies at the University of Warwick, UK.

Source: University World News , October 14, 2016


Related News

Gülen rejects labeling of Hizmet as ‘gang,’ calls it ‘traitorous’

Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen has rejected the labeling of the Hizmet movement as a “gang,” saying those who uttered this word committed “traitorous” behavior. The term gang, “örgüt” in Turkish, has become a famous euphemism in Turkey to denote the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and has a negative connotation.

Ambassadors uneasy over Erdoğan’s orders concerning graft probe

Turkey’s ambassadors have expressed displeasure over Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks that called on them to “tell the truth” to their foreign interlocutors, saying that defending the government against corruption allegations in not the ambassadors’ business.

Erdoğan prepares for a bloodbath

Erdoğan’s ruling party has also begun issuing weapons permits to loyalists, especially through the Ottoman Youth Authority (Osmanli Ocaklari). I have previously reported Erdoğan’s appointment of former general Adnan Tanriverdi, the head of SADAT, to be his military counsel. Tanriverdi had been dismissed by the Turkish General Staff during the 1997 soft coup and appears bent on revenge against the secular order.

Is Nigeria now a part of Turkey?

These are indeed interesting times in Nigeria. The Turkish Ambassador to Nigeria Mr. Hakan Cakil is the Prime Minister of the Turkish Nigerian republic. Yes, he is for he recently called on the Nigerian government to close 17 Turkish schools in the country. That was quite audacious, and deserving of a backhand slap by my three-year-old son.

Leaked document sheds light on Turkey’s controlled ‘coup’

Two and half years later, evidence is trickling out to support what the EU initially suspected – that president Recep Tayyip Erdogan knew what was going to happen and let it go ahead as a pretext to create one-man rule.

Turkey’s political weather forecast

A statement from the Higher Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) said a decree from Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKParti) government was against the Turkish Constitution. The Board was mentioning the government’s Dec. 21 decree, asking prosecutors to inform local administrative authorities about their investigations, which was supposed to be confidential

Latest News

Fethullah Gülen’s Condolence Message for South African Human Rights Defender Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Hizmet Movement Declares Core Values with Unified Voice

Ankara systematically tortures supporters of Gülen movement, Kurds, Turkey Tribunal rapporteurs say

Erdogan possessed by Pharaoh, Herod, Hitler spirits?

Devious Use of International Organizations to Persecute Dissidents Abroad: The Erdogan Case

A “Controlled Coup”: Erdogan’s Contribution to the Autocrats’ Playbook

Why is Turkey’s Erdogan persecuting the Gulen movement?

Purge-victim man sent back to prison over Gulen links despite stage 4 cancer diagnosis

University refuses admission to woman jailed over Gülen links

In Case You Missed It

New Book – “Beginnings and Endings: Fethullah Gülen’s Vision for Today’s World”

Gulen-linked RI schools remain calm amid coup in Indonesia

On Hizmet: Why do I not criticize it?

“InnovAction for Poverty” International Research Paper Competition

Turkey’s Crackdown Extends to Taipei

‘Ekol Hoca’ center of attention on Periscope with his ’online prep school’

Islamic scholar Gülen’s family criticizes PM’s offensive language

Copyright 2023 Hizmet News