Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some will say that this hope lies in a nation; others, in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history.” – Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays
The figures are mind-boggling. Since the attempted coup on 15 July 2016, a total of 5,717 academics in 117 universities have been sacked from their jobs in Turkey, according to Bianet.org; 15 universities have been shut down altogether; and, according to the Ministry of Justice, 69,301 students have been incarcerated as of the end of 2016, which accounts for one-third of the total number of prisoners in the whole country.
Most of those who have managed to keep their jobs have been affected by the atmosphere of increasing oppression, often – quite understandably – practising a form of self-censorship to avoid persecution. As the sociologist Nilufer Gole put it in a recent interview on the state of academic freedom in Turkey: “Our freedom of speech is under attack, our personal voices are silenced and our words are penalised.”
A simple headcount or fancy infographics are not enough to fully grasp the consequences of the Turkish government’s war on academe.
What we are facing is nothing less than what some have called an ‘academicide’, a real carnage with real victims – former academics who commit suicide in desperation or lose their lives while working in hazardous temporary jobs; families ripped apart due to the travel ban imposed on discharged academic personnel; financial hardship resulting from the inability to find employment either in the public sector or indeed the private sector, which is reluctant to hire the ‘unwanted’ as it seeks to avoid potential trouble with the government.
Deprived of the means to secure a livelihood and their basic freedoms, the purged academics are trapped, if not inside concrete walls, then in a void, a dark present with no future.
No wonder, then, that academics and students who are already abroad are no longer returning to Turkey and those who have not yet been purged or banned from travelling seek every opportunity to continue their career and education elsewhere while they still can.
“Turkey loses it brains”, wrote journalist Zia Weise in an article on the unprecedented level of brain drain from Turkey, pointing to the sharp increase in the number of applications to various institutions such as Scholars at Risk or Scholar Rescue Fund from Turkish scholars.
Intense polarisation of Turkish diaspora, plus online harassment, means refugee scholars feel they are being watched
Mehmet is a Turkish academic who rarely looks directly at you; instead, he turns away and smiles in a pained way. Unlike almost all of the other delegates at a conference for refugee academics being held in Leipzig, he is not wearing a name lanyard that would identify him.
His real name is not Mehmet – he asked Times Higher Education to keep his identity secret, fearing that his relatives back in Turkey would have their homes raided if the state found out that he was talking to journalists in Germany, having fled there and applied for asylum.
Even now, he and other Turkish academics who have escaped increasing repression at home do not feel entirely comfortable. They feel that they are being watched by supporters of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, many of whom live in Germany.
In Turkey, Mehmet was formerly a professor at a university founded by supporters of a movement led by the cleric Fethullah Gülen, a long-term exile in Pennsylvania, who fell out with Mr Erdoğan around 2012. The movement is seen by supporters as a relatively liberal Islamic creed focused on education, but detractors see it as a shadowy force attempting to build a secret network inside the Turkish state. Mehmet said that he gave part of his salary to support the movement, although could not decide whether he was a “member” or merely a “sympathiser”.
Then in July last year, a coup attempt was launched that left more than 260 people dead. Fighter planes bombed Turkey’s parliament building and there was a shoot-out as rebels attempted to capture Mr Erdoğan. But it failed after the president’s supporters took to the streets in defiance.
It is probably fair to say that Western journalists are still not completely certain who orchestrated the coup. But Mr Erdoğan blamed the Gülen network, shutting down 15 universities, including Mehmet’s, as well as banning scholars from leaving the country and over the coming months dismissingthousands of academics on suspicion of being involved in the Gülen movement and the coup, according to the Scholars at Risk network. These academics were banned from seeking other academic positions, while their passports and those of their spouses were cancelled.
Mehmet managed to leave before being caught in this net. After the coup attempt, with news mounting of the jailing and torture of Gülen supporters, “I just decided to leave the country as fast as possible,” he said.
Via stays with friends in Bosnia and Iraq, and Nigeria, where he could stay with no visa, Mehmet eventually made it to Germany (he said he had to avoid using Turkish Airlines for fear of being snatched). Now he is waiting on an asylum decision, having applied a fortnight ago.
But even in Germany, his unease persists. About 4 million people of Turkish descent live in Germany, originally brought in as “guest workers” during the West German economic boom of the 1960s, and cleavages in Turkish society have spread to the diaspora. Many German commentators were shockedwhen a majority of Turkish voters in Germany cast their ballots earlier this year in favour of even further autocratic powers for Mr Erdoğan. Recent diplomatic spats between the two countries have made tensions even higher.
“I feel safe, but whenever I get in touch with Turkish people here…I feel a bit, not comfortable,” said Mehmet. They will ask whether he had a problem with the government, he explained.
As of June this year, according to report by the organization ‘Freedom for Academia’, approximately 6% of Turkey’s 150 thousand academics had lost their jobs in successive waves of purges launched following the coup. Many of those fired have no apparent involvement in the coup or even with the Gülen movement, implying the regime uses the state of emergency to remove perceived opponents, regardless of their affiliation.
The impact on the Turkish higher education system is already being felt. Research output decreased by 28% in 2017 compared to 2016. The quality of education is also suffering at all levels of tertiary education. The short-term prospect of things improving is close to zero.
Can fear explain the loathing that the victims of this ‘academic cleansing’ are exposed to, often by their own colleagues? Could insecurity justify the complicity?
It was a “call for papers” like all others. “On behalf of the Turkish Political Economy Society (TPES)”, said the organizers of the 5th TPES Interdisciplinary Workshop on Turkey and Latin America in Comparative Perspective, “we would be happy if you would consider submitting an abstract and help us spread the word by forwarding the CfP to other scholars who may be interested.”
Many probably did, among them Yasemin Yılmaz and Orçun Selçuk, two PhD candidates from The City University of New York and Florida International University respectively, who saw this as an opportunity to share their work with and get feedback from their peers and senior academics in Turkey and beyond.
Both received a positive reply from the organizing committee on 27 April 2017 and were invited to present their papers at the two-day workshop that was going to take place on 20-21 July at Koç University, Istanbul under the auspices of the Center for Research on Globalization, Peace, and Democratic Governance (GLODEM). “We are unable to offer any funding for travel and accommodation”, the generic invitation letter stated, but neither Yasemin nor Orçun cared as they were happy to be part of a scholarly event in one of Turkey’s most prestigious universities, in front of an audience that included scholars from other, equally prestigious, universities such as Sabancı, Bilkent and Özyeğin, to name but a few.
The tentative programme of the workshop they were sent about a month later had their names on as presenters and asked them to submit their full papers on ‘Self-Coups and Presidential Power Grabs in Peru and Turkey’(Selçuk) and ‘Elite Interests and Media Suppression: The Cases of Turkey and Venezuela’ (Yılmaz) by 6 July.
The sackings and university closures are now starting to take their toll on Turkish scientific output. According to a study by British–Turkish academic collective, Freedom for Academia, the number of papers published by the country’s universities fell 28% since the attempted coup last year to 27,600. While the study relies on extrapolation for 2017, one of its authors, Mesut Erzurumluoglu, says the figures are convincing. ‘We think that we may be wrong, but only by being too conservative. The decline in numbers may be even larger,’ says Erzurumluoglu, a postdoc associate at the University of Leicester. The study reveals that the greatest fall in publications was seen in the social sciences, followed by medicine. Chemistry publications fell just over 5%.
‘You don’t have to be a genius to see that there’s going to be a huge brain drain,’ adds Erzurumluoglu, who said that the positions left by academics who have been sacked, imprisoned or who have fled are being filled by ‘cronies’. ‘This is going to be a problem in Turkey for years to come, because these people will pick other cronies, and there will be no scientific ethic.’ He adds that the study will be repeated in the coming years to keep tabs on Turkey’s research output.
A total of 7,563 people were dismissed with a new post-coup emergency decree, released only a day before the first anniversary of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt.
The government decree, numbered 692, dismissed 7,563 people including 302 academics, from their jobs.
In the year since the attempted coup in Turkey, a “staggering” number of academics have faced criminal investigations, detentions, prosecutions, mass dismissal, expulsion and restrictions on travel, according to an open letter to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, signed by Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk or SAR, the New York-based scholar rescue network, who demanded a reversal of the measures.
On 13 July, 302 more academics were dismissed from their jobs under a new decree under the crackdown ordered after the failed coup attempt a year ago. On 10 July more than 40 academics and university workers were arrested at two Istanbul universities.
Quinn said the evidence strongly suggests academics are facing retaliation for the non-violent exercise of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association.
He said: “These actions are not only attacks on individuals, but on the higher education sector in Turkey and on Turkish society generally. If not quickly reversed, these actions will undermine Turkey’s status as an international centre for learning and intellectual exchange.”
Quinn urged Erdogan to “direct all necessary steps to reverse these dangerous and destructive actions”, in which more than 7,500 academics have been targeted and nearly 60,000 students have been displaced.