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.