Being an academic is not an easy thing. In many countries, it seems you are always between a rock and a hard place when you are in academia. Politics permeate the academic halls, where positions might be assigned or created for political allies. Besides this, as a faculty member your superiors have unrealistic expectations of you, such as excruciating teaching loads and a tough oral exam with professors in your field in order to gain some tenure. In recent years, Turkey has unfortunately been one of the worst cases where all these challenges have become unbearable. Arguably the biggest problem of Turkish academics has been the lack of freedom to become critical intellectual voices in public spheres. Academics’ speeches, actions, and political views have traditionally been monitored and tracked by the Higher Education Council or government appointed University Presidents. After the July 15, 2016 coup however, some academicians’ problems became more of a struggle to stay alive. Why were thousands of academics and tens of thousands of teachers fired and arrested for “taking a part in” a military coup attempt on July 15 in Turkey? I can’t find any rational answers.
The current difficult lives of academics are connected to the societal and historical understanding of authority in Turkey. After the coup d’état in 1980, Turkish society witnessed an era where the state and the government were taken as sacred concepts. A lingering tradition since the ancient Turkish states has been that people would rather avoid advocating for truth and morals when they feared doing so would come back and bite them through the cold force of an authoritarian state. Psychological and even physical lynches could and have happened since the power owners and patriarchs are always positioned to be the identifiers of “transgressors” and dictators of the “consequences.” Few people advocated for human rights. For instance, when a group of academics signed an ‘academics for peace’ declaration in January 2016, over 60 Turkish academicians were fired or punished for “spreading Kurdish terrorist propaganda and undermining the country’s national security.” There was no big public uproar, since anyone objecting to it would be demonized as “terrorist supporters.”
Speaking your mind, expressing your opposition, and writing freely have never been easy for thinkers and academics in autocratic regimes. Unfortunately, Turkey has become one such regime in which critical academics are among those facing collective hatred and punishment for their beliefs and views.
These same arguments were recently used as a social lynch for another group: followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric who lives in Pennsylvania. For the last five years since one the biggest corruption scandals involving cabinet members and President Erdogan’s son broke, each investigation has been shut down by Erdoğan with the accusation towards Gülen followers, aka the Hizmet movement, that they were plotting a coup attempt against the government. What followed was the complete overhauling of the police force and police education institutions with the suspicion that many Gülen followers had “infiltrated” their ranks. After the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, which Erdoğan described as “a gift from God,” he also shut down the military and purged half of all high ranking officers, along with thousands of lower ranking members of military, many of whom are still in jail now. 15 major universities were shut down, along with more than 3,000 other schools and hospitals. In the government sector, from health to judiciary, from education to academia, more than 150,000 lost their jobs and 80,000 were arrested upon accusations of being a member of a so called “terrorist organization” with such “evidence” as using free apps like WhatsApp or Bylock, or having Gülen’s books at home or having an account at a once successful bank: Bank Asya. Many reports of abuse and torture in jails emerged since then, and about 40,000 previously convicted inmates were set free to open up space for Gülen’s followers.
Erdoğan’s regime easily demonizes others who are in the opposition by putting them into the “Gülenist” melting pot. For example, atheist religious history professor Candan Badem was first detained, then released, then fired from his job for belonging to the “FETO” organization, a dysphemism produced by the government for Gülen’s followers. The people in Turkey are silent about the genocidal actions of the government because the government has the power to silence even the journalists. Hysteria is in its peak as my own family tells me I cannot send them money from U.S., call them from U.S., or invite them to U.S., which are all received with suspicion by the government that you may be affiliated with the Gülen movement (Gülen has been a US resident for almost two decades). While there are serious claims that Erdoğan himself might have had a part in the coup to consolidate his power, no one including judges, prosecutors, (who are themselves jailed), or the media (Erdoğan shut down all opposition media and arrested over a hundred journalists) can investigate these claims fully. The judiciary system is also on complete lockdown: it made the news when a judge was arrested during his very own court hearing. On another account, as a judge couple were being arrested, their two children, one of them a toddler, were locked in the house from outside and left home alone until their grandparents arrived from a faraway city late at night and found them hungry and desperate. Of the other kids whose parents were arrested some were taken into state custody in unknown locations and not released to their relatives even though they requested them. A female journalist, Ayşenur Parıldak, reported being sexually harassed and tortured while in custody and being confined to a cell. A left-wing journalist, Aslı Erdoğan, was withheld from taking any medicine or being provided a cardigan despite her multiple serious health issues and cold prison cells. She and other left-wing prisoners got the same accusation. After her release, she is now in exile in Germany, awaiting the outcome of her court case in absentia.
Universities were already struggling with favoritism and unfair practices in Turkey. After the so called coup attempt, all university presidents were called into a national meeting organized by the Director of Higher Education Council (HEC) in Turkey, who threatened them that he would take necessary actions against those who “act slowly” in purging Gülen related academics. This was the start of the public statement and demonstration contest among universities where University Faculty Senates hastily wrote statements shunning the group and calling them FETO (abbreviated for “Fethullah Terrorist Organization”) as directed by pro-Erdoğan media, and walked in groups in the streets protesting FETO, while there was no real evidence, official prosecution, or trial. This public hysteria resulted in thousands of fellow academics being fired without any evidence or due process based simply on the lists of profiling done by Erdoğan’s regime officials. Worse, many unions were asking when these positions would be reposted so “other” citizens could apply. Obviously, again, no one was questioning the ethics of this situation, but rather trying to think of ways to benefit from it, whether by trying to replace them with their own kin, or reporting on others to get them fired. Their attitude was, “If you are not going to bite me, long live the rattlesnake, and bite others as you wish!” As an academic who proudly thinks academics can carry an identity to become the bearers of hard truths, this is especially scary to me; not only did academics in Turkey remain silent about social injustices, but some unscrupulous people helped perpetuate this silence by demonizing a group of colleagues. Of course those people proved their worthiness of being strong allies to the current hierarchical system of university presidents, who follow orders from the Director of HEC, who in turn is reporting to the government. It is obvious that this system cannot produce the next generation of critical thinkers and intellectuals.
Why do I care about this personally? Along with some of my friends, my brother, who is an academic, is currently in jail for an unknown accusation after the coup attempt. His wife, who was an entry level secretary within a small municipality, was the first one to be detained. Police stormed into their house 2 days after he and his wife learned they were fired from their jobs. Since the government increased the detainment period to 30 days we were under a big trauma after they took her, not knowing her whereabouts since no one was allowed to make any contact with her, including any attorneys. Was she being raped or tortured? Was she being beaten severely to get some kind of confession out? What is currently happening is similar to what happened in World War II or the Bosnian War where an entire system to protect basic human rights collapsed along with the judiciary system and sense of justice. Can you imagine the feelings of a helpless husband, mother, or father? Worse, can you imagine them having a 2-year old toddler screaming non-stop after witnessing the shock of his mother violently being taken from her family? Three days had passed when she was in front of the judge and the prosecutor for “being a member of a terrorist organization.” Seeing how fragile her health was, the prosecutor asked for her release. She was united with her son at last. However, those judges and prosecutors were shortly fired for not being ruthless enough to hunt all Gülen followers. We don’t know where she and her son is, since she left her town to avoid the trauma of being separated from her toddler, fearing they may call for her arrest again.
A few days after they released her, my brother was taken into custody. He was a shining star in his work, attending each and every conference in his area of expertise, publishing both Turkish and English articles. Philosophy was his passion. They released him after a few days of detainment and courts. Later, when the prosecutors were changed, they sent out another warrant for his arrest. He immediately turned himself in knowing he had nothing to hide. They seized his computer, all of his digital files, and his phone, and they were never returned. All of his academic work was gone. In the first five days of his arrest, his wife snuggled with his coat, refused to eat anything, and just lay in bed. Their toddler still is under a huge shock, and asks for his dad and does not understand why they had to leave his toys, clothes, and everything else he knew to be home.
Besides being permanently fired from their jobs with no social security, health benefits, and retirement without any due process, these academics are no longer able to be hired by any other company or institution due to official and unofficial orders from the government dehumanizing them. Their children who have terminal diseases got their Medicaid cancelled and denied any services at hospitals. They were left to become homeless, helpless, and hungry. “They will beg us to kill them,” Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekçi said, while a municipal director of AKP, the ruling party, said: “Let them eat tree roots.”
The collective hatred towards and punishment of all opposition for their beliefs is reminiscent of Jewish genocide under Hitler’s regime. This incredible violation of human rights destroyed Turkish academia, freedom of speech, writing, and research, and caused social fractions and hatred among universities. To all governments and to the international community of academics: We must support the rights of these scholars and not let another genocide happen in Europe in the 21st century.