[Marxism] [SUSPICIOUS MESSAGE] ‘The Era of People Like You Is Over’: How Turkey Purged Its Intellectuals
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 30 06:12:30 MDT 2019
NY Times, July 28, 2019
‘The Era of People Like You Is Over’: How Turkey Purged Its Intellectuals
By Suzy Hansen
Ilhan Uzgel learned he had been fired while driving his Honda Civic from
the village of Ayas to Ankara, after a visit to his ailing, elderly
father. A little after midnight, one of his former research assistants
called his cellphone. “Ilhan hocam,” the student said, using a Turkish
honorific (“my teacher”) bestowed on educators. “Your name was on the list.”
When Uzgel returned to his Ankara apartment, his 4-year-old son was
sleeping, but his wife, Elcin Aktoprak, was up waiting. She hadn’t
wanted to call him herself with the news while he was driving. Now she
comforted her husband — and then Uzgel comforted her, because Aktoprak,
also a professor, told him that she had lost her job, too. They had been
professors at Ankara University, on the faculty of its storied school of
political science, widely known as Mulkiye.
Uzgel attended a provincial university in his home city, Bursa, before
enrolling in Mulkiye to get a master’s degree and eventually his
doctorate — an accomplishment for someone of his modest origins. In
Turkey, to be a part of Mulkiye was to have a special status: to be both
of the country and, in a way, superior to it. The joke went that for
Mulkiyeliler, or Mulkiye alumni, it was “First Mulkiye, then Turkiye.”
Uzgel, one of Turkey’s leading specialists in American-Turkish relations
and the author or editor of books with grand titles like “National
Interest and Foreign Policy,” proudly remained at Mulkiye for 30 years
until Feb. 7, 2017, when he was fired. Some 6,000 of Turkey’s 150,000
academics would ultimately share his fate.
Many Turkish academics grew up hoping that they would one day see their
country become a democracy. They studied sociology or philosophy; they
specialized in conflict resolution, peace building, minority rights,
things like the creation of civil society. They received their Ph.D.s in
political science or history, expressly to participate in liberal-minded
universities that would bring forth generations even more democratic
than themselves. They had faith in things like good governance
practices, a fair judicial system, a free press, human rights and
women’s rights. There was a goal, and an understanding that you were
either part of democratization or you weren’t. In Turkey, those who
engaged in the creation of a democracy as a painful, step-by-step
process constituted a small, passionate group, but they shared this
experience with people all across the world, from Poland to Taiwan, with
those who also lived in democratizing countries, who felt that their
countries were on the upswing, getting better, whatever that meant.
An authoritarian state can do many things to get rid of these democratic
types — put them in jail, put them on trial — but ultimately the
government must attack the institutions that produce and sustain them.
Newspapers can be easy to buy. NGOs are easy to shut down. Universities
are much harder to dismantle.
But this is what, through the great purge, President Recep Tayyip
Erdogan and his allies sought to do. Thousands of academics lost their
jobs, and many lost their right to travel, their passports canceled.
They would not be able to work at public or private universities again.
Legal proceedings would be opened against them — and drag on to this
day, leaving the fired in limbo. Many who were abroad would not return.
They feared being quoted in the press or even speaking to journalists.
Some were sentenced to prison. At least one committed suicide. Around 90
of the purged academics came from Ankara University, and 36 came from
Mulkiye alone, raising suspicions that the 160-year-old faculty of
political science had become a particular target.
In October 2017, months after the firings began, Mulkiye held a
conference called “The One Hundredth Anniversary of the Russian
Revolution: The Soviet Union, the Cold War and the International
System.” Uzgel was the keynote speaker. In order to attend the
conference, he had to be brought discreetly onto campus in a friend’s car.
In his speech, Uzgel, a small, soft-spoken man in his mid-50s with
wispy, longish gray hair, spoke about recent events, particularly the
failed military coup against Erdogan only 15 months earlier, as well as
the previous successful military coups in Turkey’s history. “In 1980,
when there was a military coup, the threat was the Soviet Union, and it
was academics who paid the price,” he said. “In 2016, when there was a
military coup, the threat was the United States, and still it was we who
paid the price. The threat changes, but those who are fired stay the
same. Academics pay the price.”
Uzgel’s voice began to crack. Almost every day since his 20s, he had
taken the bus or driven his car to the university’s stately campus in
Ankara’s busy, wide-laned central Cebeci neighborhood; entered through
the imposing concrete gates surrounded by lush foliage, then passed
through the doors to the early modernist structure that served as
Mulkiye’s home; walked across the inner courtyard where young men and
women smoked many cigarettes and fought about politics; and climbed the
floating staircase, flanked by paintings and photographs of Mustafa
Kemal Ataturk, to arrive at his office. His life’s work, his status in
the country, had now been stolen from him.
As Uzgel pointed out in his speech, Turkey’s governments have often
purged the country’s intellectuals, only for the nation to stumble
slowly back toward some semblance of democracy. As the Turks proved
again this past June, when they resoundingly elected an opposition
candidate as mayor of Istanbul — after two decades of control by
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P. — free
elections in Turkey have always defied its authoritarian state system.
Yet something about this era under Erdogan has still felt different,
more lasting, as if the continuing existence of the A.K.P.’s repressive
policies will permanently impair otherwise resilient, historic
institutions. Mulkiye, after all, was more than just an academic
faculty; it was the academic faculty that provided the Turkish state
with its administrators and statesman, its legal experts and political
historians. Those associated with Mulkiye not only understood how the
Turkish state worked; they were, to some degree, the Turkish state.
The Scale of Turkey’s Purge Is Nearly UnprecedentedAug. 2, 2016
Mulkiye was established in what was then called Constantinople during
the Ottoman Empire to train civil servants and diplomats. Ataturk, the
founder of the modern Turkish republic, moved the school to the new
capital city, Ankara, in the 1930s. This measure was both practical and
symbolic: The decaying Ottoman Empire had given way to a rebellious new
nation that required statesmen (like himself) who were dedicated to
secularism, modernity and nationalism. Over time, Mulkiye would become
not only a primary intellectual and political engine of the Turkish
republic but also a center of dissent for Turks who wished to both
uphold and transform it.
Many of the scholars engaged in creating Turkey’s early constitutions
came from Mulkiye. The legislators tasked with building the young
republic were able to do so in part because, even if their political
backgrounds differed, they shared some of the same republican values.
Foreign ministers, governors and ambassadors often came from Mulkiye,
much as French politicians commonly come out of Sciences Po. Uzgel told
me that it was generally known that you were less likely to attain a
position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs unless you had a degree from
It was at Mulkiye, in part, that the foundations of Turkey’s foreign
policy were established. In reaction to devastating wartime experiences
during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the new Turkish republic’s
foreign policy would be one of caution, independence and self-defense,
characterized by a reluctance to meddle in foreign wars and a general
orientation toward the West but without deep allegiance to a single
power. As Timur Kuran, a Turkish-American professor of economics and
political science at Duke University, put it to me recently, “The
members of Mulkiye helped to restrain the state and helped to prevent
politicians in power from using foreign policy for momentary gain.”
This entwining of the government and Mulkiye intellectuals explains why
they have so often been persecuted. In 1960, students so vociferously
protested the changes being made to the country by Adnan Menderes,
Turkey’s leader at the time, that the university was temporarily shut
down. Even as Mulkiye continued to serve its function as a feeder
department to the Turkish state, university campuses like Mulkiye’s came
to be seen as inspiration for greater, nationwide political opposition.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, after two military coups, many leftist
Mulkiye professors were purged and even thrown in jail. But even
following these dramatic events, the very Mulkiye people who suffered
would eventually go back to work for the government or return to
teaching jobs. In 1971, for example, a Mulkiye dean named Mumtaz Soysal
was accused of making Communist propaganda and sent to jail. “I heard he
cleaned toilets in prison,” one former Mulkiye professor told me. Yet 20
years later, Soysal was Turkey’s foreign minister. Over time, several
aspects of Mulkiye’s influence in the state bureaucracy were diminished,
especially in the realm of local administration and finance. But even
after so much trauma, Mulkiye — and particularly its prominence in
foreign policy and the Turkish Foreign Ministry — survived.
In the 1980s, students like Ilhan Uzgel entered Mulkiye to work toward
advanced degrees and stayed on as professors. By that time, a
government-controlled institution called YOK, created to exert more
centralized control over the universities, had been given purview over a
suite of traditionally independent functions ranging from admissions
testing to tenure decisions. The Mulkiye faculty split into right and
left. The secularist-nationalists opposed some liberal reforms to the
economy; they were critical of the Kurdish struggle and political Islam,
and some were against joining the European Union. The leftists and
liberals favored human rights (including for Kurds and Islamists), entry
into the E.U. and broader democratization. In 1998, the Turkish military
shut down the ruling Islamist political party and imposed further
restrictions on political Islamists and other religious figures.
Erdogan, then mayor of Istanbul, was sent to prison. By the 2000s, a
more liberal-seeming, post-Islamist party led by Erdogan was ascendant.
Many Mulkiye academics were so inclusive in their thinking as to have
been sympathetic to Erdogan when he became prime minister in 2003.
Soon after, though, something began happening behind the scenes.
“Mulkiye’s ties with Turkish bureaucracy began to be cut off around
2004,” Uzgel told me. “The A.K. Party just cut it off. Their own people
began to dominate the bureaucracy system.”
“I grew up at Mulkiye,” Elcin Aktoprak was saying. “Inside the campus,
there was a kind of freedom that didn’t exist in the rest of the
country.” I met Aktoprak, Canberk Gurer and Kerem Altiparmak, all former
Mulkiye academics, at their office at a European Union-funded human
rights organization, which sits in a lovely central neighborhood in
Ankara. They are in their 30s and 40s. Aktoprak has short, unfussy hair
and the easy confidence of many female Turkish intellectuals. (She and
Uzgel have divorced in the time since the purge.) She felt more
comfortable at Mulkiye as a woman than in other parts of Turkey, as did
many self-described feminists, gay students, Kurds and leftists.
But when those at Mulkiye talk about its freedom, they are primarily
referring to the liberty to criticize — not only peers but also
professors and deans, the people with authority. During Aktoprak’s
tenure at Mulkiye, a certain radical spirit had been reignited there,
mainly in response to the so-called Kurdish issue. During Turkey’s
founding, Kurds had been victims of pogroms and categorized as “mountain
Turks,” rather than ethnic Kurds, and were forced to speak Turkish; the
Kurdish regions in the southeastern part of the country were neglected
economically. In the 1970s, a new separatist-terrorist group, the
Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), was founded by Abdullah Ocalan —
himself a former student at Mulkiye — to lobby for the right to embrace
Kurdishness and also to fight for separation from the Turkish state. A
vicious war erupted. Turkish military forces burned down villages and
tortured and killed Kurds, and the P.K.K. attacked security forces and
terrorized town squares.
There was — and still is — no issue in Turkey that galvanizes Turks and
Kurds more than the war with the P.K.K. For many Turks, the idea of
Kurdishness invalidates the central idea of the Turkish nation, which is
that Turkey is a country for the Turks. In the political rhetoric of the
Turkish state, to be pro-Kurdish is almost to be a terrorist yourself.
By the 2000s, the early years of Erdogan’s rule, the government began
engaging in a “peace process” with the P.K.K. At the same time, Kurdish
students continued to flood the universities, and many were attracted to
Ankara University’s legacy as a place of protest. In particular, they
entered into certain faculties — communication, education, law and
political science (Mulkiye) — located on the same campus. Leftist and
Kurdish and pro-Kurdish-rights students enjoyed a kind of freedom there
almost singular in Turkish life, which is predominantly conservative,
among both the religious and the secular. For conservative students, the
Cebeci campus might have seemed like one in which pro-Kurdish students
somehow had more power than themselves.
“More than half of the students might be nationalist or conservative,”
Aktoprak said, “but the atmosphere was more leftist, giving leftist
students the ability to express their views more than at any other
universities, without banning other voices.” In this regard, there’s
some resemblance to American universities like Berkeley and Columbia in
the 1960s, but it’s important to remember that university campuses are
some of the only places in Turkey where a young Kurdish leftist would be
able to openly declare his politics.
The rector of Ankara University and the dean of Mulkiye also saw
Mulkiye’s openness as crucial to the education of its students. An
episode in 2009 shows how this commitment could play out. Mulkiye’s
Human Rights Center held a conference, what it called “a public
civil-society dialogue,” with representatives from the European Union.
Cemil Cicek, deputy prime minister of Turkey — that is, deputy to
Erdogan — asked to attend.
“We didn’t invite him, but we had to accept his participation,” said
Kerem Altiparmak, who was head of the Human Rights Center at the time
and is one of Turkey’s leading human rights lawyers. “But the night
before the event, one of my students said, ‘Professor, I guess we will
be protesting your event tomorrow.’ I said, O.K. I cannot decide on
behalf of them. Peaceful protest is the right of students.”
The next day, those students arranged themselves in plush blue seats
throughout a large, auditorium-style Mulkiye lecture hall, all of them
facing a dais flanked by Mulkiye insignia and photos of Ataturk. Among
the attendees were the rector of Ankara University and a Mulkiye dean.
Cicek rose to speak behind a wooden lectern.
And then the students, one by one, stood up to interrupt him.
“Can I please ask something?” one young man said, his hand raised. “In
this country, people like Engin Ceber” — a human rights activist — “are
taken into custody and killed by torture.” He went on: “In this kind of
country, as the deputy prime minister, I don’t believe you have much to
“With these speeches and this applause, you have used your rights in the
name of democracy,” Cicek said over the cries. “If it’s O.K. with you, I
will now exercise my right —”
“Dear minister,” another young man broke in, standing up. “This
democracy and human rights forum is happening with a police blockade
around it. Can you explain why?”
Cicek kept talking. The young man kept talking, too. The applause grew
“It’s true that I came here knowing this may happen —” Cicek said.
“Then how dare you come here!” one man yelled. “If you knew that, why
did you come?”
“There is no place for Cemil Cicek in this school!” another young man
yelled, and the crowd cheered. “There is no place for people like you in
a university! You have no right to speak here! You’re not here to talk
about human rights!”
At that point, the minister’s security guards tried to stop this man
“Is this democracy? You have 50 men trying to take me out of here!”
Cicek decided to leave. The rector of the university and the Mulkiye
dean politely escorted him as he exited the lecture hall.
But that was it. No student was punished. No investigations followed.
Academic life in Turkey has long included places like Mulkiye, where
teenagers and 20-somethings learned to stand up in a crowded lecture
hall and directly challenge one of the most powerful politicians in the
Around the early 2000s, Mulkiye professors began noticing unfamiliar and
suspicious developments. Government apparatchiks at state agencies
started rejecting applications for research projects that would have
normally been accepted. For instance, in 2009, Uzgel applied for a grant
to do research in Washington on the relationship between Turkey, the
United States and northern Iraq. He applied to George Washington
University and to Tubitak, the Scientific and Technological Research
Council of Turkey. His application was accepted by George Washington but
not by Tubitak, something that rarely happens in Turkish academic life.
The attitude at these agencies, the professors said, was that because
religious or conservative A.K.P. supporters had felt for decades that
they had been shut out of elite academia, now it was their turn to have
advantages in academia. They sometimes even said that directly to
people, Uzgel heard from other academics. “It’s our turn.”
In 2012, Erkan Ibis became rector of Ankara University. Ibis projected a
secular lifestyle, and the professors observed that his wife didn’t wear
a head scarf. He didn’t seem like a sycophantic A.K.P. type. But by this
point, Turks were beginning to grasp that to remain in powerful state
positions, they would have to toe the line. Those who once drank
alcohol, for example, might now make a point of drinking water.
University rectors who once allowed protests on campus might make a
point of banning them.
That fall, Ibis invited an unexpected luminary to speak at the school’s
opening-day ceremony: Prime Minister Erdogan. While Erdogan often
attended the opening-day ceremonies at universities close to his
government, to do so at Ankara University was unusual. A group of
professors within Mulkiye decided to conduct a separate opening-day
ceremony for their faculty, at exactly the same time as Erdogan’s
speech. They called their gathering “Freedom of Expression and the
Universities” and invited speakers like Ismail Besikci, a writer and
sociologist who had been imprisoned for 17 years on charges of
advocating separatism. When the rector learned of the parallel ceremony,
he asked a Mulkiye dean at the time, Yalcin Karatepe, to cancel it.
Don’t do it on the same day, Ibis suggested; then: Don’t do it at the
same hour. (Ibis disputes this claim.)
“But I refused to cancel,” Karatepe told me later. “This faculty has
survived six sultans, 11 presidents, countless prime ministers. Erdogan
was just another one, and this time will pass. This institution has a
tradition of speaking out, and we who are here now must continue the
tradition.” Mulkiye’s ceremony was held in the end.
The faculty’s relationship with Ankara University’s rector deteriorated,
especially after the events of the following summer, in 2013. That’s
when the Gezi Park protests, which began in Istanbul in reaction to the
planned destruction of a park, quickly spread to Ankara and across the
country, as a rejection of the A.K.P. government. It would be hard to
overstate how terrifying the Gezi protests must have seemed for Erdogan.
Gezi brought even the most apolitical students out into the streets.
Middle-aged people joined them, too. “Normally those families would stop
their kids, but they went out together; that was something quite new in
Turkey,” Uzgel told me.
Eventually police officers cleared Gezi Park of the protesters. Erdogan
was elected president for the first time a year later in 2014. “Erdogan
began his ‘one-man-ification’ of the country after Gezi,” Gurer said.
“And our rector began his ‘one-man-ification’ of the university as well.”
At the same time, the Gezi Park protests led to the popularity of a new
political party, H.D.P., headed by the Kurdish politician Selahattin
Demirtas, who was magnetic, funny and handsome. Demirtas strove to make
his party open to all Turks and more independent than its predecessor
parties, which had ties to the P.K.K. He urged peace with the Turkish
state. His popularity soared. Erdogan seemed to feel threatened by the
emergence of a politician more charismatic than he was. Soon after, he
did what countless Turkish politicians before him did to win votes: He
helped reignite a war in the southeast against the P.K.K., which for its
part engaged enthusiastically. Antiwar protests erupted on Mulkiye’s
campus throughout 2014 and 2015.
Such demonstrations were to be expected of Mulkiye students — but now
Ibis, the new rector, took a very different attitude toward them.
According to a report produced by Baris Unlu and Ozlem Albayrak, former
Mulkiye professors, 626 Ankara University students in 2015, 758 in 2016
and 815 in 2017 “were given disciplinary action.” The rector opened two
investigations into Yalcin Karatepe — the same dean who allowed the
alternate opening-day ceremony — including one for leaving his post
without permission. (According to Turkish law, a civil servant must
notify an employer of travel plans, but this is rarely enforced.)
In an email, Ibis said: “If a crime is committed, you have to follow the
essential legal process. Otherwise you would be taking part in a crime
or working with the criminal.” He also said that during this period he
believed that a “group of students had not been letting those who didn’t
share the same background as themselves, or hold the same political
views, enter campus and thus go to classes and tests, and that some of
the academic staff had supported these activities.”
Pro-government media began signaling to state authorities which
political actors in Turkish life should be investigated or condemned for
various infractions — a sinister trend that extended to journalists,
politicians, academics and students. The newspapers Yeni Akit,
Habervaktim and Vahdet hounded Mulkiye, calling the people there
“enemies of Islam,” “gay lovers” and “bastards.” When Mulkiye’s Human
Rights Center screened Lars von Trier’s film “Nymphomaniac” in the name
of freedom of expression — the film had been banned in Turkey — critics
referred to both the department and the film as sapkin, or “perverted.”
This kind of invective reached a fever pitch when it came time for
Mulkiye’s Inek Bayrami, or Cow Festival, a longstanding Mulkiye spring
tradition in which for two days students are encouraged to criticize
their professors in a public forum. (It’s essentially a roast.) One of
the Cow Festival rites is the selection of an “imam” to initiate the
proceedings, which include a mock opening prayer. The festival was
repeatedly attacked by pro-government trolls online, and the 2017
festival was canceled by the administration. The student who played the
imam in 2016 was charged with insulting religion.
“Yeni Akit always said we protected L.G.B.T. students, pro-Kurdish or
so-called terrorist students,” Aktoprak said. “But we only defended
their rights. We were trying to protect our students from the attacks
from security forces. We experienced early what everyone in Turkey is
experiencing now — that even if you just support something, they label
you a terrorist.”
And once you are labeled a terrorist in Turkey — where the antiterror
laws are elastic — your life is more or less over. Mulkiye professors
defined this entire period, the Erkan Ibis era, as “mobbing,” or an
attempt to force people out of their workplace through intimidation.
In early 2016, some academics circulated a petition supporting a
peaceful resolution to the government’s war with the P.K.K. They called
themselves Academics for Peace and titled their petition “We Will Not Be
Party to This Crime!” In Turkish academia, such petitions were normal,
even banal, and when the academics urged their colleagues to sign it,
many did so reflexively, more than 2,000 in Turkey.
Professors from Mulkiye signed the petition not only out of solidarity
but also because many of them were engaged in exposing the undemocratic
lie at the heart of the Turkish republic — the fact that Turkey was
founded as a nation of Turks only, when millions of its people were not
Turks at all but Kurds.
The language of the petition would someday haunt its signers:
“As academics and researchers of this country, we will not be party to
this crime! ... This deliberate and planned massacre is in serious
violation of Turkey’s own laws and international treaties to which
Turkey is a party. ... We demand the state to abandon its deliberate
massacre and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples in the region. ...
For this purpose we demand that independent national and international
observers be given access to the region and that they be allowed to
monitor and report on the incidents.”
Soon after it was released, Erdogan, himself a rhetorical master of
sorts, homed in on the petition’s language, in part because it seemed to
suggest that he was guilty of an international crime. He responded by
declaring in a speech that the academics were guilty of a national one:
“The old Turkey, run by a handful of lumpen, who call themselves
intellectuals and academics, doesn’t exist anymore. These lumpen circles
have shown once again their true faces. With this declaration, they have
shown the terror propaganda directly, which they have been conducting
for years indirectly. ... Do you favor the unity and solidarity of
Turkey or not? If you favor the unity of the country, why do you speak
in the jargon of the terror organization, which makes our citizens’
lives miserable and attacks our security forces? This is called terror
Across the country, academics were vilified, threatened and even
arrested. According to Unlu and Albayrak’s report, Ankara University
immediately opened an investigation into the academics who signed the
petition. (Ibis said this was done at the request of YOK.) Around the
same time, two professors, Unlu and Gokcen Alpkaya, came under attack
for questions they included in their exams. Unlu had asked about
Abdullah Ocalan; Alpkaya had asked about the Academics for Peace
petition. A legal case brought against Unlu accused him of inciting
terror. The mobbing had intensified.
Ilhan Uzgel found the atmosphere so stressful and worrisome that he took
a sabbatical at SOAS, in London. Before he left, the rector was
discussing with professors the option of withdrawing their signature
from the petition. “I said, No, I cannot do it,” Uzgel said. Among other
reasons: “My assistant signed that petition. I couldn’t do that to him.”
While Uzgel was away in London, there was another attempted military
coup in Turkey.
In response to the failed coup in 2016, Erdogan purged the state’s
ministries, its police force, the military, the secondary schools,
hospitals, unions, newspapers and nonprofit organizations — some 150,000
people in total. Many of the denounced were accused members of the Gulen
movement, whom the government associated with the coup plot. But soon
Erdogan turned on Kurds and leftists, including, of course, academics.
In September 2016, along with thousands of other Turks, 21 members of
the teaching staff were fired from Ankara University, including some
half dozen assistants from Mulkiye. The academics at Mulkiye, Aktoprak
noted, were very agitated. “Everyone, including the lawyers, started
telling us what we should do,” she said. “Like, who will be the contact
person for your family if you are taken into custody? What’s in your
messages? What’s at your house? We all started wondering what it could be.”
She looked at Gurer, sitting across from her. “Did you throw anything out?”
“Magazines,” he said. “I got rid of my computer, my phone. I erased all
of my WhatsApp.”
The next month, in October, some of their colleagues were refused the
right to leave the country.
“We realized some of these people who couldn’t go abroad didn’t have a
case opened against them,” Aktoprak said. “For example, one of our
university colleagues was going to go to Japan, and at the gate at the
airport she learned she couldn’t go. We think that the rector had sent a
list to the state security forces that said, These people could be
connected to terror.” (Ibis denies giving this type of information to
state security forces.)
Three months later, on Jan. 6, 2017, the purge struck Mulkiye again. The
professors Faruk Alpkaya and Ozlem Albayrak were fired, along with
professors from other faculties at the school.
The remaining professors checked Resmi Gazete, the government’s official
online bulletin, every day. Will I be fired today? they wondered, or
will I be fired tomorrow? For a month, it was all the petition signers
talked about. They knew that those already purged had lost access to
certain online university systems. They checked obsessively to see if
they, too, had lost access, as if this would be the tell of their
impending doom. “OSYM, the national testing center that organizes
university entrance exams, blocked me on Twitter,” Gurer said. “This was
one month before I was fired.”
“It was terrible,” Aktoprak said, laughing a little. “You would say to
yourself, If a bird takes off, does it mean I’m being fired?”
For this reason, Aktoprak and Gurer were almost relieved when finally,
on Feb. 7, 2017, they, along with 27 other academics, lost their jobs.
It was one of the last big spates of firings, and again the campus
erupted in protests. The police responded with tear gas. Soon after,
fired professors who tried to enter Mulkiye were turned away. “I’m
sorry, hocam,” the security guards would say. “You are one of the fired.”
Aktoprak found that experience so painful — to suddenly find yourself
barred from a place you had found refuge every day for your entire adult
life — that she never returned.
Academics at Ankara University laid down their gowns during a protest in
February 2017, in opposition to the mass dismissal of professors that
followed a government decree.CreditAdem Altan/AFP/Getty Images
The Mulkiye that remained was no longer recognizable to those who once
worked there. The walls, which had always been covered with leftist
posters, are now sparsely adorned with Turkish flags. The Human Rights
Center was closed. (The rector has since reopened it under his control.)
Certain subjects are now rarely taught — Foucault, say, or queer theory.
Master’s and doctoral courses have been canceled, leaving graduate
students suddenly without an adviser. The film society, where students
and professors used to drink wine and watch movies together, has been
shut down, and the showing of films, according to academics who have
been purged, has been banned entirely.
“Mulkiye always used to mean criticism,” Aktoprak said. “And it can’t
mean that anymore.”
The academics left at Mulkiye were shouldering an unimaginable course
load, slinging enormous sacks of papers and tests over their backs to
grade at night. One of the people who remained was Kerem Altiparmak. He
is currently part of a group of lawyers representing about 100 Turks at
the European Court of Human Rights and Turkish criminal courts who were
targeted by the post-coup purge. He was not fired from Mulkiye, but he
resigned last year. He no longer felt that the conditions for conducting
an academic life existed there. Altiparmak found himself investigated
for holding academic discussions on Turkey’s post-coup state of
emergency laws. “The university sent a letter to all academics and
forced them to sign it, in which the rector warned not to cross lines in
the curriculum,” Altiparmak said. “It said, We receive complaints from
our students that teachers are discussing subjects irrelevant to the
curriculum, and I am warning you not to do this.”
The universities had also empowered the more conservative students to
submit complaints about their professors through something called the
Communications Center of the Presidency, or Cimer. “They say things
like, ‘You are now telling your Marxist opinions to us,’ ” Altiparmak
said. “Some don’t want to hear other perspectives. This will affect all
culture of Turkey because these are the people going into the state
Similar disruptions have occurred in the Foreign Ministry as well. Selim
Sazak, a Turkish Ph.D. candidate at Brown University and writer on
foreign affairs, has said that an A.K.P. apparatchik discouraged him
from aspiring to a big career in the foreign service, saying, “The era
of people like you” — non-A.K.P.-affiliated, prep-school-educated — “is
over.” In fact, it’s not a stretch to suggest that the enormous
transformations in Turkey’s foreign policy right now — its engagement in
the wars in Syria and Iraq, its steep increases in military spending and
its distancing from the West — can be connected to the sidelining of
some traditional voices, including ones from Mulkiye.
“There was still an expectance of Mulkiye as a fundamental institution
of the republic,” Timur Kuran of Duke University says. “Before, no one
sought to eliminate it or remove the checks and balances in the
political system that came from Mulkiye. In the present case, there is
an effort to remove not only Mulkiye’s supervisory role but all checks
“Mulkiye-trained people tended to be much more cautious in foreign
policy,” Kuran says. “Keeping the country at peace was their fundamental
goal. Right now, Erdogan is taking huge risks. All checks and balances
in foreign policy are disappearing, and even to raise questions about
the adventures that Turkey is now getting into is to risk persecution as
Not surprisingly, this atmosphere has prompted a brain drain — thousands
of Turkish academics, in the social sciences as well as the sciences,
have left the country. Even the government has acknowledged that the
departures represent a full-blown crisis. Recently, the minister of
industry and technology, Mustafa Varank, promised academics abroad a
monthly salary of 24,000 lira (about $4,200) if they came to Turkey.
Many students told newspapers they would not return to a country where
they felt academics were rewarded on ideological grounds or for
connections rather than merit, or where they wouldn’t be able to work on
any subjects that countered the official state line. As a former
professor who has remained put it to me: “There is no point in carrying
on as if nothing changed. If there’s no more university life, why should
I be in the university anymore?”
Elcin Aktoprak and others did receive a grant from the European Union to
do research and build pilot programs for online “human rights ateliers.”
Many fired professors established alternative education centers in the
wake of the purge, which were called “solidarity academies,” and where
you could go to learn about politics in peace.
“The one silver lining to all this,” Aktoprak said, “was that maybe we
can sustain an intellectual community on our own this way and return to
public life in better days.”
For everyone, though, there is still the prospect of prison. According
to Academics for Peace, more than 2,000 hearings have been held for the
peace petitioners, and none have resulted in acquittals. In most cases
decided so far, academics receive a 15-month suspended jail sentence,
but some 30 of them have not been given suspension of judgment, and one
professor, Fusun Ustel, is currently in jail. Another signatory, Tuna
Altinel, is in prison on charges from a different case.
Ilhan Uzgel spends most of his days working on his laptop at a Starbucks
in an Ankara mall. After he was fired, he looked into jobs at private
universities — which are not barred from hiring fired professors,
technically — but they are all too scared to hire the purged. This was a
common claim among purged professors. In at least one way, Uzgel was one
of the lucky ones: He was old enough to retire and receive his pension.
The loss of people like Uzgel, and as a result the loss of their
analytical expertise, is an enormous loss for Turkish society. The
people best able to analyze for me what was happening in Turkey in 2019
— its political scientists — were the ones being erased by what was
happening in 2019. With them goes not only history itself but also
nuance and complexity and fairness.
As someone who has studied Turkey’s political history, Uzgel
acknowledged that his fate was not entirely unusual. The tradition of
purging preceded the founding of Turkey, and it continued throughout
modern Turkish history. Purging was not an anomaly but rather integral
to that history.
“The first thing these kinds of ideological movements target are people
and institutions that produce knowledge,” Uzgel said. “They have to
clear those areas in order to establish their own power. Because they
represent the only dissenting forces in a society. The business class
does not speak up against the government. Civil society is already weak
in Turkey. Universities with strong traditions are critical because they
recruit younger generations. You have to break institutions.
Authoritarian regimes don’t necessarily send everyone to jail.”
But if the authoritarian regime lasts long enough, it can succeed in
suppressing even relatively uncritical voices. Most of the Mulkiye
professors did not believe that Erdogan wanted an Islamic state or a
fascist one. What the A.K.P. seems to propose for Turkey’s future is a
country without character — a country that can believe itself to be free
as long as it does not adopt an identity that threatens the A.K.P.
Institutions like Mulkiye had been one thing above all: independent in
spirit and principle. Such institutions cannot exist in Erdogan’s Turkey
for many, many reasons, one of which is simply that they are too distinct.
Individuals, too, can become less distinct. They become fuzzy. Their
voices fade. They lose their place in society, so much so that when they
discover themselves again, the sweetness of it takes them by surprise.
One of the many professors I interviewed was Faruk Alpkaya. Alpkaya
talked about Turkish history. He was an academic — that was his job. But
after 20 years of being a professor, he, like Uzgel and thousands of
others, has spent the last two and a half years as a nonentity in
official Turkish life. Alpkaya spoke in bursts for 10 minutes at a time,
then apologized as if he had surprised himself, using a verb tense in
Turkish that can imply the discovery of something previously unknown.
“I’m sorry,” he would say. “I must miss speaking.”
Suzy Hansen is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of
“Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American
World,” which was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in general
nonfiction. She has been living in Istanbul for over 10 years and
previously wrote about the Turkish government’s crackdown on
journalists, Kurds, leftists, dissidents, activists and academics.
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