[Marxism] [SUSPICIOUS MESSAGE] ‘The Era of People Like You Is Over’: How Turkey Purged Its Intellectuals

Louis Proyect 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 
Mulkiye.

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 
tell us.”

Everyone clapped.

“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 
louder.

“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 
from speaking.

“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 
country.

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 
propaganda.”

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 
bureaucracy.”

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 
and balances.”

“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 
a traitor.”

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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