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Erdoğan’s Next Target to Muzzle: Turkey’s Academics

President unleashes wrath on critics of nation’s military policy

ISTANBUL — The Turkish government’s latest target in its campaign to silence critical voices is the country’s academics.

Many of the 2,212 Turkish academics who signed a strongly-worded letter calling for peace in Turkey’s embattled southeast have been fired, detained, investigated, harassed by nationalists, and attacked by the country’s largely pro-government media.

“I knew it could create some kind of controversy, but in no way did I expect it to create this kind of [response],” Halil Yenigün, an assistant professor of political theory at Istanbul Commerce University who signed the letter, told The Media Line.

Immediately after President Erdoğan cursed the signatories as “colonialists,” “traitors,” and “enemies of the state,” prosecutors launched investigations and universities fired or suspended many of them.

Yenigün, who’s been suspended with reduced pay and expects worse, said he’s happy that one of the many critical petitions created in Turkey has received the attention it deserves. “Finally, I feel like my signature has meant something.”

He said he signed because the government is “committing massacres” and he wanted to tell them “don’t kill in my name.”

According to rights groups, over 200 civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced by mostly urban fighting between the government and fighters linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Amnesty International accused the government of “collective punishment” against mostly Kurdish civilians.

Anyone critical of the government’s military operations has been viciously condemned by Erdoğan and government supporters, and academics are increasingly targeted.

“In recent weeks, not a day passes in which we do not witness some academics being suspended, threatened, prosecuted, or investigated,” A. Kadir Yıldırım, a research Scholar at Rice University’s Center for the Middle East, wrote in an e-mail to The Media Line.

He said that critical academics comprise “the last hurdle” left opposing Erdoğan and his ultimate goal of transforming Turkey’s state into an executive presidency with himself at the helm, and this is an opportune moment to silence them.

“The choice of the Kurdish issue to attack academics gave President Erdoğan an opportunity to make this a choice not between academic freedom and repression but one of nationalism and treason,” he wrote.

Yıldırım says the government has fostered an anti-intellectual atmosphere.

“Scholarship is viewed as a futile effort in the most important struggles of the country. Especially with the way [the] construction sector grew, it has instilled the idea that modernity, progress, and development is building new towers, roads, and stadiums. Scholars don’t have much to offer in how to secure progress. Those who are educated are viewed with suspicion.”

The peace petition was also signed by 2,220 foreign academics, including Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek, and foreign academics in Turkey have been targeted as well.

Romanian political philosophy professor Andrei Stavila was teaching at Muğla Sıtkı Koçman University, where administrators announced that all signatories of the petition would be subject to criminal and administrative investigations.

Stavila didn’t sign the petition, but on January 15, he made a comment on Facebook criticizing Turkey’s repressive atmosphere and thanking another foreign professor for supporting Turkish academics. Less than two hours later his department head, who had been informed by someone monitoring his online activities, called him and threatened to not extend his contract.

Stavila then decided to quit, but says the decision had already been made by the administration, who then asked him to lie about the circumstances and tell his friends he was leaving to join his wife abroad.

He says since day one the atmosphere at his university was extremely repressive towards any sort of government criticism, sometimes to the point of absurdity.

“I’m supposed to be teaching in the political science and international relations department,” he said, yet “nobody can talk about politics.”

When his students asked his opinion about the recent bombings that have been terrorizing Turkey, he had to decline to comment.

“I still remember the days in [Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s] Communist regime, and it was the same. People were afraid to say exactly what they think,” Stavila said, comparing Turkey to his home country’s past. “I’m living [through] the same experiences now.”

Another foreign academic in Turkey who didn’t want their identity revealed for fear of repercussions told The Media Line that “Turkey is a country where politics cannot be discussed freely,” and people are marginalized for their political views.

“Honestly I really fear Erdoğan and his capacity to surveil everything,” she said, saying that foreigners are at particular risk because they’re easy to deport.

Professor Yenigün says students at his university are also not free in their political and academic activities, giving an example of an international relations student group.

“Whatever they want to do, they’re always blocked, they always have to go through a lot of procedures, and most of the time the university administration doesn’t allow them to invite their speakers.”