Sunday, February 12, 2012

An interview with young academics on academic freedom in Turkey

A group of young academics, organized in Facebook, wrote a protest letter addressed to Prime Minister Erdogan who recently expressed the government’s desire “to raise a religious youth.” In two days, they collected 2500 signatures from academics in Turkey and abroad. GIT North America contacted the initiators and asked questions concerning the petition and condition of academic liberties in Turkey.

1. What are your motives for initiating this petition?

First of all, “young academics” is not an organization. This petition started spontaneously in a Facebook conversation among a number of young academics from various backgrounds, beliefs and political stances. Our main motivation was to formulate and voice a common reaction to the repressive attempts of the conservative government over freedom of conscience and academic liberties. The prime minster's declaration to raise religious youth was the last straw. The repression is palpable, not only in the academia, but across the entire society. After winning the general elections for the third time, the government’s self-proclaimed conservatism slowly but surely has been metamorphosing into authoritarianism. Peer pressure and ubiquitous fear created by the imprisonment of scores of journalists, academics, students, publishers and intellectuals has gone hand in hand with an epidemic loss of jobs. Adopting a conformist and complaisant attitude is strongly recommended. If you have objections to the state of affairs but want to keep your job, then the only option is self censorship. This is an issue that we wanted to both expose and challenge in our petition.

The last wave of repressive measures that led to our petition, combined with the sheer silence of the media, is contributing to the environment of fear. The event triggering our action is the latest speech of Prime Minister Erdogan in which he explicitly stated the government’s goal of cultivating a religion the face of criticism, Erdogan’s response was that unless the young generation was raised with religious and conservative ideals they would end up becoming homeless children who live on dope. The PM does not bother to question the deep-rooted social and economic conditions that force children to grow up in the streets. He seems to think that being religious and conservative would keep any child off the street. In the same speech, Prime Minister Erdogan equates atheism with immorality and piousness with high morals. Such speeches divide society in the base of belief and establish a stifling hegemony to the benefit of the majority, i.e. Sunni Islam in the Turkish context. As we sought to declare in the petition, we are young academics from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Alawite, Shafi’i, religious and non-religious, atheist and agnostic background, all joined with a firm belief in secularism. We think the government’s prime responsibility is creating the conditions for social equality, not establishing a religious hegemony.

2. So far, did you encounter in your institutions any attempt echoing the government’s intention to “raise a more religious and conservative youth”?
Those of us who work and study in Turkish universities are indeed swept by the tide. The first tool for repression in academia is the (by and large successful) attempts by the government to appoint to the decision-making positions of universities individuals sympathetic to the government's agenda. The same goes for the omnipotent Council of Higher Education (YOK). There are many cases where theology professors become deans of faculties of social sciences or education. A profound change is also underway in the identities and affiliations of the big-shots of the academic scene. Academics with political stances similar to that of the government have come to advisory positions both within academia and elsewhere. Numerous university presidents and the chair of YOK have been appointed over the past decade by the pro-government President of the Republic who has almost always chosen to appoint conservative or pro-conservative candidates regardless of whether they have received the majority of their peers’ votes.

Another facet of the mechanisms curtailing academic autonomy is the changes in the selection of students and research assistants. Universities now have to rely on a central examination rather than personal interviews. This supposedly removes the possibility of nepotism, but with consecutive news stories that exam sheets are leaked to certain religious groups from within OSYM -the centre that organizes all the central placement examinations in Turkey and remains under government control- that is hardly credible. Besides, we hear many discriminatory practices in the recruitment of research assistants. For instance one sociology department that organized an in-house exam, asked questions predominantly on figures in Turkish or Islamic history, questions that are familiar only to those who are graduates of certain small, provincial, more conservative sociology departments. Students who graduate from more prestigious universities such as METU and Bogazici face discrimination and mobbing in the universities in Anatolian cities, hotbeds of Islamic conservatism, where they have to serve in compensation for former scholarships. Within such an anti-democratic academic system we make every effort to take our steps in awareness of the lack of equal employment opportunity and of the risk of losing our jobs.

3. What do you think about the condition of academic freedom in Turkey?

We believe that academic freedom in Turkey is in decline. Opening new universities, improving infrastructure and providing more material resources does not necessarily lead to better academia. Academic freedom is under serious attack. Currently, a high number of academics languish in pre-trial detention in prisons. Most of these arrests are due to their research on the Gulen Movement and the Kurdish problem. This is the epitome of the severe intolerance to dissident ideas. Academics are being targeted as ‘suspects’ in Ergenekon and KCK cases. Some of the recent examples are the arrests of Prof. Busra Ersanli and Coskun Musluk, a research assistant from METU. In addition to these direct threats, there are indirect challenges compelling academics to self-censor their research. Pro-government cadres in the decision making positions of universities and YOK is in and of itself an inhibiting factor.

As a policy of repression, many leftist and dissident young academics are not given positions or employed as research assistants; and they cannot offer courses even after getting their PhDs. The juries for the approval of Associate Professors are carefully selected to make sure they do not approve the proficiency of candidates with dissident political stances. One such case includes the denial of the position to a candidate (from a Political Science department to add to the irony) for having “articles with ideological elements” published. Another recent example is the denial of a full professorship in METU, which, ironically, retains its status as the most liberal academic environment, to Mesut Yegen for his 'dissident' views on Kurdish politics.

On top of pressure on academic freedom of research, young academics in Turkey are also victims of an “insecurity policy.” This also curtails free research. The shift in the employment status from 33a to 55d and the Academic Staff Appointment Program (OYP), polished and marketed as “job security” while de-facto resulting in forced exile of free minds, are just a few of the factors detrimental to the job security of young academics. Private universities pay postgraduate students peanuts, do not even register research and teaching assistants as employees and therefore do not pay any social security premium for their work. The state turns a blind eye to all that. In the meantime, you get to be exploited as a source of cheap labor to the point that you cannot conduct fruitful scientific research. The increasing rate of unemployment, alongside the lack of job security and of academic autonomy of the institutions continuously worsen the situation for young researchers.

4. Why do you think there is an incessant curtailment of freedoms in Turkey? Is it due to government’s deliberate intervention?

This is not an issue about one particular government or another in office; this is a state policy. The state policy is designed to prevent the rise of a generation with self esteem and freedom of thought. The shadow of this policy can be seen in every area of life: first and second degree education, university education, compulsory military service, employment policies, religious repression and so on. Regardless, we are still trying to “do science” and survive as free-minded individuals. Most of us are the products of the post-1980 coup environment. We have not been brought up within a democratic environment. We are a generation trying to establish the sort of freedom we have never witnessed in person. Thus, this petition and attempts like this must be considered as small but meaningful steps for a more democratic Turkey.

Prime Minister Erdogan often reiterates the very mental scheme that feeds into the repression of freedoms: you are either with AKP or against it. If you have a political stance parallel to that of the government and do not step over political and social boundaries set by the ruling party, you are in the safer territory. One step ahead, and you have exposed yourself to tremendous risk. This is a constant threat, and it threatens not only young academics but also full professors and even students. Currently, hundreds of students are under arrest for participating in legal protests, for being members of legal political parties and organizations. Music albums, m
agazines, books and lecture notes can be used as “evidence” to charge and detain them. Although these students have not engaged in a single act of violence they are accused of being members of some “terrorist organization.” They remain in jail for months, for years and lose their right to education altogether.

5. Certain academics state their disbelief in the effectiveness of petitions. They say that petitions help justify political apathy on behalf of those who give their signatures --that signing petitions curbs further protest. Would you agree with this critique?

There are two ways to see this: On the one hand, and on a more theoretical level, digital forms of organization and protest do indeed eliminate the incentive to go out and take action --perhaps more radical and more effective action. On the other hand, the agglomerative capacity of the
Internet is undeniable. Seattle would not have been Seattle in the absence of the Internet. It has also been the decisive factor in the strength of the social movements that swept across the Arab world. One can not deny the importance of social media in community building, especially in an international community like the academia. A single petition will fail to force a government to change its policies, but will serve both to remind the government that we are here and we are not happy and to disseminate that message to increase public engagement. On another and equally significant note, the venues for expressing our views are so few and so perilous that it is hard to think of a more effective alternative. To cut a long story short, the answer would be, yes, Internet is indeed a perfect tool for social and political movements, for raising objections and voicing dissent, provided that one does not stop there. If we just clicked “send” and went to bed in blissful pride, that would be pure and simple tokenism. There we would have a problem.

6. What else do you think young academics need to do to enhance academic liberty and freedom of expression? Do you have any suggestions?

Before we can even start pondering academic freedom, the entire national education system needs to be reformed. We need a social and political environment inclusive to different ways of thinking, acting, being. People should not be murdered because of their ideas or for the simple fact of being, or saying they are, gay or atheist. As for the longer term, we should strive to create a younger generation with stronger faith in and passion for a deliberative and participatory democracy. We need to lay the foundations for further freedoms. This is a long process for which there is no magic wand. When it comes to immediate purposes, however, we believe that it boils down to spreading the word that all is not well on the Turkish front. The people abroad who have the perception that the reforms and practices in Turkey are swaying the country to a more liberal and democratic order are, simply, misled. Turkish academics who hold tenure may have a little more liberty for boldly speaking out or acting, but with news of one jail sentence after another against the intelligentsia, activism, it seems, is easier said than done.