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From 9/11 to 9/12: The Onset of Neoliberalism in Turkey, 32 Years On
The May 1, 2011 celebrations in Istanbul were the first in which all citizens were allowed to participate after a long ban on May Day commemorations following the May Day 1977 Taksim Square massacre. (Photo: Mario Cardona)

From 9/11 to 9/12: The Onset of Neoliberalism in Turkey, 32 Years On

The May 1, 2011 celebrations in Istanbul were the first in which all citizens were allowed to participate after a long ban on May Day commemorations following the May Day 1977 Taksim Square massacre. (Photo: Mario Cardona)

Commemorations of the two September 11s this month (the first September 11 in Chile and the second one in the United States) should not obscure another tragedy around the same date, which took place in Turkey 32 years ago; it echoed the first September 11 in Chile.[i] Peter Mayo, Antonia Darder and Anne Hickling-Hudson recall the Turkish coup on its anniversary this year, discuss aspects of its significance and announce the publication of a book around the issue in a book series they co-edit, “Postcolonial Studies in Education.”

September 11, 2001, in New York City and Washington, DC was, as most Latin Americans would remind us, preceded by another September 11 in Chile, 1973. To these, we would add a September 12 in Turkey, 1980, the last two being identical in their purpose and the range of the horrors committed. They indicate how, as Stephen Harper argues in a recent book, [ii] violence is part and parcel of capitalism and, we add, neoliberalism. All three September dates deserve remembrance. In this article, however, we focus on the one which is perhaps least publicized internationally, though not in the Eastern Mediterranean.

On September 12, 1980, Turkey experienced a terrible military coup that, like the 1973 coup in Chile, led to thousands of arrests and disappearances. The coup was a bid by the Turkish military, influenced by US cold war politics, to establish conditions for the onset of neoliberal policies in this heavily populated nation spanning areas of both Europe and Asia. The introduction of neoliberal policies to Turkey actually occurred with decisions taken in January 1980, prior to the coup. The main political figure behind these decisions was former World Bank employee Turgut Özal, later to become prime minister (1983-1989) and president (1989-1993). He was, at the time of the January 1980 decisions, undersecretary to prime minister Süleyman Demirel. As in Chile after its coup on September 11, 1973, and in other Latin American countries thereafter, forceful measures were utilized to establish and consolidate neoliberalism in Turkey.

The May 1, 2011 celebrations in Istanbul. (Photo: Mario Cardona)The May 1, 2011 celebrations in Istanbul. (Photo: Mario Cardona)The military coup in Turkey took place only a few years after the May 1, 1977, celebration in Istanbul’s Taksim Square was crushed by the opening of gunfire on participants, leaving around 34 people dead. The Taksim May Day celebrations were banned for a number of years after the coup and revived only recently after the ban was lifted in 2009 (only in 2011 and 2012 was participation allowed to all, rather than just to select groups). Those who witnessed the 2011 celebration, where hundreds of thousands of workers rallied anew, could readily understand why the manifestation was banned and why it required such drastic military action to usher in neoliberal policies in a country that historically has been the home of a wide variety of movements and a vibrant political left. Among the victims of the 1980 coup were activists and editors of left-wing publishing houses in Turkey. One of these was İlhan Erdost, editor of Sol Yayınları, a publisher of many Marxist classics. He was beaten to death while in custody, allegedly for the publication of banned leftist books, particularly Friedrich Engels’ “Dialectics of Nature.”[iii] Nevertheless, many such publishing houses and bookstores still continue to make their presence felt in and around major Turkish cities. These include Kalkedon, Dipnot, Notabene, Ayrıntı, Metis, Yordam, Tan, Sol and Űtopya. Leftist publications continue to abound, with Monthly Review having its Turkish version, published by Kalkedon. Thus far, three books, written or edited by one of the authors of this article, have been published.[iv]

The army in Turkey is often regarded as the legacy of the secular policies introduced by Mustapha Kemal, known as Atatürk, the leader and military strategist who strove to modernize the country, seeking to extricate it from the grip of the Muslim Ottoman influences. The army, however, supported religious schools and inserted the need for obligatory religious courses in the constitution. On the other hand, it continues to play an important role in the promotion of a modernist push toward “Turkification,” allowing little space for the flourishing of the various cultures, notably Kurdish culture, that form a significant part of the Turkish population mosaic. Furthermore – and here lies the connection with neoliberalism – the Turkish military is largely regarded as an important US satellite force in a region of the world known for its volatility. Accordingly, in a nation where many people are schooled into its military culture from young ages and also through certain specialized university institutes, the Turkish military constitutes a formidable force as one of the world’s largest armies. Justice and Development Party (AKP by its Turkish initials)[v] political interventions, however, have led to the army taking a backseat, and numerous high-level officers are currently in prison.

Meanwhile, the survivors of those who disappeared in Turkey continue to make their presence felt in the form of a mothers’ movement that meets on Saturdays in one of Istanbul’s squares, the one surrounding Galatasary High School.[vi] The parallels with and influence of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires are not to be missed. They provide further testimony to the fact that the processes which led to transformations in different aspects of social life in Turkey, manifestations of Turkey’s “growing up modern,” had their birth pangs in a traumatic period in the country’s recent history.

The impact of neoliberalism is also visible within different sections of the nation’s educational system. One notices a constantly increasing presence of privatization, market ideology and the instrumentalization of education as an object of consumption. While Turkey is not a member of the EU, its higher education system is not immune to the influences of the Bologna process, as this gospel is being preached and taken on board by policymakers. The Bologna process, much in vogue in speeches about the universities and higher education in Turkey, refers to the system of organization of university courses to facilitate credit transfer and overall harmonization between degree programs across the EU. Attuning people from outside the EU to this process increases their chances of moving to universities and other higher education institutions within the union instead. The EU is bent on competing with the United States to obtain the lion’s share of “international” students – students from outside the EU. That lion’s share is currently enjoyed by the United States. With its large youth population, Turkey becomes an attractive market for European universities in their competition with US and South East Asia institutions to recruit international-fee-paying students from outside the EU, as part of what is being termed the “internationalization” of higher education.

A quick glance at the faculty profiles of universities such as METU (Middle East Technical University), Boğaziçi Üniversitesi (University of the Bosphorous), Ankara Üniversitesi and others, would suggest that, traditionally, the United States has been the main postgraduate destination for promising young Turkish academics. Although many have also studied in Europe, and especially Germany and the UK, exposure to the Bologna process of harmonization and credit transfer renders Turkish graduates more likely today to pursue their further education on the European continent. Meanwhile, though highly selective public universities do exist in Turkey and feature among the best higher education institutions available, we also increasingly witness a plethora of private institutions that serve as a means for academics from nominally public institutions to supplement their meager salaries by teaching part-time in these private sector institutions at piece rate. This is often regarded as a win-win situation for both the private sector and state, thus leading to the typical neoliberal blurring of the private-public divide, a process skewed in favor of the private sector.

Given these conditions, we welcome the publication of a compendium of writings on education and neoliberalism in Turkey in the form of an edited book titled “Neoliberal Transformation of Education in Turkey,” a valuable addition to the series “Postcolonial Studies in Education” (Palgrave-Macmillan), which we edit. Through the contributions of a variety of Turkish writers in the field, the book specifically centers its analysis directly on the political economic phenomenon of neoliberalism. True to postcolonial concerns, a historical perspective is also highlighted by a number of the authors. For instance, we read about the tensions that prevailed within the Ottoman Empire as a result of the nation-state’s moving toward modernization while at the same time preserving and promoting Islamic values. Other important themes raised by the authors include curriculum development, the roles of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, the onset of neoliberal policies in the new millennium, and the role of teachers’ unions, with the focus on the pro-AKP Eğitim-Bir-Sen, the membership of which has increased dramatically. This is not to be confused with the very visible and progressive education union, Eğitim-Sen, which embraces a critical pedagogy and incidentally produces one of Turkey’s main peer-reviewed education journals. Other significant issues raised in the book include those of human rights education, the role of the “new managerialism” in Turkish education, preparation for flexi-work, adult education in the context of the recent neoliberal discourse on lifelong learning, private foundation universities, private tutoring (quite a phenomenon in other Mediterranean countries, as well), body politics and sexual regulation under AKP rule, among others.

The timely view provided by this impressive group of Turkish scholars is panoramic and varied. Hence, the volume provides a much needed comprehensive insight into educational concerns within this increasingly influential nation – a nation characterized by those conditions, tensions and struggles that result from an intermeshing of different cultures within a context of asymmetrical relations of power. In this light, Turkey serves as a perfect example of the postcolonial phenomenon of hybridity: East meets West, Europe meets Asia, secularism coexists with Islam, while modernist conceptions in the form of Turkish nationalism coexist with postmodern ones, involving different ethnic identities seeking affirmation and greater political power or autonomy – even by armed struggle, if necessary, as has been case with the Kurds.

In a country such as Turkey, the pedagogical influences are many as the nation-state grapples with the inherent cultural and political conflicts and contradictions resulting from the ideological push-pull of modernizing secularization and existing religious traditions of Islam, and all in the midst of changing economic conditions. The influx of immigrants from various parts of the region, not least immigrants from nearby Syria opposed to the Assad government, and reactions by many supporters of Assad from within Turkey (thus opposed to the position taken by their government in favoring the opposing Syrian rebels), render the various struggles in this regard even more complex.

We are indebted to Professor Hasan Aksoy from Ankara University and Onur Seçkin, from Bogazici University for their important comments on earlier drafts of the article.

2. Stephen Harper, “Beyond the Left. The Communist Critique of the Media,” Zer0 books /John Hunt 2012.

3.İlhan_Erdost – 25k

4. See Mayo, “Gramsci, Freire ve Yetişkin Eğitimi” (Dönüştürücü Eylem Fırsatları) Ankara: Utopya ; Borg, C, Buttigieg, J and Mayo, P (eds.), “Gramsci ve Eğitim,” Istanbul: Kalkedon; Mayo, P., “özgurleştiren Praksis. Paulo Freire’nin Radikal Eğitimve Politka Mirasi,” Ankara; Dipnot, 2012.

5. Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party), which is the current ruling party in Turkey led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It is a center-right party which favors a conservative social agenda and a liberal market economy.

6. Incidentally this school is said to have given rise to the famous football club, Galatasaray, UEFA Cup and European Super Cup winners in 2000. The club traces its origins to the high school team.