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Turkish Academics Fear Growing Witch Hunt Following Failed Coup

The growing academic purges have made scholars extremely wary of publishing critical or sensitive material.

Most academics in Turkey don’t want to talk; not even anonymously.

“I rarely, if ever, speak on the condition of anonymity,” a former philosophy professor told me, nervously — and unnecessarily — apologizing for his uncharacteristic request to remain unnamed. Just a few months ago, he was dismissed from his job after signing the controversial Academics for Peace petition, which supported peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Now considers his career in Turkey to be over.

“But no one wants to talk now,” he added. “And if I’m speaking to several different journalists, and it is clear that it is me talking, I’ve basically put a target on my head.”

On July 15, military tanks rolled into Istanbul and Ankara, firing into the streets in an attempt by a subsection of the Turkish military to wrest power from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Over the course of the night, F-16 jets bombed the parliament building in Ankara, and sonic booms echoed throughout the streets of Istanbul. Though the coup ultimately failed, the bloodshed of the night was irrevocable — 265 people were left dead, with far more injured or arrested amid the chaos in the streets.

Following the failed coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called upon his supporters to fill the streets and demonstrate in favor of democracy — making public transportation and extra phone credit free to encourage public gathering. However, even as AKP supporters filled the streets waving Turkish flags and singing throughout the night, the government launched a mass purge of civil institutions in an effort to weed out those it considers “traitors.” President Erdoğan has claimed that he is targeting followers of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom he suspects of orchestrating the coup.

“I don’t even know what the upcoming academic year is going to look like inside of the universities,” a journalism professor who wished to remain unnamed, told Truthout. Though her university remains unscathed by the purge for now, she has several close colleagues who have been affected.

“Thousands of incoming students are going to need to change their plans,” the professor said.

During the purge, 42,000 teachers were either suspended from their jobs or had their teaching licenses revoked. The Higher Education Council asked 1,577 university deans to resign, and more than 500 professors and other academics were dismissed across the country. Fifteen universities were shut down entirely.

In addition to dismissing hundreds of academics suspected of having ties to Gülen, President Erdoğan also banned academics from leaving the country and demanded that anyone currently abroad immediately return in order to facilitate the investigation. This policy has frustrated many, forcing academics to postpone research requiring international cooperation.

“My colleagues and myself have to cancel participation in conferences, and any joint research projects that require travel abroad,” another academic — who also wished to go unnamed — said, sighing. Though she was planning to attend a conference in Athens in the coming months, she may now be forced to cancel her plans, as the restrictions on academics continue to mount.

“This means that academic research cannot be done — or needs to at least be [temporarily] halted,” she continued. “International cooperation is basically impossible.”

As the ability of academics to produce challenging work becomes more and more restricted, many are considering traveling abroad to pursue their careers with greater freedom.

“Of course, I’d prefer to stay in Turkey,” she said. “But right now that just feels impossible.”

It isn’t only the professors who are affected. Students, when given the opportunity, are increasingly choosing to study abroad — motivated by the narrowing scope of academic freedom within Turkey and the fear that though it is the Gülenists that the government is claiming to go after today, it could soon be other groups perceived to be antigovernment, or critical of the government.

“They are not motivated to do anything positive in this country,” the philosophy professor lamented, musing about colleagues and former students who have chosen to leave Turkey and continue their studies abroad. “They know that if they do what they want to do here, they will be penalized.”

For those who remain in Turkey, the increasingly unstable political environment makes more and more scholars wary of publishing critical or sensitive material; they know it means risking the fate the philosophy professor met.

“Over the past six months, I have seen many people, including social scientists, stop doing research,” the philosophy professor said. “Let’s say you are an economist, but the numbers you are researching look bad. Will you publish these? Or will you sit on them — and wait until someone else does?”

He sighed.

“Why try to be [a] good academic when you can toe the government line and become the president of a university?”

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