Design: DF/Public Seminar

On a mellow Oxford evening in 2005, my colleague from Nuffield College wanted to show me some Oxford architectural gems after a concert at the Sheldonian Theatre. We walked towards the entrance to the Proscholium of the Bodleian Library in the Schools Quadrangle, where I saw for the first time the inscription on the gate: QUOD FELICITER VORTAT ACADEMICI OXONIENS BIBLIOTHECAM HANC VOBIS REIPUBLICAEQUE LITERATORUM TBP (May it go well the academics of Oxford TBP [Thomas Bodley Posuit] built this library for you and the republic of the learned). Having virtually no deep-rooted national sentiments, I remember thinking that if I ever had to pledge allegiance to a republic, this would probably be the one: reipublicaeque literatorum, the republic of letters or the republic of the learned. Yet I also knew that such a republic could not flourish in the absence of free speech. Tragically, Turkey’s republic of letters was bulldozed from 2016 onwards with the purges and court cases against academics.

Academics for Peace began to receive court summons in December 2017. Until their acquittal in the fall of 2019, 654 academics had hearings in criminal courts, 204 received prison sentences, and 29 received prison sentences of more than two years. Since convictions above two years cannot be suspended according to law, the latter were unable to receive suspended prison sentences. Suspended prison sentences meant that the defendants could avoid being imprisoned unless convicted again in the course of the next five years in return for accepting their sentence.

Seven of the convicted academics refused the suspended prison sentences although their sentences were below two years because they did not want to agree that the act of signing a peace petition was a crime. Their dignified act found its invaluable place in the legacy of struggles for free speech in Turkey. What they did was no less than make history by returning the honor of the profession back to the tormented Turkish academia. Some of these academics were among the 10 noted above whose individual cases before the Constitutional Court culminated in the acquittal of many academics with ongoing criminal cases.

The state of emergency declared after the July 15, 2016, coup attempt widened the scope of the decree-laws or decrees having force of law, known as KHKs (Kanun Hükmünde Kararname), that were issued by the Council of Ministers. During the state of emergency, KHKs were used to undertake purges from universities as well as in other areas of public service. A major purge wave came when 40,000 public employees, including 2,346 academics, were fired from their positions on September 1, 2016. This was followed by many other waves of purges in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Since all these waves were ordained by emergency KHKs, Turkey’s academics began to wait for the next KHK and search for their own names in these decrees at late-night hours when most of them were issued. Scenes of colleagues calling each other after seeing their names on KHK lists and the agony of wondering whether one’s name will appear on the next list accompanied the fear of becoming unemployed.

About a week after the coup attempt, 15 universities with alleged links to the Gülen community were closed. In one blow, this led to the unemployment of 2,808 academic personnel and the transfer of 56,000 students to other universities. When the number of purged academics is combined with those who lost their jobs due to such closures, the total number of academics left unemployed after the state of emergency reaches over 8000.

The KHKs that were promulgated during the two-year state of emergency (from July 20, 2016, until July 19, 2018) were omnibus ordinances bundled together. Before the end of the state of emergency, Parliament passed them as laws, hence ensuring their continuous effect. One emergency decree law stopped the promotions to associate professorship of those academics who were being investigated for alleged membership in terror organizations until the judicial investigations were completed. Another gave President Erdoğan the authority to appoint the rectors (presidents) of the state universities in Turkey from among three candidates selected by the Council of Higher Education (YÖK, Yüksek Öğretim Kurulu) that oversees all universities in Turkey. This decree-law annulled the former participatory system at state universities by which the rectors were elected. The rectors of the foundation universities were also to be appointed by President Erdoğan after the YÖK’s approval of the candidate suggested by their board of trustees. During the state of emergency, faculty members were investigated and fired by many university administrations, and conferences were canceled.

The charges brought against the Academics for Peace were based on the Anti-Terror Law. The indictments against the Academics for Peace used Article 7/2 of the Anti-Terror Law, which states that:

Those who propagandize the methods of the terror organization that include force, violence, and threat in a way that justifies, praises, and encourages the utilization of such methods are sentenced to prison from one to five years. If the crime is committed through press and media, the sentence is increased by half.

(my translation)

The indictments received by Academics for Peace alleged that they had signed the peace petition upon receiving orders from a PKK insurgent. Such charges were an outrageous insult directed at Turkey’s most autonomous and critical minds. In some of the hearings, the prosecutors changed the charges from “terror propaganda” to “aiding the terrorist organization” on the basis of Article 220/7 of the Turkish Penal Code, which mandated imprisonment from five to 10 years. The notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code on “degrading Turkishness” was also used in bringing charges against the Academics for Peace. This was the article that led to the sentencing of Hrant Dink, an Armenian-Turkish journalist who was assassinated shortly after being sentenced. Since prison sentences were lower if found guilty on the basis of Article 301, some academics found themselves in a Kafkaesque moment when they almost preferred that their charges were changed from the Anti-Terror Law to Turkish Penal Code Article 301. This was a tragic paradox, since it was highly likely that these academics had criticized Article 301 in the past.

The hearings of the academics took place in criminal courts located at the new Palace of Justice in Istanbul, which was opened in 2011. This gigantic building and the courtrooms within it reflect the spirit of a novel grandiose construction design in New Turkey. This is a spirit that aims to intimidate the people who enter. The judges and prosecutor are seated on a very high platform above the defendant and her/his lawyer. Defendants and their lawyers are seated separately, which makes communication between them quite difficult. During the hearings of the Academics for Peace, the only thing that made their ordeal bearable was the presence of colleagues and friends in solidarity. The defendant academics turned the courtrooms into university classrooms and gave lectures of historical significance on free speech to the judges and the prosecutors.

Deliberate use of laws as instruments in consolidating power is one of the distinguishing features of new authoritarian regimes. Democracies are not just dying in the world; they are being killed deliberately in order to contain resistance and lengthen the life span of corrupt regimes. In Turkey, constitutional amendments, the Anti-Terror Law, the Turkish Penal Code, and decree-laws have been increasingly used from 2006 onwards in order to curb basic freedoms and consolidate authoritarianism. The fundamental regime change came with the 2017 constitutional amendments.

The above analysis focused on the way laws were used to destroy the republic of letters in Turkey as well as the constitutional amendments that augmented the powers of the executive. By using legality in the service of authoritarian practices, the new authoritarian regimes remain in power for longer periods of time and create a facade of normalcy despite unprecedented restrictions on basic freedoms. In Turkey today, legality is still a mechanism used by the AKP government to curtail freedom of expression. By May 2020, for example, 510 individuals were arrested for allegedly spreading provocative news about the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of them were charged with harming the public peace on the basis of the Turkish Penal Code. By July 2020, the AKP government had targeted the last vestiges of free speech in Turkey with the introduction of a new law that came into effect in October 2020. Known as the “Social Media Law,” the law aims to tighten government’s grip on social content and social network providers. Decrees having force of law that were issued during the state of emergency were later turned into laws by the approval of Parliament. Although such extension of their impact beyond the period of the state of emergency is criticized, they continue to be used, for instance in order to replace the elected mayors from the HDP with trustees appointed by the minister of the interior or governors in smaller municipalities. On December 27, 2020, a new law was passed in Parliament containing articles that gave the Ministry of the Interior the authority to replace the heads of NGOs who face “terrorism” charges. The law damages freedom of association and stifles civil society.

Since January 2021, Boğaziçi University faculty and students have been protesting the appointment of a new rector with strong AKP affiliations to their university by President Erdoğan. On the evening of February 1, 2021, students who gathered on campus were met with snipers on roofs and police brutality leading to the detention of 159 students. Most of them were later released, although some students were placed under judicial control or house arrest with monitoring bracelets. Police detentions have continued. More people were detained by the police during protests of solidarity with Boğaziçi University students in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and other cities. In mid-July, the rector was finally removed from his position by another presidential decree, demonstrating the significance of such long-term peaceful resistance. The vice rector has been appointed as the new rector. One of his first acts was to terminate the contracts of faculty members who took part in the months-long resistance. The faculty and students at Boğaziçi University have been courageously and patiently continuing their peaceful resistance.

In February 2017, at the height of the purges of academics from universities, in an act of protest against the purge of their professor, students at Boğaziçi University placed a banner on a campus building that read “Truth Cannot Be Purged,” in reference to an opinion piece that had been penned by their professor. During the purges, many academics carried their teaching and research activities to alternative mediums, engaging in open lectures and seminars. Kocaeli Solidarity Academy named its summer school program in 2017 after Mehmet Fatih Traş, an Academic for Peace who committed suicide following his expulsion from the university after which he could not secure another academic position or find a way of leaving the country. So many lives have been damaged irreparably. Precious acts of solidarity as well as the knowledge that truth cannot be purged remain the only traces of light in these dark times in Turkey.

Ayşe Kadıoğlu is professor of political science at Sabancı University, Istanbul. In addition to authored/co-edited books, she has published several articles in Middle East Journal, Middle Eastern Studies, International Migration, Muslim World, Citizenship Studies, Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, Middle East Law and Governance, and Philosophy & Social Criticism.

This article is excerpted from an essay that first appeared in Social Research. It is part of the journal’s issue “Turkey Today.

One thought on “How the Republic Of Letters Was Killed In Turkey

  1. Thank you for this comprehensive account of crushing repression. To join a fight back campaign I recommend Scholars at Risk. SAR.

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