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In September 2010, several years before serving as the prime minister of Turkey (2014–16), Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Boston. At that time, he was Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs and a member of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP). Upon his arrival, he invited a small group of professors from major universities in the city to a formal breakfast discussion. While we, the invitees, were all citizens of Turkey, the group represented a range of academic disciplines, ethnicities, genders, ages, and religious orientations. When he asked each of us to introduce ourselves, he realized that I was the only person in the room specializing in political Islam. His first and last words to me during the breakfast were, “So, you are objectifying us.” Davutoğlu was a professor of political science, with an MA and a Ph.D. from Boğaziçi University (BU), a top-ranked Turkish university. Aiming for academic connections, he asked for ideas and suggestions for future research collaborations between Boston and Istanbul. One of the guests, a globally renowned scholar of his field, snapped:

My advice to you and the government is to leave us alone. Science demands freedom, and academics need autonomy.
In fact, most of us live and work here because of how the government in Turkey fails to respect the independence of academic inquiry.

The professor’s comments were right to the point. The follow- ing decade witnessed an increasingly taxing and repressive political rule that bluntly targeted the intelligentsia, the academics, and journalists, of the country. Indications of this dark period were already apparent in Davutoglu’s keynote address at Harvard University, as he emphasized the importance of “a balance between security and freedom” as one of Turkey’s goals (Harvard Gazette 2010). A few years later, Turkey’s rapid erosion of freedoms was justified by the excuse of maintaining order and security.

The use of security by authoritarian populists as a weapon to curtail democratic liberties and undermine the rule of law has become the global zeitgeist (Norris and Inglehart 2019, 7), and is therefore not unique to Turkey. The annual report on political rights and civil liberties by Freedom House1 declared that democracy is under attack and in decay, and announced the year 2017 as the twelfth consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Importantly, however, the analysis also included Turkey among the most alarming cases: the country had moved “from Partly Free to Not Free” as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan broadened and intensified the crackdown on his perceived opponents after the failed coup attempt in 2016. By this categorization, Turkey joined the 25 percent of countries of the world characterized as least free, including Syria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Sudan, and Libya.

By the time the AKP won its third national election in 2011, the crisis of democracy had already taken a toll. But after the failed coup attempt in 2016, emergency measures, including decree-laws, became the new normal, justifying illiberal repressive rule. A declaration of emergency preceding the government’s so-called war on terror, which aimed to quash the opposition that had allegedly launched the coup, upset the “fragile balance between security and public order, on the one hand, and civil and political rights, on the other” (Dezalay 2020, S3; see also Abel 2018). In fact, Erdoğan admitted that the coup attempt benefitted him and advanced his political agenda. It enabled him to undertake further securitization with decree-laws he often passed overnight. Although the crackdown was on all opposition, it vilified perceived enemies and targeted the press, journalists, and academics in particular. Many academics and intellectuals were convicted, imprisoned, laid off, and banned from employment, and left in difficult situations because of their political thoughts and opposition. Among them, the signatories of “Academics for Peace,” a statement calling for peace with Kurdish minority forces,2 were criminalized for treason and terrorism and banned from international travel. Begin- ning long before the statement and its consequences for the signatories, a severe brain drain has caused the academic diaspora from Turkey to grow rapidly across countries and continents. Academics were chased by the regime, traced by Turkish diplomats, and attacked for being “too critical or too harsh” in their analyses (Türkiye’yi çok hırpaladınız). In the years after the coup attempt, Turkish diplomats have continued to “advise” critical scholars abroad—exiled or in self-exile—not to study Turkish politics or criticize the government.

It is globally well documented that right-wing authoritarian populism has a severe aversion to and disrespect for free critical thinking as well as for academic autonomy. Yet as electoral victories of right-wing populists continue across the world, we still know very little about how and where to defend and gain freedom beyond the ballot box. What are some of the weaknesses of right-wing populist rulers? Who resists or intimidates populist authoritarianism and is consequently targeted as enemies? Focusing on the Turkish case, this paper suggests that the populist authoritarian regime is intimidated most intensely by liberal urban civil resistance rather than fierce critique from its political opponents in the parliament. Notwithstanding the fact that right-wing populists are a danger not only to political liberalism but also to democracy (Müller 2016, 103), I argue that the key to democratic resistance is in the nature of solidarity over freedoms. Compared to the ballot box, a pluralist solidarity around freedoms, formed by democrats across political affiliations, appears to be more important in triggering insecurities and bringing about weaknesses of the populist authoritarian regime. The anti-pluralist populists have the hardest time defeating a nonpartisan freedom-defense because neither violent repression nor “divide and conquer” strategies prove effective at defeating the mindset and political spirit behind these cross-ideological alliances.

To concretize my argument, I ask: What platforms and venues of liberal democratic opposition persist against the backdrop of the AKP’s increasing repression in Turkey? The 2013 Gezi Park uprisings, which erupted as an urban protest to protect a park in the city center from becoming a mall, were a historical turning point in Turkey, as they rapidly turned into a democratic resistance that expanded from Istanbul to the rest of the country. The Gezi protests were successful in rising above ideological and identity-based lines of disagreement and polarization, as the protestors built new alliances over the defense of freedoms for all. In the aftermath of the uprisings, the Gezi spirit and the liberal mindset behind it have persisted in “contested” urban sites—neighborhoods, squares, campuses, and so on, which I refer to as “islands of freedom” (Turam 2015; 2013).

Here I focus on the Erdoğan-led regime’s attack on Boğaziçi University (BU), which, according to the New York Times, is “one of Turkey’s institutional jewels” (Gall 2021). It is one of the top-ranked public universities of Turkey, originally founded in 1863 as the first American college outside the United States, and transferred to the Turkish Republic in 1971. Based on its liberal pluralist legacy, the campus has become one of the most vocal and resilient defenders of not just academic freedom but all democratic liberties, particularly since the regime crushed the democratic Gezi protests in 2013. The latest and harshest blow to BU was the political appointment of a rector, Melih Bulu, who was a long-time member of the AKP. The mid-night presidential decree on January 1, 2021, defied a decades-long precedent of faculty-elected rectors. Infuriated by the government’s occupation and a police siege, the students immediately initiated a peaceful protest supported by BU’s distinguished faculty members and alumni across the globe. The resistance rapidly became a national crisis of democracy and international alert for the defense of freedoms and rights.

Most observers explain the clash between Erdoğan and BU primarily as a competition over cultural capital, which Erdoğan’s political hegemony could not get under control. Parting ways with the culturalist argument, I argue that both Erdoğan’s fear and BU’s resilience originate mainly in the university’s advanced political skill, the mastery of political pluralism. Although the campus, like the city of Istanbul, accommodates striking cultural and identity-based diversity, BU is primarily empowered by its widely shared political commitment to democratic rights and universal liberties. BU’s rector crisis provides important clues about the nature, weak links, and blind spots of populist authoritarian rule. Simultaneously, BU’s solidarity in support of freedom provides a rich laboratory in which to explore the capacities of liberal democratic resistance and its resources and potential under a corrupt populist authoritarian regime.

My book Gaining Freedoms and Claiming Space (2015) pointed to the primacy of the liberal university in defending democratic liberties when all political-institutional channels have been blocked, co-opted, and/or confiscated. My ethnography of the highly contested urban campus showed that the university and its liberal pluralist legacy generated a strong democratic solidarity. Unlike other cities that represented a unified opposition mobilized by secularist nationalist ideology, such as Izmir and Eskisehir, Istanbul’s contested sites stand out in accommodating disagreement and thereby political pluralism. Building upon my previous research on these liberal contested sites and their particular solidarity built on pluralism, this paper scrutinizes the ways in which right-wing populism forcefully targets, encroaches on, and pushes its domination through the gates of BU, where the authoritarian political elite clashes with Istanbul’s urban liberal legacy. The BU rector crisis sheds light on several pressing matters. What distinguishes the liberal elite and contested sites of metropolitan Istanbul from other groups in opposition to the AKP? Against the backdrop of the party’s accusations that BU’s liberal elite legacy undermines national values and divides the nation, I maintain that conflict handled peacefully, in fact, strengthens democracy and the polity by nurturing pluralism and safeguarding freedoms and rights. In Turkey, democratic pluralism and its twin concept “disagreement” are often confused with and feared as political division and polarization, though these two are the exact opposites of each other. Above and beyond identifying as leftist, nationalist, Islamist, secularist, or any other label indicating class, ethnic, or religious hierarchies, BU’s political culture has always prioritized freedom, rights, and democratic liberty for all above ideological or identity-based cleavages. The university is built on liberal principles and a worldview that bridges these divides. This, I argue, is the very reason its antiauthoritarian politics has triggered the regime most and why the campus has persevered as one of the last castles of resistance.

This article is excerpted from an essay that first appeared in Social Research.

Berna Turam, Director of international affairs program and professor of sociology at Northeastern University, is a political sociologist and ethnographer, researching society interaction, particularly between ordinary Muslim people and secular states.