Erdoğan’s words on academics: A mother’s view

Erdoğan’s words on academics: A mother’s view

It is not only bombs that shake Turkey. Often the mere words that come out of the mouth of its President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suffice to have a similar effect. 

In a speech delivered on Jan. 12, Erdoğan slammed a group of academics for being “ignorant” and “treacherous.” What incurred his wrath was a declaration signed by more than 1,000 academics from 89 universities calling for an end to state violence in southeastern Turkey, the site of renewed clashes between Turkish forces and Kurdish insurgents. Sadly, the strongest support for Erdoğan’s outburst came from the leader of a mafia ring, Sedat Peker, who vowed bloody revenge upon the signatories (who, beside prominent Turkish scholars, also include names such as Noam Chomsky and Immanuel Wallerstein). 

Needless to say, this incident will continue to generate a fair amount of criticism at many levels, both domestically and internationally. Here, I am simply writing as a Turkish mother. It is not my intention to discuss the contents of the declaration or state an opinion on the current political situation. I merely want to draw attention to Erdoğan’s words as a threat to the future generations of Turkey.

I wonder what I should advise my teenager children if they choose to study in their parents’ home country? Should I tell them that good professors are the ones who do not express unfavorable opinions against the state or the government? Or that those who question authority are “ignorant traitors” who intend to divide the country? Would a system that regards its teaching pool in this light be able to deliver a good education? If my children find themselves in such an environment, would they be able to develop their analytical skills in the way that is expected from educated adults? Would they be cognizant enough to seek more than one way to approach an issue, learn to assess opposing points of view, and make balanced judgments? Would it not be a pity if they miss the opportunity to develop their minds as young adults and benefit from this for the rest of their lives? And how much hope could I nurture in a generation deprived of a chance to flourish in an environment of free speech and open debate. Could I trust the presidents, prime ministers and politicians of the future to make open, sensible and tolerant attempts to solve our country’s long standing social issues? 

Taking an opposite position, I could perhaps tell them outright that Turkey is a country where academic freedom is put at risk at the expense of loyalty. Mentioning that the signatories of that declaration might be forced to resign or be subject to lawsuits would, I’m sure, have an effect on their young and innocent minds. Would it not be a pity to again have to present this dismal picture as the state of affairs in their home country? They might still choose to get an education there, but God forbid, what if they decide on an academic career one day, despite everything? Should I then worry about their job security and personal safety?

President Erdoğan’s derision of academics and intellectuals expressed more than just a moment of anger at a time of increased tension. It was also an indication of his deep mistrust in a social model shaped by free debate. There must surely exist members of Turkish academia held in high esteem by the president, but it is not hard to see that this can only be a select group who pose no challenge to his views and policies. This is dangerous. Close to two million high school seniors take a series of arduous tests every year to be admitted to colleges in Turkey. University preparation is a long and exhausting process for them, and an expensive one for their parents. Is all this effort to produce uniform citizens? Is university education nothing more than giving vocational skills? How about those Turkish students who do doctoral work at Western institutions? Are they working towards academic excellence only to see it at odds with the academic culture in their home country? 

President Erdoğan’s attitude is also a sign that he does not adhere to a worldview that sees academic freedom as a tenet of progress. Can we talk of a future without progress? The next generation’s quality of life will not only depend on its material wellbeing, but also on its ability to resolve complicated problems like the Kurdish issue. This is not an easy effort and would have greatly benefitted from the thoughts and advice of the academic community. I wish I could have shown Erdoğan to my children as an exemplary figure who appreciated this intellectual capital and who, with this gesture alone, had contributed immensely to peace and prosperity. Much to my chagrin, this does not seem possible. 

* A.Candan Kirişci is a Turkish national living in Rockville, MD.