Turkish academia failing to maintain autonomy as an intellectual force

Turkish academia failing to maintain autonomy as an intellectual force

“Is Turkey becoming like the ‘old Turkey’?” a European ambassador asked me recently.
“What do you mean?” I responded, as the question fell in stark contrast to the “new Turkey” rhetoric that has been stuck in the mouths of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s election to the presidency.

The envoy was referring to the incorporation of the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEİK) into the Economy Ministry - a surprising move by the government to turn the autonomous institution into a public one. “This is like the old Turkey, bringing everything under state control,” the ambassador said.

When we were having this conversation, we still did not know what was about to come. According to a subsequent directive published by the Economy Ministry, representatives of the business and trade community like the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB) and the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD) will be asked to transfer one percent of their income to the DEİK.

Were the leaders of the business community consulted about this? No. Are they happy about it? I don’t think so! Will they raise a dissenting voice? The answer: Of course not, for this is the “new Turkey,” which Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has pledged to turn into a democracy with universal standards.

Shortly after he was sworn in as prime minister, Davutoğlu said the following: “It is not so bad that [former prime minister] Adnan Menderes is recalled for the highways he constructed, it was revolutionary. Neither is it [bad] for [Süleyman Demirel] to be remembered for the construction of dams, and [Turgut Özal] with a liberal economy. Our president [Erdoğan] will be remembered for making the national will the real sovereign. If we are asked how we shall be remembered within the 2023 vision, our aim is as follows: To turn Turkey into a democracy of universal dimension and a global power in terms of foreign policy.”

The DEİK was established as an autonomous institution under Özal, who Davutoğlu mentioned as being associated with a liberal economy. Bringing it under the state is not a step in the direction of universal democracy; on the contrary, it is a backward step.

The presence of a strong civil society is a must for universal democracy, and no doubt the press is one of the most important tenants of civil society. The international community often focuses on the pressure the government exerts on the media, but there are other tenets of civil society too - like the business community, or the academic community.

The latter is not doing any better than the former when it comes to its relationship with political power.

İlter Turan is a prominent professor of political science who is currently celebrating his 50th year in academia. “The academic community is much more productive in terms of research, and we have a much larger academic community and variety within it,” Turan told me in an interview. However, he believes the importance and prestige of the academic community has generally declined over the years.

“The entire composition of Turkey has changed, and the role of the educated elites and the educators has been redefined; new centers of power have developed,” he said.

“As the number of academics has increased very rapidly, certain problems about quality have emerged, and the academic community has failed to develop a set of understandings that will ensure its autonomy as an intellectual force. There are too many people ingratiating themselves with political movements rather than sticking to the ethical standards of the academic world,” he added.

In the new Turkey, you have pro-government media serving as a platform for pro-government academics, while certain pillars of society, like the business world, watch on in silence. Depending on one’s level of pessimism or optimism, one can see this either as just a continuation of the old Turkey, as worse than the old Turkey, or as somewhat better than the old Turkey.