Turkish universities under petition pressure

Turkish universities under petition pressure

Detaining university teachers through anti-terror police raids, just for signing a petition that does not even directly praise violence, is nothing short of Orwellian. 

Unfortunately, this happened in Turkey on Jan. 15. Scholars at Kocaeli University and Bursa University were taken into custody for being among the 1,128 signatories of an open petition published on Jan. 12 asking the government to stop anti-terror operations in east and southeast Turkey and accept a roadmap in line with the demands of the “Kurdish political will.” Many of the scholars have been threatened by pro-government or nationalist groups for “helping terrorism.”

The Higher Education Board (YÖK) has also sent a message to universities, asking them to inform it about measures they are taking against the signatories. Boards of trustees of small private universities have put pressure on rectors to immediately terminate the contracts of signatory professors. Some rectors have done so, while others (who asked not to be named) are trying to resist such demands. An official inter-universities board has asked university rectors to sign a declaration against the Jan. 12 petition, but have not published it (yet) because many rectors have declined to put their names under it.

In a meeting with YÖK members in Istanbul on Jan. 15, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu gave examples from after the 1960 and 1980 military coups, highlighting the role of some “professors” in supporting the coups. He said academia must not intervene in the matters of elected governments.

Before that meeting, President Tayyip Erdoğan urged universities to “take necessary steps immediately,” implying the expulsion of all signatories from academia at once. He also said those “low-lives” who signed the “dark petition” could choose between either “doing politics in parliament” or “digging trenches and taking to the mountains” - like outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants. 

The petitioners rights have been defended by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which vowed to continue defending the non-violent freedom of expression of all Turkish citizens. U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass also said he saw no “terrorism propaganda” in the petition and added that he thought Turkish democracy was strong enough to tolerate such criticism.

Both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are angry that the petitioners did not even mention the PKK and its acts of terrorism that have been ongoing in the region for months, leading to the beginning of military operations in response. Indeed, the petitioners only asked the government to halt its military operations, while also accepting the demands of the “Kurdish political will,” which is a term often used by the PKK in its literature.

The petition is certainly problematic. I myself would not sign such a document that ignores the PKK’s deadly actions. But taking scholars to court on terrorism charges for signing such a document and pressurizing universities to expel them from academic life because of their political views is far more problematic.

The government must calm down and handle this situation with care before it begets even worse for the quality of democracy in Turkey.