MESOP INSIGHT: Turkey’s Crackdown on Academic Freedom

“In Turkey, ‘guilt by association’ can be taken literally and freedom of expression can be treated as a crime.” – Howard Eissenstat, Amnesty-USA

November 19, 2012 By Howard Eissenstat : In Turkey, it is not “publish or perish” that scholars must fear.  It is prison.

There was a time, not very long ago, when Turkey seemed on the edge of a new era of academic and intellectual freedom.  New private universities created institutional support for more independent scholarship, while the Turkish government showed at least grudging willingness to allow debate of formerly “taboo subjects.” 

For example, in 2005, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), after initial hesitation, publicly supported the first conference in Turkey that seriously examined the Armenian Genocide.  It soon became apparent, however, that the AK Party’s vision of academic freedom has clear limits.

In some cases, basic science came under attack.  In Turkey, as in the United States, there is a powerful creationist movement eager to debunk fundamental aspects of evolutionary science.  Creationism has deep roots in Turkey and the ruling AKP has quietly picked up the banner of anti-science.  Slowly, over the past several years, major scholarly institutions have lost their independence and party hacks have replaced serious researchers.

In 2009, Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, or TÜBİTAK, sacked the editor of its journal, Bilim ve Teknik, and removed an article commemorating the bicentenary of  Darwin’s  birth.  Although the editor was reinstated after an international outcry, the chilling effect would remain as the government has asserted greater and greater control over scholarship.  More recently, a government-sponsored internet filter, kept children from accessing material on Darwinism.  Only last month, the Financial Times reported that an AKP-controlled municipality in Istanbul was distributing textbooks that managed to combine anti-Semitism and anti-Darwinism, describing “Charles Darwin as a Jew with a big nose who kept the company of monkeys.”

Attacks on dissent

A more profound attack on scholars stems from the Turkish government’s increasing intolerance of dissent.  In the massive wave of arrests that has darkened Turkey’s human rights record, scholars and students have been targeted.  As a recent article in Nature notes “right-wingers, left-wingers and staunch secularists [are] all under attack.”  The normal debates and activism that color any university campus can now land students and faculty in prison.

As the “Kurdish Opening” slammed shut in 2009, intellectuals who had voiced support for expressions of Kurdish identity suddenly became suspect.  Many, including prominent intellectuals like Büşra Ersanlı and Ragip Zarakolu were put on trial as “terrorists.”  In part because of pressure from Amnesty and other human rights organizations, Zarakolu and Ersanlı have been released pending trial, though they both face lengthy jail terms if found guilty.

Nonetheless, thousands are still awaiting trial or have already been imprisoned.  While good numbers are hard to pin down, Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin is quoted as saying that nearly three thousand students are currently either in prison or in jail awaiting trial.

Many of the cases against students are particularly sloppy.  Many, like the French exchange student, Sevil Sevimli, are charged not with violence, but rather with “affiliation with a terrorist group.”   Others have been charged with “terrorist propaganda” for singing Kurdish songs and shouting slogans or even dancing.  After an international outcry, Sevimli was released pending trial, but students like Ezgi Özgün can languish in pre-trial detention for many months without even knowing what they have been charged with. Trials based on secret testimony and shoddy evidence can result in long prison sentences.  For example, Amnesty has highlighted the case of Cihan Kırmızıgül, an engineering student at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, who has been sentenced to prison on terror charges despite weak evidence and contradictory testimony.  By many accounts, the chief evidence against him was that he was young, male, and wearing a keffiyeh, or traditional scarf, on the wrong day.

The massive and occasionally surreal Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, which allege broad conspiracies to overturn the elected government, have led to the breakdown of the military’s role in government and street battles between secularists and police on a national holiday.  They have also led to the detention of many journalists and scholars whose relationship to any potential conspiracy is hard to understand.

Scholarly organizations are taking note.  For example, the case of Kemal Gürüz, in pre-trial detention since June despite his ill health, has been profiled in Science and Nature.  A number of international academic organizations, including The Committee of Concerned Scientists, Scholars at Risk and AAAS, have lobbied the Turkish government to release Gürüz and other Turkish academics caught up in the trials.  In November, 2011, French academics founded a new organization, the International Working Group (known by its French acronym, GIT), which works to highlight the targeting of academics and the constraints on academic freedom in Turkey.  Almost immediately, GIT branches  opened in North America, Turkey, and a number of European countries.

Turkish officials claim that they are doing nothing more than “combating terrorism.”  But, Turkish officials have been dangerously expansive in their definition of “terror.”  In a  recent speech, Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin, suggested that “[writing] poems or short articles [which] demoralize the soldiers or police” are acts of terror and that terrorist cells can include “a university chair, an association, or a non-governmental organization.”

In Turkey, “guilt by association” can be taken literally and freedom of expression can be treated as a crime.This post was originally published under a similar headline on It is reprinted here with Amnesty’s permission.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.

INSIGHT: Turkeys Crackdown on Academic Freedom Howard Eissenstat

Howard Eissenstat serves as a country specialist on Turkey for Amnesty International USA. He holds a PhD in Modern Middle Eastern History from UCLA and is an assistant professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.

Read more at Middle East Voices: