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'Simply cruel': Renowned professor hits out at purge of Turkish universities

Korkut Boratav has seen the state gut three generations of academia. But he believes the current purge is the worst, and will do the most damage
Police arrested 12 people in protests over the purge of Ankara university (Reuters)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Korkut Boratav has seen government purges gut three generations of Turkey's universities over the last 70 years. 

The retired economics professor's father, Pertev Naili Boratav, a renowned historian, was forced out of Istanbul university in 1948 for his views. He himself was dismissed from Ankara university in 1983 after the military coup. And last week, the 82-year-old's former assistant, Nilgun Erdem, was sacked.

It is a theme that has run through modern Turkey, as universities have been cleared of their perceived subversives by the latest flavour of government. But in Boratav's experience, the purges after the failed coup of July last year have been the worst.

Academics who refuse to toe the official state line are now facing intense pressure, with roughly 4,800 academics sacked during the country's current state of emergency, severely depleting teaching staff at many universities - and with no end in sight.

"What is being done to academics today is simply cruel. I have never seen anything conducted on such a scale against academics in Turkey before, and I was among those dismissed after the 1980 coup," Boratav told Middle East Eye.

On 7 February, 330 academics became the latest to be dismissed by a government decree, which ordered the sacking of more than 4,400 civil servants in total. Despite his senior years, Boratav marched with other protesters at his alma mater on 10 February. They were greeted with police truncheons, water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets.

"I would not react if it was about the failed coup and the perpetrators, regardless of whether the response is proportionate," he said. "But what disturbs me is that most of these academics have nothing to do with that."

A three-month state of emergency was introduced on 20 July, has since been extended twice and is currently set to run until 20 April.

It grants expanded powers to the government, which includes the power to rule by decree and prohibit gatherings among a host of other powers.

What is being done to academics today is simply cruel

Korkut Boratav

Ankara accuses Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Turkish preacher, and his followers of orchestrating the coup attempt. The government has also designated Gulen’s movement as a terrorist organisation. Gulen and his movement deny the accusations.

The government had vowed to only use its expanded powers to go after Gulenists, who it says infiltrated all parts of Turkish society and state mechanisms over the last four decades with the aim of toppling the constitutional order in Turkey.

But, say critics, these powers have been abused and used to target all opponents of the ruling AKP party.

"This is a legal issue. The government is even stretching the powers of the state of emergency to the very limit," said Boratav. 

"The only hope for academia in Turkey lies in the judiciary. If it can manage to remain free and fair, these wrongs will eventually be corrected like they were in the past.

"Solidarity from other colleagues in academia is also vital," said Boratav. 

"But of course it will never make up for the distress and disruption caused to thousands of lives."

Police hold a protester from the demonstration outside Ankara university (Reuters)

Besieged cities, besieged universities

Many of the academics sacked or suspended over the last few months can trace their downfall to a declaration they signed in January 2016 against state sieges in southeast Turkey, which were in the grip of intense clashes between Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants and security forces.

The declaration, "We will not be complicit in this crime", was signed by more than 1,000 academics and researchers. Ankara’s reaction was fierce, branding signatories "traitors" and even "terrorists".  

The armed youth wing of the PKK, designated a terrorist entity by Turkey, the US and the EU, had dug trenches, set up barricades and declared "autonomous" zones in urban areas for the first time since the collapse of a fragile peace process in July 2015.

The government responded with extreme force. It defended its decision and stated that any sovereign state would respond in the same manner if public order was being compromised.

Police arrest 12 in protest over purge of professors

And it defended its steps against academics it said were sympathisers.

Under a state of emergency decree issued on 29 October, internal university elections to appoint heads of university were scrapped, and power was given to the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to appoint them directly.

Before this decree, the Higher Education Board (YOK), established in 1981, would hand the president a list of three shortlisted candidates chosen through university elections. The final choice rested with the president.

YOK said the list of academics to be dismissed were provided by university heads and administrations, and the board was not directly involved, in a statement released after the latest dismissals.

The AKP government and its top officials have always proclaimed that the country’s greatest resource is its educated and skilled workforce. And that it is this wealth of human resources that is the main driver of the country’s progress.

Yet it is this same resource that is being endangered by the government’s purge of non-conformists, said Boratav.

"It takes seven to eight years at least to nurture and bring academics to a good level. Such actions mean all that experience is lost instantly. This in turn will impact the future of the country and the quality and efficiency of our academia," he said.

Mistakes may have been made

The government has defended itself by saying "mistakes" can occur and a mechanism has been introduced to rectify wrongful dismissals.

In four separate decrees issued on 23 January, the government introduced a series of measures to address some of its shortcomings while conducting its post-coup crackdown.

Included was the establishment of a commission to redress wrongs committed under the state of emergency.

The measures are believed to have been introduced to ease the concerns of the EU Parliament and avoid being put back on the monitoring list, like in the 1990s.

Numan Kurtulmus, a deputy prime minister and government spokesman, said on 13 February that academics could seek redress from the commission if mistakes were made in their sacking.

"This mechanism will be set up quickly. The seven-person [commission] is an important mechanism for individual applications. A structure is being created that will generate results," said Kurtulmus.

Supporters listen to a speech by Erdogan in Istanbul's Taksim Square on August 10, 2016 (Reuters)

The continued targeting of the AKP’s opponents under the state of emergency has reached such levels that even the former president Abdullah Gul – a co-founder of the AKP and respected Islamist statesman who has largely withdrawn to the sidelines since 2014 – voiced his concerns over the dismissal of academics.  

"I remember there used to be security-related investigations after 12 September [the 1980 coup]. I was a professor at the university. Because of that security investigation I had to quit and move abroad," said Gul on 10 February.

"Everyone remembers what happened on 28 February," he said of the 1997 "post-modern coup", when a list of demands by army generals forced the collapse of the country's Islamist government, said Gul.

"It is because of those experiences that we need to take a principled stance against such topics which go against justice and conscience.

"I see these as very disturbing events. I hope that they will be rectified quickly."     

It is the brutal nature of the purge against academics that has Boratav concerned.

Even when dismissed in 1983, Boratav retained his passport and was able to travel and work abroad, despite having an active court case against him.

That is not the situation in 2017.

"Now they are cancelling their passports, depriving them of their pension rights and all other social rights and benefits that civil servants depend on.

"None of this is acceptable at any level."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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