“In 1948, they [the government] dismissed my father from university, me in 1980 and purged my assistant today,” a leading Turkish Marxist economist said after purge of 330 academics by a recent government decree on Tuesday.
Capturing the Turkish authorities’ longstanding war against free and critical academia in Turkey, Professor Korkut Boratav‘s personal account offers a bleak picture about universities that remains largely unchanged in decades.
“Every period, they have become more aggressive [brutal]. What is being done today is worse than Sept. 12  era, and any other period” he told Arti Gercek web portal. More than 100 academics were dismissed by military-run government, which ruled the country with iron fist for three years following a military coup d’etat in 1980 to end a decade-old political violence in 1970s.
The period between 1980 and 1983 was gripped by gross human rights abuses, repression on liberties and basic rights while almost all political parties were shut down by the military-led government. In collective memory of both right and the left, the era represented the darkest period for the Turkish democracy. And for Kurds, it was a nightmare. The widespread torture in Diyarbakir prison was often cited as a galvanizing force behind new recruitments for the Kurdish insurgents in the mountains in their battle against the Turkish state.
Today, historians and journalists view what is unfolding in Turkey as worse than any other period in the modern republican history. The number of purged academics already passed beyond 7,000, making 1980-era purges look dwarf in comparison to today’s massive firings in both universities and civil service. Nearly 140,000 public servants have been dismissed since a failed coup last summer.
To offer a consolation and solace to the newly fired colleagues, Political Science Professor and former lawmaker Baskin Oran said all of them will return to their post sooner or later. Mr. Oran who represented predecessor of today’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) in late 2000s as an independent leftist deputy in Parliament had also been dismissed by authorities in 1982.
“It was during Sept. 12 coup era. I was fired from Mulkiye [Ankara University Political Science Department] by YOK [Higher Education Board] in 1982. I was a post-doctoral fellow,” Mr. Oran wrote on T24 news web portal on Wednesday. When he was handed the decision in a yellow envelop at doors of his department, his scream across the walls sent rippling echoes, tremors through the hall: I will return triumphantly.
And he did. “[President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan regime thinks that those academics will not be able to return. They will return. I write this here,” he said with a boundless confidence.
The emergency decree that led to his dismissal prohibited them from working in public sector again. Thus, he was unable to file a lawsuit against the decision until the martial law and state of emergency lifted in Ankara. Four years later after his firing, he and other colleagues returned to the university by a court ruling.
During that convulsive time, Oran had to endure an economic ordeal. He did lots of things, including giving private French course and selling pet food, to make living while unemployed.
“Many of my friends have problems with their retirement rights. These people cannot go abroad as their passports have been revoked,” Professor Boratav said. To make matters worse, he said in lamentation, that some academics simply act as collaborator with the government, citing a deep wound that has divided academic world and shattered the mutual trust between colleagues.
Rectors and other university directors have direct role in preparation of purge lists. Academic Nilgun Erdem, Boratav’s last assistant, accuses Ankara University Rector Erkan Ibis of collaborating with the government, saying that he has become part of witch-hunt at the university.
Turkey Purges Critical Academics Ahead of Referendum
On Jan. 26, Professor Ibrahim Kaboglu, one of the most respected constitutional experts in Turkey, wrote on leftist Birgun daily that the constitutional reform bill is inherently against the constitution, human rights and secular democratic state governed by rule of law.
Equating ‘No’ vote with terrorism by authorities in their remarks and President Erdogan’s defiance of constitutional provision of impartiality by campaigning on behalf of the ruling party for referendum, Kaboglu argued, qualify as vital impediments against a healthy vote. He has emerged as an outspoken critic of the constitutional change, which he thinks will spell the end of democratic state by eradicating separation of powers, ending checks and balances system.
On Tuesday, he was among 330 academics who were dismissed in latest purge wave. The Turkish government sacked 4,464 more public workers by a new emergency decree on Tuesday, bringing total number to nearly 140,000 since an abortive coup last summer.
Kaboglu was teaching at Istanbul’s Marmara University. Of 330 academics, 115 of them were among those who signed a peace declaration last year, calling for halting military operations in urban areas in Kurdish southeast to give a chance to political settlement of the conflict. Avoiding civilian casualties in the fight between the security forces and the Kurdish insurgents in cities was also a central theme in the declaration, which prompted an official investigation into signatories. Hundreds of signatories found themselves dismissed from universities since July.
The government simply used emergency rule as a way of eliminating enemies, real and imagined, from bureaucracy. In the latest decree, 2,585 personnel, mostly teachers, from the Education Ministry, 893 officers from Gendarmerie General Command, 417 from National Police Department have been dismissed. The government also purged 49 personnel at the Interior Ministry, 48 at the Foreign Ministry, 88 from state-run TRT and officials from dozens of other government institutions and departments.
Latest government move comes ahead of a critical referendum, which gives expanded powers to President Erdogan, removing safeguards of rule of law. The vote has sown discord and division in Turkey, a country deeply polarized and traumatized by post-coup crackdown since last summer.
“Turkey’s purge has simply become a cover for eradicating perceived “enemies” of the AKP from civil service and academia.” Howard Eissenstat, Associate Professor of Middle East History at St. Lawrence University, wrote on Twitter after the purge. “Clientalism, always component of Turkish politics, has slowly morphed into makings of a single party state, incl “loyalist bureaucracy,” he tweeted.
Eissenstat, a keen Turkey observer, thinks that the current situation does not bode well for Turkey even though the ruling AKP may have some political gains in the short term.
“In the short term, AKP loses little from this: rewards loyalists, demonstrates perils of resistance, breaks power of old “elites,” he said in a series of tweets. “In long term, inevitable brain drain drains away Turkey’s future. Turkey’s future dependent on the genius and energy of its citizens.”
Since failed coup attempt, Turkey has imprisoned more than 40,000 people, including half of its generals, military officials, police officers, judges, prosecutors, financial experts, scientists and etc.
Stunned by the dismissal of respected professors, including Sociologist Yuksel Taskin, Prof. Nur Betül Celik, Prof. Mine Gencel Bek, Funda Başaran Özdemir, Funda Şenol Cantek, Prof. Ülkü Doğanay and Aylin Aydoğan, students reflected their fury on social media. Turkey’s clampdown on academia creates a toxic atmosphere where critical thinking is outlawed and free thought have come under tremendous pressure.