The Turkish government’s aggressive response to a petition by academics against the crackdown on the country’s Kurdish minority in southeastern Turkey has demonstrated its intolerance of criticism and lack of respect for academic freedom. The controversy threatens to deepen the country’s polarisation between the conservative government and the “other 50%” who didn't vote for it.
The petition by 1,128 academics from 89 universities in Turkey and abroad – including famous personalities such as Noam Chomsky and Immanuel Wallerstein and led by “Academics for Peace” – expressed opposition to the ongoing military operations in ethnically Kurdish-dominated southeastern provinces, where some 200 civilians have been killed over the past few months as well as several hundred militants.
"The Turkish state has effectively condemned its citizens in Sur, Silvan, Nusaybin, Cizre, Silopi, and many other towns and neighbourhoods in the Kurdish provinces to hunger through its use of curfews that have been ongoing for weeks,” the petition read. “It has attacked these settlements with heavy weapons and equipment that would only be mobilized in wartime. As a result, the right to life, liberty, and security, and in particular the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment protected by the constitution and international conventions have been violated. (...) As academics and researchers of this country, we will not be a party to this crime!"
The academics were quickly accused by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of “treachery” and “academic terrorism” for allegedly supporting and spreading the terrorist propaganda of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is in decades-long military conflict with Turkey. Even Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a former academic himself, supported the president’s criticism, saying, “those who do not back terrorist acts would not have signed it”.
Government media and supporters then followed up, slavering over their hatred for the academics who had dared to criticise the president. Mafia leader Sedat Peker, an admirer of the president, promised to “take a bloodbath with the blood of these so-called academics” in a written statement posted on his website; while pro-government daily Yeni Akit labelled all the signatories as “traitors who are Armenophile” – a common hate speech epithet used in Turkey when referring to liberals. The hashtag #1128katil (1,128 killers) became a trending topic in Turkey, especially favoured by government and nationalist supporters. A pro-government columnist Cem Kucuk claimed that those academics and journalists who met US Vice President Joe Biden during his recent official visit in Istanbul were in fact “civilized dead people” in the eyes of the public opinion.
In response, there has been a wave of investigations against the signatories on accusations of “spreading propaganda of a terrorist organization”, while universities have already dismissed 29 co-called ‘enemies of the state’ from their posts.
This is but the latest battle between what Erdogan contemptuously calls the Turkish secular “elite” and the conservative Islamic government. The confrontation began with the “Ergenekon trials crackdown on the military – traditionally the protector of founder-president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular inheritance. It climaxed with the mass restriction of freedoms during the police violence against the Gezi Park protests in June 2013.
The judicial prosecutions against the companies, foundations and media outlets linked to the US-based Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen then launched another wave of persecution and intimidation of opposition media.
Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism and the polarisation of the political debate has paid off in terms of electoral support , and could give him enough nationalist votes to move the country towards the presidential-style system he craves.
But at the same time it has also undermined national unity, coarsened the domestic political debate, and damaged the country’s foreign image, at a time when its membership application for the European Union is supposedly being reactivated.
The European Union recently released a statement on the steps taken against the academics, saying that “freedom of expression must be upheld, in line with the Copenhagen political criteria; an intimidating climate goes against this”.
“We expect Turkey ensures that its legislation is implemented in a manner which is in line with European standards enshrined in the European Convention for Human Rights and the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights,” the statement continued.