Soon after leaving power in 1989, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet coined a phrase that synthetized his view of University in one sentence: “To the university you go to study, not to think. And, if there is any time left, there are sports”. For Pinochet, it seems, there was a clear difference between studying and thinking, being the former to remain in the confines of authorised knowledge of (some) books. To think, in his perspective, meant the practice of reflecting about social reality, to become a critical voice, entailing the risk of becoming politically active. In other words, for Pinochet, to think was framed as a dangerous practice, as going too far, as a threat to the status quo.
The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems to entertain a similar conceptual distinction in his ongoing attempts to model higher education as a place where no critical thinking is allowed. After the failed military coup attempt on July 15, Erdoğan’s government has initiated a massive ‘purge’, which has affected not only the military but all institutions of public service, including universities and schools. In the name of governability, this ‘purge’ has served to eliminate any critical voice in the country. However, this was not a new development. The persecution of Erdoğan’s political opponents had started much earlier. In January 2016, six months before the failed coup attempt, more than 2200 academics calling themselves ‘Academics for Peace’, signed a petition asking the government to stop the ongoing conflict in the country’s South East and go back to the Peace Process with the Kurdish minority. Since then, the group has been the target of various repressions and threats. A large group of them had gone through academic investigations in their universities, some have been suspended or dismissed; others went through criminal investigations and/or face travel bans. In addition to this, their research funding was cut and their presentations in academic conferences were cancelled. Repression has been particularly harsh on professors Meral Camcı, Muzaffer Kaya, Esra Mungan and Kıvanç Ersoy, who were imprisoned for more than 30 days, first on charges of ‘terrorist propaganda’ and later for ‘insulting Turkishness’. Their trial is ongoing.
I travelled to Istanbul to act as international observer to the second trial against these four academics which took place on September 27. I went due to my involvement in ‘Academics for Peace- Goldsmiths’, a group of PhD students, postdocs and staff members at Goldsmiths concerned about academic freedom. The trial was also attended by other international organisations from Higher Education institutions of France, Belgium and Greece. Apart from attending the trial –which was postponed to December due to the change in the prosecution charges- the team of international observers took part of different activities organised by Academics for Peace. We participated in a Justice Watch outside Bakirkoy Women’s Prison. There, we showed solidarity with imprisoned writers and journalist collaborators of the daily newspaper Özgür Gündem -closed down on charges of supporting terrorism- among them, the prize-winning novelist Aslı Erdogan. We also attended the alternative opening of the academic year ceremony at Kocaeli University, where 21 signatories to the Academics for Peace Petition had recently been dismissed from their jobs and the public sector. Although these academics had already been forced to leave their homes in the campus, they decided not to give up their role as educators. They organised their own ‘university’ with weekly lectures on different topics, from industrialization to feminism in Turkey, until the end of the autumn term. Hundreds of students of Kocaeli University attended the opening ceremony and supported their teachers with banners and chants.
During these few days, I had the opportunity to spend time with the Academics for Peace. Before my arrival in Turkey, I thought I would find a community devastated by the repression and difficulties they are experiencing but their enthusiasm, solidarity and strength surprised me. They are a warm community in which everybody supports one another to live through these difficult times. They express their solidarity and actively support other groups suffering from similar repressive measures. Repression has neither stopped them from denouncing the situation in Turkey nor made them lose their perspective. Jobless, persecuted, with an uncertain future and in some cases risking imprisonment, they are nevertheless aware that their situation is by no means the most difficult. They do not forget that the reality that brought them together through the Peace Petition – Kurdish civilians being killed by the war- is still much harder.
There is much to learn from the experience of our Turkish colleagues. They represent an example of an academia that engages with the world we live in and speaks out against all forms of injustice. We must remind ourselves that we should not take academic freedom and freedom of speech for granted and recognize them as something we need to practice, reflect upon, and fight for. The dismissal of a European expert from the LSE who was supposed to advice the government on Brexit strategy, or the counter-terrorism Prevent Strategy -which brings surveillance of students into the class room- are some examples which illustrate how authoritarian tendencies are permeating Higher Education in the UK as well. More importantly, we can learn that solidarity is not only a matter of altruism but a fundamental tool for resistance in our globalized world.
Supported by the Goldsmiths Student Union, Academics for Peace Goldsmiths are currently campaigning for 2 fully-funded scholarships for politically persecuted PhD students. You can support us by signing and circulating the following petition: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/Goldsmiths_College_Petition_for_two_scholarships_for_politically_persecuted_PhDstudents/?pv=0
by Valentina Alvarez