[This article is part of a reflection on the "Afterlives of Gezi." Read the other contributions to the roundtable here.]
During the first days of the Gezi Protests (on 30 May 2013), Memet Ali Alabora, who was one of the leading figures of protests, tweeted: “The problem is not only Gezi Park, my friend. Have you not realized it yet?” The pro-government media and the decision-makers of the country have used this tweet as a justification for their conspiracy-oriented interpretation of the Gezi Park protests. They said that the “organizers” of the protest aimed to overthrow the democratically-elected government and cause chaos and domestic violence in Turkey, and they condemned the people who participated in protests as “the tools of external powers.”
With this rhetoric in mind, I will look into the issue of academic freedom and the gradual takeover of already limited academic autonomy by the Turkish government since the Gezi Protests. The Gezi Protests took place in almost all of the major cities of Turkey, with the participation of civil society organizations, academic personnel, and university students. The Gezi Protests represented a milestone in the history of Turkish civil protests, since the participation in these protests has been highest since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. According to a report published by International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in April 2014, a total of 5,532 protests were held and more than 3.6 million people participated in the Gezi Protests between 28 May and 3 September 2013. Some academic personnel used their social media accounts either to show their support for the protesters or to share pictures from the Gezi protests, since they were among the protesters. Other academics wrote online articles and opinion pieces and gave interviews to newspapers, online journals, and news websites.
When the protests faded away and the “trees in Gezi Park” were saved, the Turkish government struck back. Starting from the fall of 2013, various public universities and some private universities in Istanbul and other cities have initiated administrative proceedings against the academic staff who participated in the protests. These proceedings were initiated based on the social media posts of these academic staff and on police reports indicating that they participated in protests. I was employed at a public university as an Assistant Professor between March 2013 and July 2014, and as an active participant in the Gezi protests, I was subjected to five different administrative proceedings beginning in September 2013; finally, in July 2014, I was forced to resign.
One of these proceedings stated that I had violated the law by acting “in a way inappropriate for a public servant” and included one of my social media posts as evidence. The media I had shared was the tweet I mentioned at the beginning of this article. When I reposted it, I wrote: “You must realize that the problem is autocratic government!” Although I had a chance to defend myself during the proceeding, I received a “warning” from the university as a result of it.
This proceeding was followed by others, and eventually the university administration began to use ridiculous methods to cause more problems for me. One of them was to assign me two separate courses to teach in two different faculties. The distance between the two faculties was approximately 80 miles; my lecture at one faculty ended at 1.30 pm and the next one at the other faculty started at 1.50 pm. I appealed to the university administration about this, but they said that they were expecting me to find a way to be present at the second lecture on time, which of course I could not. This resulted in more administrative proceedings against me.
As a result of ongoing harassment, I had to resign from my position in July 2014; my resignation was accepted within 24 hours. Similar sorts of systematic but unofficial harassment used by university administrations against academic staff who participated in the Gezi Protests resulted in the resignation of approximately 800 academic personnel from public and private universities in Turkey between September 2013 and December 2014.
Then in January 2016, a group of academics in Turkey signed a petition titled “We will not be a party to this crime!” emphasizing human rights violations by the government in the southeastern region of Turkey. This group of academics came to be known as “Academics for Peace,” and the Turkish government accused them of being terrorists. The same year, in July 2016, a coup attempt in Turkey caused a larger academic purge in the country. The long-term partner of President Erdoğan, Fethullah Gülen and his followers, also known as Gülenists, were accused by government officials of playing an active role in this coup attempt. Since Gülenists were also very strong as an economic interest group in Turkey, owning some private universities, and since there were many Gülenists who pursued an academic career and were employed in public universities, a series of academic purges started after July 2016 with the goal of “cleaning” the academic world of Gülenists.
During these purges, academic staff who were employed in these Gülenist universities, academic staff in public universities who had connections with Gülenists, and academic staff who signed and/or supported the Academics for Peace petition were dismissed from their positions. In addition, their passports were invalidated and a special “indicator” was added to their employment registry records indicating that they were either Gülenists or members of another “unfavorable” group.
The Turkish government has also initiated a series of reforms in the higher education system. As part of these reforms, university administrations are now appointed by President Erdoğan himself and elections are no longer being held. The Turkish Higher Education Council (YOK) recommends three candidates to the President and then the President decides on one of them. The most recent assignment of Melih Bulu, who was a political candidate for Erdoğan’s party in the 2015 general elections, as the Rector of Boğaziçi University has triggered a series of protests in the country. Academic staff, students, and some civil society organizations have actively participated in the protests against this decision. On 5 February 2021, Erdoğan criticized these protests and said that “the opposition groups are going all out to complicate matters; however, these university protests will not culminate in the infamous Gezi Park incidents.”
To sum up, the repression of academic freedom in Turkey since 2013 has gradually been increasing and it is obvious that Gezi is being used as a benchmark by the government. As Memet Ali Alabora tweeted during the early days of Gezi: “It is not only about the trees….But it is about the forest” when it comes to free-thinking academics in Turkey. Since the 1980 military coup, the new “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” introduced into the country’s political, social, and cultural sphere has necessitated an “embedded academy.” The establishment of YÖK (The Council of Higher Education) in 1981 was an important step to create such an “embedded” academy with a centralized curriculum and ongoing support for government policies.
However, free thinking academic personnel in Turkish universities could not be suppressed easily. With the developments mentioned above, we can say that the Turkish government has finally established its own “embedded academics” as a majority during this process.