SOAS backs out of panel discussion after backlash from Turkish academics

Academics criticised Turkish institutions this month for organising an event celebrating refugee academics integrating into their new homes when many Turkish academics are living in exile due to political persecution.

A panel discussion on refugee crises and academic heritage co-organised by the Turkish Council of Higher Education (YÖK) has been relocated from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies to the Turkish state-run Yunus Emre Institute in London after academics protested the “hypocrisy” of Turkish state institutions organising the panel.

The panel discussion, titled “Refugee Crises & Carrying the Academic Heritage to the Future Through Higher Education”, was to be held in the Brunei Gallery of the prestigious British institute SOAS, but was relocated to the Yunus Emre Institute’s London headquarters after protests by academics from Turkey.

An open letter was published by Concerned UK Academics for Peace protesting SOAS’s involvement with the panel discussion. The signatories said Turkey was forcing academics to become refugees, and as such the country’s attempt to celebrate integration of refugee academics is insincere at best.

“We are pleased to hear that SOAS has cancelled the manipulative event of YÖK and its associates. SOAS has clearly reaffirmed its commitment to defend academic freedom,” the UK Academics for Peace said after the event was relocated.

UK Academics for Peace is part of the international solidarity network for the Academics for Peace in Turkey, a group of over 2,000 scholars who signed a petition calling for peace entitled, “We won’t be a party to this crime!” in 2016.

The petition protested the Turkish military response to Kurdish insurgents in densely populated areas in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. Fighting erupted between Turkish security forces and militants linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after peace talks with Turkey’s Justice and Development Party government broke down in 2015.

Many of the academics have faced legal repercussions at home in Turkey, where over 700 are on trial and nearly 200 have received sentences for “supporting terrorist groups.” Others have sought asylum in various countries, including in Europe, and continue their work abroad.

The panel discussion is sponsored by Turkey’s London Embassy, state television TRT and state-run Turkish Airlines and Anadolu Agency and is part of the Preservation of Academic Heritage in the Middle East Project.