Erdoğan’s purge targeted Turkish academics who hoped for democracy - NYT

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s purges have targeted many Turkish academics who dream of a democratic Turkey and have hit Ankara University’s department of political science especially hard, journalist Suzy Hansen wrote in the New York Times' Magazine.

Hansen narrates the story of İlhan Uzgel and his then wife Elçin Aktoprak, who lost their jobs at the department, widely known as Mülkiye, for signing a 2016 peace petition to protest the Turkish military’s operations in southeast Turkey. 

The couple were among some 6,000 Turkish academics who were dismissed via government decrees during a state of emergency sparked by a failed coup attempt in 2016. 

Many sacked academics lost their jobs at public and private universities, faced legal proceedings, were not allowed to travel abroad or return to the country due to revoked passports, and some were sentenced to prison. 

Around 90 of the purged academics came from Ankara University, and 36 came from Mülkiye alone, raising suspicions that the 160-year-old faculty of political science had become a particular target, according to Hansen. 

The purge hit many Turkish academics from different generations who “grew up hoping that they would one day see their country become a democracy,” Hansen said in the story published online Thursday. 

“An authoritarian state can do many things to get rid of these democratic types — put them in jail, put them on trial — but ultimately the government must attack the institutions that produce and sustain them. Newspapers can be easy to buy. NGOs are easy to shut down. Universities are much harder to dismantle,” she said. 

Mülkiye, which was established in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire to train civil servants and diplomats, was moved to the new capital, Ankara, in the 1930s by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. The school in time became a primary intellectual and political engine of the Turkish republic, but also a centre of dissent, Hansen said. 

“I grew up at Mülkiye,” Aktoprak told Hansen. “Inside the campus, there was a kind of freedom that didn’t exist in the rest of the country.” 

In September 2016, along with thousands of other Turks, 21 members of the teaching staff were fired from Ankara University, including some half dozen assistants from Mülkiye. “Everyone, including the lawyers, started telling us what we should do,” Aktoprak said. “Like, who will be the contact person for your family if you are taken into custody? What’s in your messages? What’s at your house? We all started wondering what it could be.”

The following month, when some of their colleagues were refused the right to leave the country, the academics realised that there were cases opened against them. In January the purge hit Mülkiye once again and checking the Official Gazette, the government’s bulletin in which decrees are published, to see whether they had been fired became a daily ritual for the academics. 

When Aktoprak was finally sacked in February 2017, she found the experience so painful that she never returned to the place she had spent her entire adult life, Hansen said. 

The political scientist now continues her research efforts with other purged academics via a grant from the European Union. “The one silver lining to all this was that maybe we can sustain an intellectual community on our own this way and return to public life in better days,” Hansen quoted Aktoprak as saying.

Meanwhile, Uzgel, who despite a luminous career was not hired by private universities, now spends most of his days working at a Starbucks in an Ankara mall, Hansen said. The professor was at least old enough to retire and receive a pension. 

As an expert of Turkish political history, Uzgel sees his experience as another phase in a long history of purges that preceded the founding of Turkey and has continued throughout modern Turkish history.

“The first thing these kinds of ideological movements target are people and institutions that produce knowledge,” Uzgel told. “Universities with strong traditions are critical because they recruit younger generations. You have to break institutions. Authoritarian regimes don’t necessarily send everyone to jail,” he said.