Turkey’s pro-gov’t circles going all-in to defend Boğaziçi University intervention

Protests against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision to appoint a party loyalist to head one of the most prestigious universities in Turkey continue in their fifth week. As there is more increasing public and international support, government officials and pro-government media have upped the ante in defending Rector Melih Bulu’s appointment, and the subsequent police brutality against students during protests.

After the U.S. State Department expressed concern over the detention of hundreds of protesters and that they “strongly condemn the anti-LGBTQI rhetoric surrounding demonstrations,” Turkey’s Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun posted a video message in English.

“We will do what it takes to protect our youth and universities from radicalization, terrorism, vandalism,” Altun said in the tweet that accompanied his video message, where he commented: “Let’s stop pretending that this is about freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest.”

According to Altun, Boğaziçi has been a hotbed for radicalisation and students have joined terrorist organisations from the university. 

Echoing the sentiment, Islamist newspaper Yeni Akit’s front page on Feb. 4 was dedicated to the “terrorist militants, not academics” in Boğaziçi University. The paper profiled and targeted five women academics, including Dr Ayşe Buğra, who is married to long-demonised philanthropist Osman Kavala. In the text, one male professor was also targeted.

“Almost all academics who created all kinds of obstacles so Rector Melih Bulu couldn’t fulfill his duties,” staunchly pro-Erdoğan Yeni Akit said, “have signed petitions prepared to defend FETÖ, PKK and DHKP-C,” several organisations that Turkey considers to be terrorist.

Pro-government Star newspaper’s main columnists were in agreement that “The rector is not the issue,” as Halime Kökçe titled her article. All four columnists wrote about provocations, uprisings, and attempts to overthrow the government.

Other pro-government media people chose to target U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price. Hakkı Öcal, columnist for one of Turkey’s biggest mainstream newspapers and a lecturer at Istanbul’s newly-established Ibn Haldun University, who is also retired from Voice of America in Washington, DC after over two decades of service there, posted a derogatory tweet about Price’s homosexuality. In another tweet, he shared Price’s photo at an event organised by LGBT magazine OUT.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry “press release regarding the statements made by certain circles abroad” warned said circles to not use “a language that provokes groups that resort to use illegal means and encourages illegal acts”. 

“We still remember that very recently in many ‘advanced’ democracies, security forces used disproportionate force against innocent civilians even in the face of their slightest objection against governments,” the ministry said, and recommended critics “to look at the mirror.”

“No one should exceed their limits and interfere in Turkey’s internal affairs,” it said.

According to Recep Şehitoğlu, founder of a pro-Turkish government 'think tank' Straturka, this was “us” saying “know your place within the framework of diplomatic politeness.”

On Thursday, television network 24 aired several segments against “those who shook their fingers at Turkey,” namely the United States, the Netherlands, and France, where a news host spoke about police interventions on protests in these countries.  

The United States took a stance on the protests, with President Joe Biden “backing the Boğaziçi provocation” as one of the first Turkey-related acts of his administration, a reporter for 24 said. U.S. officials “pretended not to see the insult against Kaaba,” he continued. “Whereas the same United States declared almost all to be terrorists when the buffalo man raided Congress.”

The segment continued with images of police violence against the Yellow Vests in France, and the video of George Floyd’s death. It ended with the reporter accusing the United States of being behind the Gezi Park protests of 2013, when some four million people took to the streets against Erdoğan’s government, and the July 15, 2016 failed coup attempt, for which Turkey accuses Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen and his followers.

In 2017, businessman Ethem Sancak, who had previously professed his “divine love” for Erdoğan and said he would sacrifice his wife and children for him, sold 24’s parent company to Hasan Yeşildağ, who served time in the same prison ward as Erdoğan and is a close friend to mob boss Abdullah Çatlı. 

The network continued with a segment explaining Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu’s Wednesday comments, where he said Gülen was not behind the coup attempt. 

According to 24, Soylu was referencing the United States being behind Gülen, who was behind the coup, and the opposition protesting his comments “felt obliged to defend the United States, and it’s easy to understand why.” This was followed by a video where Biden expressed support for Turkey’s opposition leadership. 

Pro-government Daily Sabah was among the first to turn the situation around, publishing an article on U.S. police pepper spraying a black girl on Tuesday.

“We don’t advise anyone to test the strength of our state,” an Interior Ministry spokesman said on Thursday in a press briefing where he said marginal terrorist organisations were provoking conflict in Boğaziçi University.

A response came from Cihangir İslam, a lawmaker from the Islamist Felicity Party (SP), which follows the same tradition that Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) comes from.

“A collapsing government’s last resort is to present its citizens as a threat,” İslam said, condemning the spokesman for speaking “against citizens who were exercising their constitutional right to protest.”

“You will be gone by the first election!” İslam added in his tweet.

Upwards of 300 students have been detained since a piece of art in an exposition led to accusations of insulting the sacred values of Muslims and the Kaaba on Jan. 29, during the fourth week of protests against the appointment of Bulu. 

A collage featuring the Muslim holy site superimposed with an image of a mythological character and LGBT flags was placed on the ground as part of a student art show against the rector appointment. Government officials and pro-government media accused the students of knowingly disrespecting Islam when they placed the art piece on the ground, while the students said they had simply run out of space and thought the piece in question could best survive being placed on the floor due to the materials it was made out of.

Erdoğan, Soylu and the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) Ali Erbaş all spoke against the collage, along with number of other senior government officials, and went on to deny the existence of LGBT people in Turkey. Erdoğan and Soylu said homosexuality was imported from the West and had no place in Turkish culture. 

Bulu in the meantime shut down Boğaziçi’s LGBT club, and said students had attempted to occupy the rectory building. Students say they were peacefully waiting outside the building for the rector to come out and explain to them why he had authorised riot police to enter the campus, after days of clashes and hundreds of students detained. 

Unrest sparked by Bulu’s appointment continues still, with students in other universities with rectors appointed in a similar fashion joining the protests. Among them were students of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, who gathered in front of their own rectory to express solidarity and demand their own rector be democratically elected by the faculty.