Free thought on trial from 5 December

In January last year, more than 2,000 academics, mostly Turks, petitioned the Turkish parliament calling for an end to what they said was the “deliberate planned massacre” and “deportation of Kurdish people” since the resumption of conflict with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatists the previous July.

Days later, 27 members of the Academics for Peace group*, were arrested on charges of “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation”. But it was still impossible to imagine, quite how vulnerable a position the signatories would find themselves in the crackdown that followed the coup attempt of July 15 that year.

After July 15, the Academics for Peace became highly visible and convenient targets for a government bent on gutting Turkey’s academia of critical voices and reshaping it in its own image. After months of systematic persecution, the academics’ ordeal is set to reach a climax of staggering cruelty: From Dec. 5, hundreds of the signatories will be tried individually on “terrorist propaganda” charges. In courtrooms across the country they will face state prosecutors alone, cut off from the solidarity and support of their peers.

At this stage, it is beside the point that the right to express and disseminate the opinions in the petition, the right to free expression in general, is enshrined in Article 26 of the Turkish constitution. It is just as futile to discuss the absurdity of the charges, or the illegality of holding hundreds of individual trials for a single petition. The country has entered a phase in which its rulers stand outside the reach of the law, virtually immune to any challenge through parliament or the legal system, and, empowered by the state of emergency, hold the authority to decide and impose exceptions to the law at their pleasure.

Under these circumstances it is no surprise to see the government’s heedless cruelty shine through in its lawmakers. “In no country would any academic, politician or journalist who signed this petition even be given the right to life,” commented member of parliament Şahap Kavcıoğlu on the petition. “Forget prison, they would not even be given the right to life.”

Those words echo President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s well-documented belligerence towards academics, and in the true style of a toady, take this to such an extreme as to seem absurd. Yet, this extreme reflects a bitter truth faced by the signatories: Having been removed from their positions; named and targeted as ‘traitors’ in the press; cut off from funding; prevented from securing private-sector employment; effectively banned from leaving the country; and now facing trial and a possible jail term of up to seven-and-a-half years, the academics have little left except their right to life. This is the very definition of a term the academics have used to describe their own plight: “civil death”.

Kavcıoğlu’s words are all the more loathsome given that in February 2017, one of the signatories, Mehmet Fatih Traş, took his own life under the psychological strain of being dismissed and blacklisted for signing the petition. Traş was dismissed from his research position at Çukurova University after a senior faculty member with connections in Turkish Intelligence accused him of being a sympathiser of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

He was then prevented from obtaining a visa to study in Britain, and repeatedly had his applications to alternative Turkish institutions rebuffed suddenly and without reason.

Here we catch a glimpse of the government’s plans for Turkish academia. The Academics for Peace are bearing the brunt of a full-on assault on the country’s intellectual life – an assault which has seen thousands of academics dismissed by decree and facing a lifetime ban on public employment; groups protesting this purge beaten by the police; handpicked rectors installed at all state universities; academic journals pressured to dismiss their editorial boards; students studying abroad denounced as “willing agents of the West”; even a ban on Wikipedia. This obsessive drive to cripple Turkey’s centres of learning is the work of a government that fears the scrutiny of intellectuals and critical thought. By visibly making life unbearable for one group of academics, they aim to cow all.

This is the government’s end goal: to create a Turkey where citizens’ right to life is the subject of casual commentary by the ruling party’s lawmakers; a “zombie nation” where thought is no longer necessary nor tolerated, and where, without the scrutiny of academics or journalists, all manner of baseless nonsense and outright lies can be served up without challenge.

As Turkish political scientist Umut Özkırımlı notes, this position is “neither unique nor new”, but “the hallmark of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, past and present”, and part of a global trend that has seen intellectuals and free thought under attack from Trump’s America, through Brexit Britain, to China.

Since scholarship relies on the dissemination and discussion of ideas across borders, each of these instances compounds a common problem for any person who values free, independent, and critical thought. As such, the attack on Turkey’s academics is an attack on all academia, depriving us of a generation of Turkish thinkers at a time when their perspective is most vital.

In their own words, the Academics for Peace see the significance of their trials not in their prosecution as individuals; but rather as a prosecution of “the call to peace and the voice of free science”. In defence of these principles, and of our Turkish colleagues’ right to life, now is the time for a strong response to the Academics’ call for solidarity.

*Author’s disclosure: I write as a member of a group based at Edinburgh University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences which is working to support the Academics for Peace.

Our project focuses on PhD candidate signatories of the petition, who deserve the opportunity to pursue their academic careers and continue their research despite repression in their home country. Details of our framework to support them in this are found here.