Discipline and punish: The birth of 'New Turkey' and the fate of the Muslim democrats

A law on higher education passed by the Turkish parliament on April 17 embodies the meaning of President Erdoğan’s “New Turkey,” a combination of the worst features of the Ottoman imperial and Turkish republican legacies. The law’s content lays bare how Turkish higher educational institutions are disciplined by the AKP even more forcefully than they had been by the generals who established a military regime in 1980. Certain clauses of the law target a particular university, Şehir, offering a cautionary tale on the fate of the self-styled Muslim democrats*.

Turkey’s Higher Education Law from 1981 aimed at bringing universities under the control of the military junta that ruled the country at the time. Soon the Council of Higher Education, which was established by this law, started firing academics whose employment was deemed a threat to public order. After years of legal battles, some of them returned to their positions in the 1990s; some of them never came back.

The amendments to this infamous Higher Education Law that went into effect on April 17 include provisions that complete the transformation of university campuses into army barracks. Turkish academics may now be disciplined for “disrespectful statements” toward their “superiors” just like a soldier would be disciplined if he were to disrespect his superior.  

Similarly, Turkish academics may now be reprimanded for engaging in behaviour that is deemed to be outside “public morality and decency.” How exactly “public morality and decency” is defined and who would decide whether a scholar’s behaviour falls outside “public morality and decency” are a mystery. Perhaps the Turkish government is considering the establishment of a version of “morality police” at university campuses.

The law also stipulates that academics might be chastised for circulating, copying, or even displaying “banned publications.” The fact that “banned publications” as a concept even enters a law about Higher Education is itself quite shocking. Thinking about how this law would be enforced makes one inevitably imagine a “censorship brigade” that would enter academics’ offices, searching for “banned publications.” 

The amendment that stands out most in a country that has become infamous for the way in which it treated the academic signatories of a peace petition in 2016 is the one that enables the firing of a scholar for “supporting terrorist activities.” The Turkish government already summarily dismissed hundreds of scholars in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt. Many of these scholars were Academics for Peace, that is, signatories of a petition demanding that the government engage in negotiations for peace with the Kurds. This new amendment clears the way for the government to fire scholars for any kind of criticism of governmental policies toward Kurdish citizens of Turkey, with many Turkish university administrators and some judges already on record interpreting scholarly critique of the Turkish government as support for terrorism. If the deceased generals who led the 1980 coup had lived to witness these days, they would feel ashamed for not having thought of such provisions themselves.

President Erdoğan speaks at the opening ceremony of the 2019-20 academic year on September 18, 2019. Since 2016, the academic year for all universities in Turkey starts ceremonially at the new Presidential Palace in Ankara with thousands of invitees.

Some of the amendments target a particular university that was regarded as the pride of President Erdoğan’s AKP until a few years ago. Istanbul Şehir University was established by the Foundation for Sciences and Arts (BİSAV in its Turkish abbreviation) that was meant to be an intellectual powerhouse for the self-styled Muslim democrats of the 2000s. Ahmet Davutoğlu, a professor of political science and one of the founders of BİSAV, would probably have become the first president of Şehir had he not been appointed minister of foreign affairs by Erdoğan in 2009. The AKP supported Şehir with all its might, including the controversial grant of a much-coveted tract of public land in Dragos on the Asian side of Istanbul for its campus. Şehir was poised to become the “Muslim democrat” alternative, the revival of the autonomy of the medieval madrasas in a modern setting with a view to rival Boğaziçi, a public university that has its roots in Robert’s College, the first American institution of higher learning founded outside the US. 

In its relatively short life of about a decade, Şehir actually proved able to live up to some of these high expectations. Even though it was launched by a relatively conservative foundation and appealed to many students who were sympathetic to such values, Şehir hired the most qualified faculty members it could find in many disciplines, opening its doors to scholars some of whom were critical of the AKP’s policies and/or conservative values. Şehir also created a diverse student body with a wide spectrum of political views, as well as international students. In short, Şehir turned out to be more than an ideological factory to reproduce the worldviews of its founders. Moreover, its students included many top achievers in nationwide standardized tests, testifying for its quickly rising prestige among Turkish universities. 

When Ahmet Davutoğlu resigned from AKP in September 2019, however, things took an unexpected turn for Şehir. A public bank that ultimately answers to President Erdoğan froze its assets in October, refusing to restructure the debt it had accrued during the construction of its new campus. The bank argued that the collateral on the debt, Şehir’s campus land, was no longer reliable as the transfer of the campus land to Şehir had been challenged in court. Şehir responded by arguing that only a portion of the transfer was implicated in that lawsuit and also offered additional land as surety. According to the administration of Şehir, their enrollments were growing and they could continue paying their debt with the income generated by tuition payments. The bank did not agree. In December, when Davutoğlu launched a new political party, Şehir was taken under the receivership of a public university. In January 2020, it was BİSAV’s turn to be taken under a receivership.

Appointment of receivers had become a common practice in Turkey where many cities in majority Kurdish provinces experienced the practical disenfranchisement of voters through the removal of democratically elected mayors for allegedly supporting terrorism and their replacement by government-appointed trustees. Some private companies and civil associations that were deemed to be affiliated with Fethullah Gülen, the well-known Turkish cleric in Pennsylvania, were also taken under receivership in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt because some Gülenists had been involved in the failed coup. Yet the takeover of a mainstream conservative foundation that was once regarded as the powerhouse of the AKP’s intellectuals has turned a new page in the history of “New Turkey.” Davutoğlu is not connected with any charges of terrorism – although as the prime minister of Turkey in 2015-16, he carries a great deal of responsibility in the derailment of the peace process with the PKK. He has nothing to do with a military coup attempt, either. His resignation from the AKP and the launch of his own political party constituted sufficient cause for a collective punishment. Şehir, which is the brainchild of  Davutoğlu’s vision, is paying the price. 

The recent amendments to the Turkish Higher Education Law passed by the parliament include clauses that prepare the legal ground for the closure of Şehir without naming this institution. Şehir will most probably be absorbed by Marmara University, its receiver, and thus lose the autonomy that ensured its success, or will be completely closed. It might sound puzzling that President Erdoğan, a politician who is trying very hard to build an international reputation for being an anti-imperialist leader, an alternative to the West, would be the one to close Şehir, the founding philosophy of which was to demonstrate that academic freedom and creativity are not the monopoly of the West. Yet it is really not that puzzling.  

As argued by the late George Makdisi, the development of European—and, hence, American—universities owe a great deal of debt to the medieval madrasas of the Islamic world. Yet as many scholars have persuasively shown, the madrasas ended up lagging far behind European universities mainly because of their loss of autonomy under imperial regimes of the Islamic world that took appointments decisions into their own hands and micromanaged institutions of higher education while the European legal tradition of corporation ensured the relative autonomy of universities in the West. Erdoğan has long since abandoned the project of the self-styled Muslim democrats to revive the relative autonomy of the medieval madrasas in a modern setting. He is following the Ottoman imperial tradition of micromanaging higher education for ideological hegemony, further fortifying this tradition with the heavy disciplinarian legacy of republican Turkey’s military regimes, a scary combination.

Some Turkish observers recall Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller’s well-known confession about Nazi Germany when they consider the fate of Şehir. Davutoğlu was prime minister when the witch-hunt against Academics for Peace started in January 2016. He did nothing even though he himself was once an academic. Now the university he cared so much for is about to face closure. There does not seem to be anyone left to speak out for it after most of the critical minds of Turkish universities have been fired or were forced to retire. Yet Şehir is worth speaking out for and its students have been raising their voices; take a moment to listen to them


* The term “Muslim democrat” in this piece is used as a translation of “Müslüman demokrat” in Turkish, which was, arguably, first used in 1994 by Enis Batur, who suggested that the self-portrait of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, a very well-known Turkish author and poet of the twentieth century, gives the best definition of the term. While Tayyip Erdoğan did not embrace this designation, preferring “conservative democrat” instead, it was popularized by the journalist Cüneyt Ülsever and was widely used in the 2000s by intellectuals close to the AKP; see, for instance, the special issue of Bilgi ve Düşünce that is dedicated to a discussion of the term in February 2003.

Politically, the term was meant to stand for the Turkish version of the Christian Democrats in Germany and was widely used in Europe with reference to the AKP in the 2000s; see, for instance, this Guardian report on the election of Abdullah Gül to presidency. During the 2010s, the representatives of the “democrat” designation in the term “Muslim democrat” failed to resist and often contributed to the transformation of the AKP to an authoritarian Muslim nationalist party under the leadership of Erdoğan, leading many cynical commentators to amend the term “Müslüman demokrat” to “kendine demokrat,” that is, “democrats [only when democracy works] for themselves.”

The original article was published by Jadaliyya on May 19. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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