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Turkey coup: why have teachers and academics been targeted?

Following the failed coup in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered the sacking of nearly 1,600 deans, 21,000 teachers and 15,000 education bureaucrats. Tolga Bozoglu/EPA

Turkey coup: why have teachers and academics been targeted?

Following the failed coup in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered the sacking of nearly 1,600 deans, 21,000 teachers and 15,000 education bureaucrats. Tolga Bozoglu/EPA

In the wake of the failed coup attempt on July 15, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has ordered the closure of more than 1,000 private schools, revoked the licenses of 21,000 school teachers, sacked 15,000 education bureaucrats, and asked almost 1,600 university deans to resign from both state and private universities. Turkish academics have also been banned from travel.

This mass sacking, in tandem with the purges in the military, police and judiciary, has taken the total number of people estimated to have either lost their jobs or be detained within the two weeks post-coup to around 60,000.

Why have education staff been targeted?

What do school teachers, bureaucrats and university deans have to do with the senior military personnel that attempted the coup? The short answer is: nothing. There is no direct connection.

But the Gülen movement, which is accused of masterminding the coup, is at its core an education-based movement with schools as its major focus.

It is difficult to know how many Gülen schools there are – they are not founded in Gülen’s name, but rather are established under philanthropic foundations.

As such, estimates of the number of schools in the academic literature vary quite markedly from around 150 to 500 in Turkey.

Given these numbers, the closure of more than 1,000 private schools seems a high number and suggests there might be some collateral damage, for the aim is to weed out all Gülen schools and those associated with them from all aspects of the state. The prime minister, Binali Yildirim, has vowed to remove the Gülen movement “by its roots”.

Such a purge is deeply troubling, especially the sacking of the university deans.

Seizing control

It is an extreme measure that seems to speak to a broader agenda of seizing control of all facets of the state and quelling any dissent, as the university sector has historically been a stronghold for both liberals and secularists.

Recent history reveals that Erdoğan has a track record of clamping down on those from the higher education sector that critique the government. Earlier this year he came down hard on Turkish academics that signed a petition organised by a group called “Academics for Peace”, that asked the government to end the fighting against the Kurdish militants.

All of the 1,128 signatories, from 89 universities, were investigated. 33 academics were detained for alleged propaganda for a terrorist organisation. 109 academics from 20 Turkish universities were disciplined, suspended or sacked. Interestingly, this crackdown saw the number of signatories on the petition jump to nearly 5,000, garnering public as well as international support.

While the Gülen movement is certainly the major target of this latest salvo against the education sector on account of its vast network of schools, the sacking of nearly 38,000 staff – many of whom are probably not associated with the movement (something which is difficult to ascertain as there is no formal membership process) – speaks more to a general clearing of the decks to gain tighter control.

It has been reported that at a funeral for a coup protester, attended by Erdoğan, the imam prayed: “Protect us, Lord, from all malice, especially that of the educated”, to which the crowd roared “Amen!”

This quixotic prayer could be another veiled jibe at the Gülen movement, or it could speak to a broader agenda of control through removing educated dissident voices. This attack is also reflected in the sustained war against the media.

In other words, it seems Erdoğan may be seeking to realise the prayer and protect both himself and his party from the educated.