Turkish students and academics treated as state’s enemy within

Turkey erupts in protest at the death of a 15-year-old boy. Depo photos/EPA

Demonstrations have broken out across Turkey following the death of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old boy, who fell into a coma during last summer’s Gezi park protests after he was struck in the head by a teargas canister. He remained unconscious for 269 days, until he passed away on 11 March. Elvan will be remembered as the innocent adolescent who got caught up in a demonstration while on his way to buy bread.

As news spread of Elvan’s tragic death, universities throughout Turkey held sit-ins and protests. As students at one of the country’s most prestigious public universities, Middle East Technical University (METU), tried to march to the city centre, they were met with teargas and water cannons. Just hours after, people from all over Turkey took to the streets in massive demonstrations that resembled the first days of the Gezi park protests.

It has only been a little over two weeks since previous violent clashes took place at METU. Students were protesting against a controversial highway that was built right through the campus’s green area, which led to the uprooting of thousands of trees. They were also calling on the government to resign in light of the continued corruption claims that first emerged in a massive investigation last December.

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, used his usual defamatory language to describe the protesters, calling them “atheists, leftists, and terrorists”. His attitude towards Turkey’s top students – treating them as nothing more than enemies within – shows his overall disdain for any free thought or academic freedom.

Students must toe the line

During the past decade in power, Erdogan has tried to create the illusion that he made a clean break from the habits of the former secular regime. But within the realm of education we see his Muslim conservative AKP-led government has actually continued the tradition of Turkey’s former governments, placing immense pressure on young people to remain in line with the ruling party, or regime’s, ideology.

True, Erdogan is rightfully praised for eradicating a great injustice of the former secular establishment within the university campus – the ban of the Islamic headscarf in the classroom, which barred observant Muslim women from the classroom. However, with constant pressure placed on students to remain depoliticised (if not supporting his views), he is replacing one oppressive system for another.

This is perhaps why he chose not to abolish the Council of Higher Education (YÖK), which was created by the 1982 constitution, a vestige of Turkey’s 1980 Coup d’etat, as a means to keep tight reins over both academics and students.

In fact, during recent years hundreds of students have been arrested, many during protests that took place when government ministers were visiting campuses. Some were jailed on trumped-up charges of terrorism.

For example, in 2010, two students by the name of Ferhat Tüzer and Berna Yılmaz were arrested after holding up a sign calling for free education during a speech given by Erdogan. They were detained without trial for 18 months, accused of being members of a terrorist organisation. Due to the complicated sentencing and trial periods, getting information on the progress of cases involving detained students is not easy. However, it is clear that many students have been unjustly sentenced for voicing political dissent on campus.

Gezi fallout

Following last summer’s Gezi Park protests, the government increased its attempts to stamp out dissent among university students and has even attempted to stamp its conservative values on the student population.

For example, Erdogan showed this when he called on legislation to block co-ed housing of university students, not just in dormitories, but also in private residences. The attempt failed, due to strong internal opposition within his own party. But it could come back on the agenda once again, depending how the political map transforms in the future. Nevertheless, the Gezi protests confirmed that regardless of one’s take on conservative values, Erdogan is trying to remove any opposition whatsoever from Turkish society.

Reaching into schools

Erdogan’s attempts to tighten his hold over education are stretching into schools. A recent law is set to close down thousands of prep-schools by September 2015, which educate millions of students working on high school and university entrance exams. While Erdogan claims that the closing of the schools is an attempt by the public sector to “take back” education, from the start it was clear that it was aimed at the Gulen religious network (the Hizmet), which runs a large number of these schools.

The movement’s spiritual leader, Fethullah Gulen, is an Islamic religious preacher and former ally of Erdogan’s, now residing in the United States. Since the uncovering of the 17 December corruption probe, the two men are now in an all-out-war. While hitting at the Hizmet’s finances is certainly one reason driving the AKP to shut down the schools, it also seems to want to curb competing religious ideologies and sects.

If the present state of affairs is any sign of the future of education in Turkey, then we certainly need to be worried. It comes as new legislation is also placing restrictions on internet freedom and a revamping of the judicial system. There are also numerous revelations of direct intervention by Erdogan on media outlets, in addition to the fact that Turkey has the most jailed journalists in the world. All this points to the fact that the government is capable of placing new restrictions on universities if it sees fit.

Recent changes to bylaws of the Higher Education Board are an initial sign that academics who speak out against the government could be subjected to sanctions. In early March, it was revealed that two academics were expelled from Marmara University’s faculty of communication, due to the fact that they missed class time in adherence of a union strike in solidarity with Gezi protesters. As this is a new case, it will be interesting to see if the expelled academics will appeal.

Turkey has had its issues in the past with academic freedom. But the developments since the Gezi protests and the recent clampdown on dissent in the wake of the corruption probe, have left Turkish academics and students even more on edge about the future of the country’s education system.

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