Purge of teachers and academics bulldozes through Turkish education

By Moritz Pieper | (The Conversation) | – –

As news of the attempted military coup in Turkey unfolded, I was in Pennsylvania. Travelling in the US, I had coincidentally found myself in the home state of Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has singled out as the mastermind of the uprising. Gülen, once a close Erdoğan associate until he fell out with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has lived in exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.

In what Erdoğan calls a “parallel state”, the Gülen movement is said to have “infiltrated” state institutions, most notoriously the judiciary and the police. The Turkish government reacted to the coup attempt by arresting tens of thousands of state officials including judges, civil servants, soldiers, and teachers.

In rhetoric reminiscent of the Stalinist purges, Erdoğan promised to “cleanse all state institutions”, rid Turkey’s judiciary of “cancer cells” and purge state bodies of the “virus” that has spread throughout Turkish state structures.

The numbers of those arrested is on a truly shocking scale. More than 7,000 soldiers have been detained, 8,000 police have been removed from their posts, 3,000 members of the judiciary suspended, and thousands of civil servants in diverse ministries dismissed, including over 15,000 in the education ministry alone. All levels of education have been affected: 21,000 teachers have their licences withdrawn and more than 1,500 university deans have been told to quit their jobs.

These numbers make it hard to believe that the crackdown is not operating according to lists that had been ready already before the attempted coup.

On July 20, a three-month state of emergency was declared. Academics currently on study missions abroad have been told to return home while those in Turkey are banned from travelling abroad until further notice.

Sustained attacks on academic freedom

Turkish academics have been targeted before, most recently after a petition of the Academicians for Peace Initiative was circulated that spoke out against the government’s attacks in Kurdish provinces. The official state reaction was to sack and persecute academics for “spreading terrorist propaganda”.

The Turkish Higher Education Board (YÖK) and public prosecutors in several Turkish university cities subsequently launched investigations against academics who signed the petition. Signatories of peace petitions were accused by the government of undermining national security and of “supporting Kurdish propaganda”.

The preemptive obedience on the part of university managements was a grim indicator of the state of freedom of speech in Turkey and the erosion of the independence of the higher education sector. Universities started to self-censor, reacting with disciplinary measures including forced resignations, suspensions, and the launch of formal investigations.

Crackdown on schools and students

The arrest wave following the July 15 coup will only aggravate this clampdown on higher education. Gülen’s movement, also called Hizmet, operates a network of private schools and universities, both in Turkey and abroad. What worries Erdoğan is Hizmet’s objective of educating its followers “for the common good” and to “build schools instead of mosques”. Hizmet marries its emphasis on education with a moderate and pragmatic approach to Islam. It is accused of working to “infiltrate” Turkish state institutions and the AKP itself by taking up influential positions and undermining, in an almost Trotskyist analogy, state structures from within.

It is this paranoia that explains the Turkish government’s obsession with cracking down on student protests and anti-government rallies at universities. Repression followed the 2013 Gezi Park protests and subsequent demonstrations at the Middle East Technical University in 2014.

Erdoğan’s message is unequivocal, lumping student protesters together as “atheists, leftists, terrorists”. Passing bills to shut down private prep-schools, many of which are run by the Hizmet movement, serves the same purpose of “cleansing” Turkish schools of “unhealthy” elements.

The world must speak up

State pressure on students to remain depoliticised is matched by the Higher Education Board’s work to rein in the activities of academics and teachers. Following the coup attempt, the board asked university rectors to “urgently examine the situation of all academic and administrative personnel” with links to what it calls the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation.

The recent clampdown on teachers and education ministry officials in the wake of the coup attempt adds to a depressing list of continued attempts to staunch dissent in Turkish society. Turkey must respect the freedom of speech to which it officially subscribed as a member of the Council of Europe and as signatory of UN conventions that enshrine such fundamental democratic rights as the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Academic freedom of thought is at the heart of a healthy civil society. Restricting the free movement of academics and curtailing the independence of universities defeats the purpose of scholarship. The exceptional proportions of the recent arrests should be met with a resolute response worldwide.

The Conversation

Moritz Pieper, Lecturer in International Relations, University of Salford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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AFP: “Erdogan declares 3-month state of emergency in Turkey”

4 Responses

  1. Turkey has a history of problematic relations with freedom of speech. Over the past five years, it has been at a very low point. The president routinely sues journalists, politicians, and HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS for saying things he dislikes. Teenagers are arrested for the crime. So, too, anyone who dares to speak poorly of Islam — but not of Christianity, Judaism, or atheism.

    Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention knows that this was a victory for authoritarianism over the coup. Anyone with friends and colleagues in Turkey, or who listens to NPR knows t hat the crowds in the street are called out by Erdogan. He is their voice, as our native version said this evening in his acceptance speech.

    And the number of fired/suspended teachers is north of 40,000. The 21,000 number is teachers at private schools, not those under the MEB, who were the majority of the original 15,000 and have since been added to.

  2. It seems people didn’t think Erdogan was serious, when he declared before he was elected:

    ‘Democracy is only the train we will ride on till we reach our destination. The mosques are our barracks, the minarettes our bajonettes, their domes our helmets and the believers our soldiers.’

    It seems he made it clear from the very beginning that he wishes to create some creepy theocracy.

    • Excellent essay on the political and social conditions at present. In other areas, not so much. Alevis and Alawites aren’t the same; the Alevi sect began in Turkey and its beliefs and practices are not those of the Alawi; the common etymology of the names is a source of confusion. And the author never clearly addresses the situation of the Alevi today. Yes, at one time they had been persecuted by the old CHP (cf. Dersim massacre), but for the past 30 or so years, their brutal enemy has been religious Sunnis and, to the extent that Alevis tend to be more liberal, the nationalists (cf. Maras and Madimak/Sivas Massacres). The leader of the CHP is an Alevi whose father was exiled from Dersim — which also suggests that anyone who thinks the CHP remains what it was stopped paying attention in the Baykal years. Erdogan has routinely verbally attacked Alevis, whose cemevis (houses of worship) are not recognized by the state, and Erdogan has resisted recognition. He’s also named the third Bosporus bridge for the Sultan who killed more Alevis than all the massacres.

      As for what happened, I don’t know if we can definitively say it was a preemptive false-flag or a rushed and ineffective coup that was stage-managed but not initiated by Erdogan’s forces.
      But the idea that this is where he was heading from the start while playing on the desires of Western governments and western multiculti-left academics to believe that inside an Erbakan-cultivated Islamist (who named his only son for the Master — he is Necmettin Bilal Erdogan) was a neoliberal democrat dying to get out. Twas never thus!

      The purges have been ongoing for 10 years at least but starting up in earnest with the Ergenekon fiasco, several purges and redefinitions of the courts and, most recently, as noted, the entirely unconstitutional government in place.

      Will he turn toward Russia? That’s an interesting question. Fehim Tastekin at Al Monitor thinks he might, and I respect him. But to do that he would seemingly have to accept the Alawi dictator and abandon his Sunni allies, whom he has been supplying for many years now. It’s possible. He’s already disowned the shooting down of the Russian plane that he once celebrated. See link to hurriyetdailynews.com. He would also give up his dream of annexing the “historic Turkish land” of Northern Syria. (The map in the school text book goes from eastern Greece/southern Bulgaria east through Armenia and into northeastern Iraq and northern Syria. See link to novinite.com.) And best of all he’d have to deal with Putin; Tayyip’s petulant, but he’s not suicidal. I suspect that, as he has before, he’ll feint East to see what he can get from the West.

      As to the cultural changes, yes. Turkey has been courting conservative Middle-Easterners for halal resorts and second or third …) houses, and Istanbul has become very conservative away from the areas for tourists and visiting academics. The holding pf prayers in the Aya Sofya is of a piece with this trend.

      And even a cursory look at Hurriyet Daily News this past week shows the last of the semi-free English language news sources brought to heel. I will be interested to see if Nuray Mert has been canned. Several columnists have been replaced at Erdogan’s order and with him selecting the replacement. Dogan’s ability to resist is limited because he has been the target of trumped-up tax cases over the past 5-6 years that are ongoing. This is part of the process of replacing the secular elite, as are the attacks on the Koc family. As anyone who follows Turkey knows, several telemedia companies and newspapers have on various grounds been seized and resold to allies and business partners of Erdogan. The “free press” is the press whose editors are under arrest.

      My own bright, young friends of various political stripes are overwhelmingly pessimistic at this point. Advancement is a matter of party loyalty, even for grade-school teachers. A few years ago, the Gulenist union was the way up. They have all been replaced now, and the AKP union, not the established union is the only way up. In addition to which, Erdogan is developing an alternative school system in addition to the 10,000 or so imam hatipler (religious high schools) he has opened during his reign. See link to hurriyetdailynews.com.

      That’s what I have off the top of my head.

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