Turkey Now Targeting Academic Freedom in Europe

Turkey’s targeting of dissident academics seems to have crossed the borders of the country. Academic freedom in Europe and in the U.S. is being stymied by the Turkish government and nationalist groups.

Most recently, Turkey targeted a conference held September 15 to 18 at the European Academy Berlin entitled “Past in the Present: European Approaches to the Armenian Genocide.” It was part of the “Workshop on Armenian Turkish Scholarship (WATS),” a series founded by the University of Michigan in 2000. It was co-organized by the University of Michigan, the Dornsife Institute of Armenian Studies of the University of Southern California (USC), and Germany’s Lepsiushaus Potsdam.

Before the conference took place, nationalist groups, media outlets, and Turkey’s government-funded Council of Higher Education (YÖK) targeted the organizers and participants in a PR campaign.

This led to academics working in Turkish universities to withdraw.

The head of the ultra-nationalist Homeland Party (Vatan Partisi) and a long-time avid denier of the Armenian genocide, Doğu Perinçek, were prominent leaders of the PR campaign. At a press conference on September 6, Perinçek accused the conference and Sabancı University -- one of the organizers of this year's conference -- of engaging in “a betrayal of science, university identity, law, and the homeland.” He added:

This workshop serves the project of "Kurdistan," or more correctly, "a second Israel" of USA imperialism. Particularly the fifth panel of the workshop discusses the "unity of fate" of Armenians and Kurds against Turkey. This is an imperialistic confession.

Perinçek called on the YÖK to prevent Turkish academics from joining the conference.

Following Perinçek’s denunciation of the workshop, the ultra-nationalist paper Aydınlık attacked Sabancı University with an article headlined: “Hey Sabancı, Stop This Disgrace.

The pressure on the universities and academics by the YÖK and the media bore fruit. Sabancı University withdrew from the event.

On September 8, Aydınlık proudly reported its “victory” in a headline that read: “No academics for the workshop of lies.” In another report, Aydınlık referred to those who participated in the workshop as “fake academics,” and listed the PR campaign’s “accomplishments” concerning the workshop:

The conference has literally "fallen to pieces" after the head of the Homeland Party, Doğu Perinçek, warned that the conference was a betrayal of science and homeland.

So, there is no longer a Turkish university left in the workshop of betrayal. The beginning date of the workshop has been postponed to the next day; the withdrawn Turkish academics have been replaced with foreigners and the access to the program is now subject to permission. It would be an insufficient explanation if we did not say the persevering and determined attitude of the YÖK has greatly contributed to getting these results.

In reality, the academics who participated in the event are top scholars engaged in vital, critical research, and are highly regarded for their academic endeavors on a global scale.

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) of North America and its Committee on Academic Freedom has issued a written statement about the pressure placed on the conference and the academics:

As part of his broader campaign against the conference, Perinçek brought the topic and list of participants to the attention of YOK, which subsequently rescinded permission for Turkey-based academics to travel to the conference. In line with this policy, Dr. Murat Cankara, who is on the faculty at the Ankara Social Sciences University, was subjected to a travel ban preventing him from participating in the conference.

In addition, ultra-nationalist Turkish diaspora organizations, in apparent coordination with Perinçek’s party, have mobilized against the conference and are threatening a show of force at the Lepsuishaus, the main organizer of the event in Germany. No doubt, anyone who attends the conference is at risk of being filmed/photographed, blacklisted, and hounded by social media trolls in Turkey.

The smear campaign led by the daily Aydınlık, associated with Perinçek and his party, targets the private Koç and Sabancı Universities and accuses especially the latter of treason. The atmosphere of intimidation and threats has grown so alarming that the cancellation of the conference is being considered.

We strongly condemn the private and public harassment of academics for their planned participation in this conference and call on YÖK to immediately reverse its policy of preventing academics from traveling from Turkey to attend the conference.

We consider this action to be an assault on the academic freedom of scholars in Turkey.

Despite the pressure and the threats, many academics from Turkey who are currently based outside the country did participate in the event as speakers. However, they were still targeted.

The ultra-nationalist People's Liberation Party (Halkın Kurtuluş Partisi, HKP) filed a criminal complaint against two participants and the presidents of Koç and Sabancı universities based on article 301 of Turkish criminal law, which punishes those who “insult Turkishness.”

Yektan Türkyilmaz, a prominent Armenian genocide scholar from Turkey who attended the conference as a speaker, and who is now based in Germany, said:

We heard that the president of the YÖK called the presidents of some universities in Turkey and warned them about the academics that were going to attend the conference. Critical academics are continually intimidated and harassed by the regime in Turkey but these attacks are not confined to academics in the country. The Turkish government is targeting academics on a global scale.

Türkyilmaz noted that it has become impossible for academics to do research whose findings are not in line with official government positions:

Turkey was established on the denial of its systematic violence against Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks and Yazidis. But genocide is not only an issue of the past. It is an issue of today, as well. Denialism is still propagated in Turkey’s schools and universities freely and systematically. It is not the denialist circles who are repressed or denied right to free speech in any way. On the contrary, the Turkish government and many nationalist circles are trying to criminalize the scholarly study of the genocide globally. It is now becoming more and more impossible to carry out critical academic research at any Turkish university.

As for Turkish nationalists accusing the workshop of “serving imperialism,” Türkyilmaz said:

It is so ironic. The major powers these people accuse of being "imperialists" and of supporting Armenians have actually always supported or appeased Turkey. The fact that the genocide took place and the perpetrators have never been punished and that denialism still persists both in Turkey and in many places across the world is partly due to the support Turkey has received from the major world powers the denialists call "imperialist conspirators" today.

The members of the Academics for Peace initiative in Germany, founded by academics in Turkey, were targeted by the Turkish government after signing a peace declaration calling for non-violence between the Turkish government and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in 2015. They issued a statement, which said in part:

The right to undertake free research is under attack even in countries where we have had to go to due to the government pressure. This hostile attitude of Turkey has turned into an international problem.

So where are the howls of outrage from Western professors?

Turkey is persecuting academics who investigate topics of significant historical importance that are considered taboo by Turkey’s government. Critical academics in Turkey risk of losing their jobs, passports, freedoms, or even their lives. Does the Turkish government have to persecute Western academics before they finally speak up for their Turkish colleagues?