Democracy is backsliding as different parts of the world from Europe to Asia turn to authoritarian government or democratures. Among the hallmarks of this trend are attacks on academic freedom, from Hungary to Belarus. In Turkey, an alarming assault against academics began in 2016 and has not stopped yet.
After the protests erupted at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, on 15 March 2021 Scuola Normale Superiore (SNS) in collaboration with Scholars at Risk Italy organised a two-part roundtable discussion with two professors and a student from the university in order to raise awareness of the issue and to support fellow academics. Focusing on social movements, COSMOS at Scuola Normale conducted this event with the contributions of Professors Mert Arslanalp and Zeynep Gambetti, and a graduate student, Oğulcan Yediveren, who focused respectively on the chronological evolution, the government methods and aims, and the role of LGBTQIA+ communities during the protests and how they were targeted by the current government within the campus. The roundtable discussion was led by Prof. Donatella Della Porta, Professor of political science and political sociology at the SNS.
The first question directed to the panelists was how, in their opinion, it was possible that these protests have attracted so much attention in comparison to similar events – for instance, Gezi Park in 2013.
Prof. Arslanalp began to answer the question by introducing the audience to the context which led to the protests. On 1st January 2020, with one of his “midnight decrees”, President Erdoğan appointed Melih Bulu as rector of Boğaziçi University. No one at the institution was informed, let alone consulted on the matter. According to Arslanalp, it is evident how it is a political choice, due to Bulu’s ties with the AKP: in fact, he founded the AKP’s Sarıyer branch in 2002 and was more than once unsuccessfully nominated for elections in Istanbul. The reaction took place already on the 3rd of January, with a note and a peaceful protest consisting in faculty staff distantly gathering and turning their backs to the Rectorate Hall, as an act of self-defence, which was quickly criminally framed by media affiliated with the government. Portraying students and faculty members as terrorists allowed the police to siege the campus – however, the protest had already gained visibility. Thanks to its grassroots and peaceful character, the protest spread to other districts and universities. Against the violent attacks, both verbal by representatives of the government and physical by the police, the professors and students organised alternative lectures and workshops, but also exploited different forms of art to express their opposition. Arslanalp describes the peaceful events as an atmosphere that one can find in a festival. For example, protesters held simulated elections to recall the democratic spirit of the university and staged art galleries revolving around human rights, solidarity, and freedom, but also humour. In fact, they issued a call to contribute to the cause and received pieces from all over the world: moreover, to overcome both Covid-19 and security-based restrictions, they managed to make the exhibit accessible also online.
President Erdoğan did not stop only by the appointment of the rector. After exactly one month, he instituted two more faculties at the university – Law and Communication – to artificially gain new supporters and collaborators in the senate, while the so-called “trustee-rector” appointed a new director for the Social Sciences Institute, Prof. Naci İnci, from the physics department. This choice disregarded once more the ongoing democratic process for the election of academic staff. It also happened while two physics students were under arrest, thereby raising vehement criticism.
To the academics, the message is clear: the government is pursuing a strategy to redesign the institution. It is not merely acting on the formation of the personnel, but also on the values it entails. According to Prof. Arslanalp, attacking autonomous cultural institutions through legalistic tools has become a common practice of the regime, enabled by the state of emergency proclaimed in the aftermath of the 2016 attempted-coup. Prof. Zeynep Gambetti also underlined the role played by neoliberal policies: projects carried out by corporations close to the regime are profiting from generous public allocations, no matter how negative the externalities on the environment or on social deprivation of the population can be.
Prof. Gambetti also questioned what type of ideology is now being promoted through such initiatives. Beyond political alignment, she claims, discourses and tactics of the regime tend to foster mediocracy in cultural organisations and society as a whole. For her, the central government is craving to hold all the power, of any kind, in its hands, and establishing a firm grip on Boğaziçi University is an illustration of the attempt to grab limitless soft power. As Prof. Gambetti said, Boğaziçi is a university with a tradition of debating and of consensus: it was the first to have internal elections for the rector in 1992, and it defied censorship for long. Today’s movements aim for a re-democratisation of the academic environment: what is astonishing, according to Prof. Gambetti, is that the majority of the campus has never been politicised or activist, yet, for the first time in Turkey, all the university has acted as a single body. As Prof. Arslanalp pointed out, this does not mean that there was no diversity among the actors mobilised: this variety enriches the protests and provides a positive tension leading to self-sustaining mobilisation. Gambetti identified a virtuous circle, as professors have learned the protest language from students and all together bonded over a sense of solemnity and civil disobedience: comparing today’s events to the boycott in 1980, as said Gambetti, Boğaziçi was feared to undergo the same violence and instead managed to be a laboratory for the opposition reclaiming stolen freedoms in Turkey.
Discussing who were the actors involved and how they managed to obtain internal and international support, Oğulcan Yediveren introduced the concept of a new subjectivity rising up in Turkey, specifically dealing with the LGBTQIA+ community, one of the better organised groups on campus. Even if it was not primarily responsible for many of the protests for Boğaziçi, its structures were crucial for efficiency, hence it became one of the scapegoats and victims of the repression. Among other alleged 'crimes', LGBT youth was accused of insulting the religion because of an artwork depicting the rainbow flags on the Kaaba, the most important holy site for Muslims. It is important to underline that homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey per se and LGBTQIA+ individuals used to move to Istanbul to join associations and live in a more welcoming environment; even the AKP promised democratisation and reforms before the elections. However, over time, the community became a victim of hate speech and attacks by the ruling class, mainly oriented to three purposes, as described by Oğulcan. First, the government is intentioned to shape individuals’ sexuality and the institution of family as reproductive-oriented, defining as “abnormal” whoever does not fit the heterosexual and patriarchal structures. Second, it aims to create a Sunni-Turkish identity, cutting off those who do not respect the narrative of “native” or “national” identity. Third, and connected to the first two points, to portray the LGBT community as a national security threat is just a mean to an end: for example, to distract from the worsening economic situation, the government has started a crusade to ban the Gay Pride in Istanbul, defined as a threat to public order, health and morality. For these people, Boğaziçi is definitely not the first time that they experienced governmental hostilities.
In conclusion, many sectors of the Turkish society are fighting against authoritarianism and the harsh imposition of cultural hegemony: civil resistance sprung out of vulnerabilities, which are not opposite to resistance but are its origins, as defined by Prof. Gambetti in the final Q&A session. Turkish victims of oppression are refusing to let fear take over, but they are strengthening their own resilience and resistance, in the hope of improvements for their beloved institutions and forms of pluralistic expression.