What are the challenges faced by at-risk scholars abroad? Starting from this question, this interview aims to give an idea to the administrative sections of universities, who are unfamiliar with the solution processes of the difficulties faced by academics at risk. Identifying the challenges that they face can bring to the formulation of ad hoc legal solutions, thus preventing encountering similar incidents in the future.

In 2017, many Italian institutions joined Scholars at Risk (SAR) or expressed their interest in becoming part of the network. And in 2019 Italian section of Scholars at Risk has been launched at the University of Padua. Scholars at Risk is an international network which aims to protect academics at risk and the core higher education values such as academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Scholars at Risk provides advisory services both for scholars and host institutions. It supports an advocacy service for the scholars who are jailed or silenced in their own countries; for doing that it monitors attacks on higher education communities worldwide. SAR works on new tools and strategies for promoting academic freedom and therefore improving respect for university values.

Many universities in Italy began hosting academics at risk, especially after the systematic mass attacks in Turkey, right after the 2016 coup attempt. Italian universities managed to host several academics, integrating them according to their skills and experiences, but faced different challenges in connection to their different backgrounds (nationality, religion, and ethics for example). This is the first in series of interviews through which we will try to identify the problems at-risk scholars face throughout their stay in Italy. Today we speak with Gökhan Demir from Turkey, being hosted by University of Florence.

First Part: Academics at Risk and Challenges

First of all, thank you for kindly accepting to participate in this interview. Your answers to our questions are very valuable and they will be extremely helpful for SAR (Scholars at Risk)-Italy. Could you please first tell us for which reasons and how you are an-at risk scholar? What does it mean to be at risk in your country’s conditions?

I am one of the signatories of the Academics for Peace declaration, which called on the Turkish state to restart peace talks with the Kurdish population and which was written in response to the very harsh counter-terrorism operations in the Kurdish provinces. This declaration was shared with the public in January 2016. After one month, the Yildiz Technical University launched a disciplinary proceeding against us, just like many other universities did. After signing the petition, we had to face many problems. We have been threatened and targeted on social media. The pro-government media published our photos and we were called “traitors”, “terrorists” and “so-called intellectuals”. They tried to discredit us in front of the public. Before the failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016, various administrative and legal investigations, criminalization attempts, intimidation and special harassment campaigns were carried out against us. After the failed coup attempt of July, AKP government of president Erdoğan declared a state of emergency (OHAL) and ruled Turkey by decrees for two years. These decrees made it easier to punish and liquidate the peace signatories in academia. About 400 signatories were dismissed and banished from the public service. Our passports were canceled for almost three years. It was even discussed whether we have the right to vote in the elections. Four of our colleagues were imprisoned at the beginning of the signing process, and as a result of the trial, one of our colleagues remained in prison.

I was dismissed from my position in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Yildiz Technical University with the Decree-Law issued in April 2017 for signing this peace statement.

We lost all the basic social and economic rights as you know, such as salary, health insurance, pension etc. We are legally prohibited from working in any public office. We also have had a very difficult time finding jobs in the private sectors too as they were (are) afraid of the government repression.

Although the Constitutional Court decided in 2019 that the Academics for Peace Declaration was not criminal and the petition was within the scope of freedom of thought, I was called to testify to the police station on the charge of supporting a terrorist organization. Anti-Terror police came to my house. I went to the police station to bear testimony.With the decision of the Constitutional Court, the charges against me were dropped a few months later.

Apart from this, as I do not have a regular income since 2017, I have continued to work in precarious and temporary jobs, like many of my colleagues. I was able to find jobs such as translation, proofreading and editing for publishers.

After the failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016, the AKP government established a commission called the State of Emergency Investigation Commission. The government has made it mandatory for us to apply for the commission to return to our positions or jobs at universities. This commission had not made a decision about our applications for almost 5 years, but a few months ago (27 November 2021), the commission has decided on my application, and on the ones of the other applicant signatory academics. Unfortunately, my application for returning to my job at the university was rejected on the allegation that I am affiliated with a terrorist organization.

Since you are not recognized by any kind of institutions, public or private, this must be a really difficult period for you. It seems to me that this situation brings with itself the question of social contract as well as the existence of the state, its relation to its citizens and of course, the issue of citizenship. Actually, the theory of modern social contract, let us think about Hobbes and Lock, does not work in anyway. A contract implies the existence of at least two parties and a situation in which each party decides to renounce some of its rights being in accord with common laws. But here, there is only one despotic party to the contract. But on the other hand, modern social contract, contradictorily, in my view, represents a kind of despotism, you never have a chance to choose in reality! So, metaphorically your contract is abolished and you become non-citizen. In order to get out of this situation and to establish a safety research environment even for a short period, I wonder through which fund did you come to Italy? Was it through a research funded by the university itself or was it a project in which other institutions were involved?

I came in Italy through the Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF). Actually, I applied to the Scholar Rescue Fund in 2018, but they stated that the committee would not proceed with my application because my passport was cancelled by an administrative decision of the Turkish government. As a result of legal efforts, the cancellation decision on my passport was lifted in 2020, and I decided to apply to SRF again in September 2020 and my application was accepted in December 2020. As you know, SRF is working with a partner institution and they expect at least the same amount of support that they give from the host institutions or universities. I looked for the host institution about 6 months.

It is quite a long period to find a host institution. After your arrival in Italy, what were the bureaucratic difficulties you faced?

One of the problems I faced is the residence permit. I made my first application for a residence permit shortly after I arrived to Italy. I don’t know if it is a routine practice, but they made it mandatory for me to attend trainings including extensive information from the implementation of various bureaucratic procedures in Italy to the rules of daily life. During two days, I listened a total of 8 hours of video recording. I went to the Questura (police headquarters) to leave my fingerprints in December, they made an appointment for the end of May again to roll a set of prints. Therefore, I still do not have a residence permit and I will not have received my residence permit for about 8 months.

Getting a health certificate and accessing healthcare was another challenging issue. However, at the end, I was able to resolve the problem.

Second Part: Conceptual Frameworks: Academic Freedom

These are really very challenging issues that scholars who know nothing about a culture, bureaucracy, daily life of their host country frequently encountered. From these practical problems, let us move towards a more conceptual part of the issue. What does academic freedom mean to you?

Academic freedom, for me, means that any person should not encounter the punitive practices of the state or political power while expressing their thoughts, standing in solidarity with the identities which are struggling for recognition and with the social classes which are fighting for rights, or while conducting research. In short, it means engaging in public life without fearing or worrying that something will happen to her/his while conducting research, expressing opinions, and being in solidarity with the actions and practices that have the potential to democratize the political regime.

It is generally accepted that academic freedom or freedom of expression in general have been always problematic throughout the history of Turkey, from the establishment of Republic to today. How was academic freedom in your country and how do you see it now?

I don’t think there is academic freedom in Turkey, the ruling party AKP is suffocating the whole society, suppressing all opposition voices. An exceptional form of the state is being built. The legal order is permanently suspended. In my view, the concept of authoritarianism is not enough to describe what is happening in Turkey due to the conditions we are in. A state architecture is being built, which in many ways approaches fascism. In terms of academic freedoms, it is very difficult for me to give an exact answer whether Italy is a thornless rose garden, but with my limited experience, I can say that academic freedom is much more advanced in Italy compared to Turkey.

When we look at Scholars at Risk Annual Report, Free to Think (more recently 2021) it seems that academic freedom is also fragile in democratic countries. So, how do you associate academic freedom with democracy and authoritarianism?

Undoubtedly, there is a very direct relationship between the nature of the political regime in the country and academic freedoms. Any political orientation that moves away from democratic forms of government will bring with itself the limitation of political rights and freedoms such as freedom of association and expression, the right to protest, and even not allowing the use of these. Inevitably, as the restrictive effects of the states’ coercive and oppressive instruments on social life and organization increase, academic freedoms equally decline. We can follow this tendency from the aggressive attitudes of the right populist or post-fascist administrations in power in many countries of the world towards academia.

Following up this question, it is also important to mention how neoliberalism plays a role in scientific research and freedom to think. How do you evaluate the impact of neo-liberalism on universities and education in general and in your country in particular?

While I was at university, I took part in many campaigns and struggles against these neo-liberalization tendencies, in the union that I was part of. Every country has been experiencing the attack of neoliberalism on public services and rights as a whole for a long time, albeit in different forms and levels. Unfortunately, this transformation was largely successful. One pillar of this transformation is the commercialization and commodification of education and making students customers, and the other pillar is the endless performance pressure of academics who work without job-security. Another longer-term outcome of this process is the restructuring of education completely in line with the needs of the economy and the market. In short, the effect of neoliberalism on the political organization of societies as a whole, due to its nature that both produces inequality and deepens existing inequalities, has been to move away from democracy (de-democratization).

My last question is of course about damned Covid-19. Do you think that Covid-19 has affected your research here? How much contact did you have with your colleagues at the university?

I can say that the physical distance measures implemented due to the pandemic, the transition to distance education and the hybrid model, unfortunately, affect the campus life very fundamentally. Universities, which we can describe as lively public spaces, make the learning and education process based on mutual interaction difficult due to these measures. On-campus sociability and physical space are much more limited. Therefore, I was able to meet a few of my colleagues. Apart from these, I cannot say that the pandemic has had a direct negative impact on my research.

Thank you so much for your contribution.

Update (20-02-2022), erratum: "A state of exception is being built" -> "An exceptional form of the state is being built"