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Turkish academics talk about living in fear: 'It's the final stage of a witch hunt'

Professors are being fired or arrested for allegedly helping plot a failed coup. Now they live, they say, in terror of a crackdown — and even of their students.
Des membres de l'Association de la Jeunesse Turque ultra-nationaliste brandissent une banderole sur laquelle on peut lire "Les universités devraient être nettoyées de l'organisation terroriste de Fethullah". Photo de Baz Ratner/Reuters

After the coup attempt that failed to remove Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, the government has gone on the offensive against what it says is a vast network of plotters, which it calls a "parallel state" run by exiled cleric and Erdogan enemy Fethullah Gülen.

Some of the targets of the purge are pretty obvious, with thousands of military officers including some top generals removed and detained. Others are more dubious: among the tens of thousands of people fired from their jobs or put in prison, there are judges and academics.


On Wednesday, Erdogan introduced emergency powers that let him bypass parliament for at least three months, legislating by decree. And among Turkey's academics, who have been barred from expatriating because the government says they might flee, there is a widespread fear of an increasingly authoritarian president, and of the crackdown he's imposed in the past few days.

"What we are witnessing right now is the final stage of a witch hunt," said an adjunct professor at a Turkish university who, like all others interviewed for this story, asked to remain anonymous because of the risk to her safety.

It all began, she said, well before the failed coup, to silence "any opposition voices against the government," including journalists as well as academics.

"The hunt against academics started a few months ago," she said, when the Turkish armed forces launched a vast operation against Kurdish militants who want an autonomous region in the country's east. "The president himself openly called 1,128 academics who signed a petition for peace with the Kurds 'intellectual waste,' and some of the 1,128 were jailed. Many lost their jobs without any future chances to enter academia again," she said.

Security forces have even started detaining top academics suspected of complicity in the failed coup.

Jule Sarac, the rector of Dicle University, was arrested in the eastern city of Diyarbakir. She had previously faced an investigation into her alleged ties to Gülen, whom Erdogan blames for orchestrating the attempted military coup and wants extradited from the US. The rectors of Yildiz Technical University — one of Istanbul's most important — Yalova, and Gazi Universities were removed from office by government order.


"Every day academics are fired or called traitors by the government"

On Tuesday the High Education Board ordered the resignation of 1,577 deans at both state and private universities in Turkey, because they were suspected of ties with unspecified "cells in the military." State broadcaster TRT reported that Istanbul University had removed 95 academics from their posts. That's on top of the mass firing of 22,000 employees of the Education Ministry, mostly teachers.

"Every day academics are fired or called traitors by the government for speaking their minds and telling the truth," said a professor at a major Turkish university who earned his PhD in the US and then returned to his native country to teach. "I used to feel that Turkey was a more rewarding and motivating place to work for a social scientist than many prestigious Western universities," he said. But now, "I feel suffocated."

"My university's administration may be taken over by a government-appointed ideologue next semester," he lamented.

Girls walk in front of a Turkish flag at Istanbul University on July 21 (Photo by Sedat Suna/EPA)

The High Education Board has given universities until August 5 to send detailed reports about every one of their top academics, including foreigners, to ascertain whether they have any relations with Gulen. The Ministry of Education closed 524 private schools and 102 institutions that were suspected of ties to him.

The goal of all this, said the professor, goes well beyond a purge of suspected traitors to the nation's elected government.


Erdogan "will use this crisis as an excuse to kill two birds with one stone," he said. The president wants to "eliminate the remaining autonomy of the country's educational institutions, especially universities, which have always been an important source of opposition … and bring them under total government control."

Some academics are getting notices that they have been summarily fired, with little explanation.

"I received an email from the administration of the university I work for," said a social scientist and PhD. "They say that the tweets I have been sending after the July 15 events, to be exact on the 16th and 17th, have been found to be harmful to our institutions."

They weren't even her tweets, she said: "I retweeted messages from other academics or newspapers, mostly against the death penalty and calling the government to respect democracy and human rights."

Her position at the university has been terminated anyway, and there will be an investigation. She has been asked to submit a written defense within a week.

"Those who lost their jobs will have no chance at other universities, and those who remain will censor themselves"

The climate of fear around universities is palpable, said the adjunct professor who fears a witch hunt.

"Those who lost their jobs will have no chance at other universities, and those who remain will censor themselves," she said, recalling the case of an academic from Bilgi University who was fired after a student taped remarks she made in class which were supposedly against the government.


A fourth professor, also a social scientist, said he had never before in his life been forced to mask his identity.

"This is the first time I will not be able to sign my name after a text I'm writing," he said. "I am very sad that I need to be anonymous by force and not by choice." Unlike many of his colleagues, he is still employed. But he is under no illusion about the future that awaits him, and those like him, in today's Turkey.

"The only reason I still have a job," he said, "is because the list is probably very long."

Follow Alberto Riva on Twitter: @AlbertoRiva

Follow Asli Pelit on Twitter: @brefootcontessa

Reuters contributed to this story.