Tayyip Erdogan

Tayyip Erdogan

WITT/SIPA/Newscom

Turkish academics pay price for speaking out on Kurds

Turkish academics who have openly criticized Turkey’s military crackdown on ethnic Kurdish communities are now feeling the wrath of their government. In recent days, the government arrested 33 academics. Although all have since been released, ScienceInsider has learned, 15 have been fired from their university posts. Today, Turkey’s Science Academy released a statement objecting to the government’s “wrong and disturbing” reaction in what is mushrooming into yet another crisis for the nation’s academic community.

Human rights organizations as well as the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine have criticized Turkey and called on it to respect freedom of speech. "This is a witch-hunt by the government," says Caghan Kizil, a Turkish neuroscientist based at the Dresden University of Technology in Germany. "It aims to silence the opposition with brutality and bullying." The U.S. National Academies "will continue to monitor the situation closely," says Martin Chalfie, the Nobel Prize–winning chemist who chairs the Academies’ Committee on Human Rights in Washington, D.C.

The saga started on 11 January, when a letter protesting violence in Turkey's ethnically Kurdish southeastern region, and calling on the government to make peace with Kurdish rebels, was posted online. More than 1000 academics in Turkey and abroad signed it. At a press conference the next day, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan denounced the letter as "treachery." By the end of the week, the government had launched 109 criminal investigations into academics based in Turkey.

Human rights groups have condemned the government for demolishing thousands of Kurdish villages and leaving as many as 1 million people homeless. Turkey blames tensions on the most extreme Kurdish faction, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which Turkey and the United States have labeled a terrorist organization. According to the Turkish government, the conflict since 1984 has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

Tensions between Turkish academics and the conservative government have been building for years. Among more than 600 signatures that have been added to a new statement of solidarity with the academics is Mehmet Ali Alpar, president of the Science Academy in Istanbul, which in 2011 was created in opposition to the government's control of the official academy. The opposing academy has now issued its own statement, which is “in defense of the freedom of expression," says Alpar, who provided ScienceInsider with the following English translation:

"Democracy cannot exist without freedom of expression.

We, the undersigned academics, believe that freedom of expression is the core element of academic life. Based on this belief and independently of our personal views regarding the underlying causes of the ongoing violent conflict in our  country, we think that the reaction of the government and the Higher Education Council towards the petition entitled “We shall not be a party to this crime” signed by over one thousand academics is wrong and disturbing.

Democracy cannot exist without freedom of expression. It is natural that academics feel the responsibility to share with the wider public the opinions they form by reasoning and following the dictates of their conscience. Public debate and criticism are the basic tenets of democracy whereas silencing and persecuting dissent are the hallmark of authoritarianism. The attempt to punish the academics who express their opinions regarding the burning problems which currently affect the country constitutes a blow to academic freedom. Social progress is bound to be impeded by such an attack.

Preventing the expression of ideas poses a far more serious threat to democracy than expressing controversial ideas."

One of the organizers of the original protest letter, Sinem Arslan, a Turkish political scientist at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, is circulating a new letter describing the plight of Turkish academics in detail. 

The arrested academics may have been freed, but many do not feel safe, Kizil says. "The biggest danger may not be legal prosecutions but extrajudicial punishment. … Local mobbing is common [and] these academics are being targeted by various groups in Turkey now. They are terribly afraid."

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