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Are Turkey’s Universities a Legitimate Target for an Academic Boycott?

Following last week’s failed coup in Turkey — the exact circumstances of which remain murky — President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has embarked on a state-wide purge of his political opponents with disturbing speed.

On Thursday, Erdoğan declared a three-month state of emergency, which allows him to make laws without consulting legislators, as well as enforcing curfews and bans on public gatherings. Ironically, given his defense of this measure as necessary to preserve “our citizens’ rights and freedoms,” Erdoğan invoked Article 120 of the Turkish constitution, which was passed under military rule [1] in the 1980s.

Over the last week, at least [2] 60,000 soldiers, police, judges, civil servants, and teachers have been suspended or detained, or are under investigation by the regime. Turkey’s long-standing repression of the media — the country is ranked at number 151 [3] in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index — has been extended, with the licenses of more than 20 broadcasters revoked since the coup attempt.

As Erdoğan brings Turkey towards outright fascism, the country’s universities are also in the firing line. As with the media, Erdoğan and his Islamist AKP Party insist that higher education institutes are packed with “Gulenist terrorists” — a reference to the followers of the exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdoğan claims was behind the coup. The net effect of the purge has been the complete suspension of academic freedom in Turkey, with more than 1,500 university deans ordered to resign.

In Science Magazine, reporter John Bohannon observed [4]:

It may seem strange that the government can seize control of academia with a single decree. After all, the rectors at Turkey’s 180 universities are chosen through a nominally democratic process in which faculty members at each university vote for their candidate of choice. But officials at the ministry of education – and, ultimately, Turkey’s president – have the final say.

“The university rectors asked their deans to resign and the implication was clear: Resign or you will be accused of treason and arrested,” Caghan Kizil, a Turkish molecular biologist based at the Dresden University of Technology in Germany, told Science Magazine. In the same report, Sinem Arslan, a political scientist at the University of Essex in the UK, described Erdoğan’s agenda in stark terms. “They want to take the universities under their full control,” Arslan said. “Academic freedoms will no longer exist. I don’t think that anybody will be able to work on research areas that are considered taboo by the government or write anything that criticizes the government.”

For those outside Turkey genuinely committed to academic freedom, the purge of Turkish universities raises the question of whether universities and academic associations abroad should now call for a boycott of Turkey’s higher education sector. Inevitably, it also raises the awkward issue of the double standard that reigns in western universities, whereby Israeli universities and academics are frequently the targets of a boycott, in shameful contrast to the stony silence that has thus far distinguished the response of western academics to Erdoğan’s assault.

Indeed, as William Jacobson pointed out in a piece for the blog Legal Insurrection [5], it’s not as if western academics had no warning that a purge was on the cards. Commented Jacobson:

Unlike Israel, where academics are some of the most vocal critics of the government and its policies, the Turkish government repression of academia prior to the recent coup attempt had made Turkish universities increasingly functionaries of state policies, as Times Higher Education [6] reported in April: “…successive AKP governments since 2003, with Erdoğan as prime minister or president, have been determined to maintain the long-standing state tutelage over Turkey’s higher education system. The expected prize is the production of graduates disposed to submit to authority – particularly state authority – without much questioning.” So, prior to the recent coup, every argument made against Israel fit Turkey and then some.

Of course, Jacobson is under no illusion that concerns about academic freedom are what informs the boycott of Israeli universities endorsed by organizations ranging from the Association of University Teachers in Britain to the American Studies Association in the US, as well as the 111 universities in Turkey [7] that aligned with the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) movement in 2014, likely on the orders of Erdoğan himself. As Carey Nelson, who served as President of the American Association of University Professors from 2006-12, argued in his essay [8] “The Fragility of Academic Freedom:”

It’s not surprising that BDS faculty often do not know much about academic freedom, since most of their colleagues don’t either, but then most of their colleagues aren’t making pronouncements about academic freedom. They simply perservere in quiet ignorance. BDS ignorance is, one may say, more proactive. It’s out there, doing the hard work of spreading confusion and misinformation.

If anything exposes the double standard that lie behind this deliberate promotion of lies and deceit, it’s the fact that Turkey is actually carrying out the policies that Israel has been falsely accused of adopting. However, as infuriating as supporters of Israel might find it, the BDS hate campaign is not going to turn its attention towards Turkey. Its deployment of universalist concepts like “academic freedom” and “human rights” is mere cover for a parochial campaign whose goal is to isolate Israel as a prelude to the Jewish state’s eventual elimination.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t confront pro-BDS faculty over their hypocrisy. We absolutely should, doggedly and repeatedly. Every association and every individual academic who has endorsed a boycott of Israel should be pressured into answering why they refuse to apply the same standards to Turkey. Let the emails and phone calls and tweets [9] flow, and don’t stop. Don’t allow them to even think about anything else.

At the same time, we shouldn’t permit those who would boycott Israeli academics to set the terms of the debate around Turkey. There is an understandable unease about calling for a boycott of Turkish academia, given that Israel has been victimized by the same tool. Moreover, as William Jacobson says, “I draw upon my own experience studying in the Soviet Union. That experience showed me that academic interaction even with the most repressive regimes was a lifeline to those struggling for freedom.”

Yet I am wary of ruling out, at this stage, any type of boycott. Given that the Turkish state has now incorporated the university system, we cannot pretend that business can carry on as usual. For instance, any academic appointed through Erdoğan’s purge is, in my view, a legitimate target for a boycott, because their purpose is not to increase knowledge and understanding — which should be the core rationale of any university — but to act as the AKP regime’s thought police. A boycott that specifically targets Erdoğan’s dictatorship is very different from a blanket ban on Turkey’s university system as a whole — and far preferable. Such an approach underlines that the aim is to protect academia from Erdoğan’s onslaught, and not, pace the BDS campaign, the wholesale destruction of Turkey as a sovereign state.

Additionally, there are other ways besides a boycott to demonstrate solidarity. For one thing, western academics should be pressuring the State Department and other foreign ministries to demand that Turkey’s Higher Education Council immediately lift the ban, imposed after the coup attempt, on academics traveling abroad [10]. For another, they should be urging university administrations to offer jobs, fellowships, research grants and other forms of sustenance to those Turkish academics who have fallen under Erdoğan’s knife.

Gratifyingly, movement is beginning to stir on this latter front, with thousands of academics signing an online solidarity petition [11]. The AAUP, whose declared mission is to advance academic freedom, has thrown its weight behind a statement [12] from the Scholars at Risk network, which includes the demand that academic bodies outside Turkey should host “dismissed, displaced or otherwise threatened scholars and students from Turkey.” It’s a start, but more — much, much more — is needed.

Ben Cohen is a Senior Editor at The Tower Magazine and the Director of Partnership Programs at The Israel Project. Publications he has written for include Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, Ha’aretz and Tablet. He writes a weekly column for JNS.org, a news agency serving the Jewish media. Follow him on Twitter @BenCohenOpinion.

[Photo: UNAOC]