In Turkey: The Ivory Tower Besieged

Turkish students stage a protest against the government and condemning the detentions of students at the universities in Ankara on June 16, 2012. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/GettyImages)

In Turkey, it is not “publish or perish” that scholars must fear.  It is prison.

There was a time, not very long ago, that Turkey seemed on the edge of a new era of academic and intellectual freedom.  New private universities created institutional support for more independent scholarship, while the Turkish government showed at least grudging willingness to allow debate of formerly “taboo subjects.”  For example, in 2005, the ruling AK (Justice and Development Party) Party, after initial hesitation, publicly supported the first conference in Turkey that seriously examined the Armenian Genocide.  It soon became apparent, however, that the AK Party’s vision of academic freedom has clear limits.

Asserting Control over the Universities

In some cases, basic science came under attack.  In Turkey, as in the United States, there is a powerful creationist movement eager to debunk fundamental aspects of evolutionary science.  Creationism has deep roots in Turkey and the ruling AK Party has quietly picked up the banner of anti-science.  Slowly, over the past several years, major scholarly institutions have lost their independence and party hacks have replaced serious researchers.


Scholars Targeted in Turkey "War on Terror"

One particularly troubling aspect of Turkey’s own “War on Terror” is the way that it has targeted a wide range of individuals with no record of violence.  Virtually anyone critical of the government may be arrested.

A recent speech by Interior Minister, İdris Naim Şahin, made clear that terrorism includes “[writing] poems or short articles [which] demoralize the soldiers or police” and that terrorist cells can include “a university chair, an association, or a non-governmental organization” in “Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa, Germany, London, wherever…”

This rhetoric reflects an ugly reality: thousands of individuals have been arrested, with most held in lengthy pre-trial detentions.  Most are not accused of violence and none have the right to challenge evidence in advance of their trial.


Punishment Without Trial: Pre-trial Detention in Turkey

Ragip Zarakolu

Ragip Zarakolu

Years ago, Tom Lehrer sang “when correctly viewed, everything is lewd.”  In today’s Turkey, one might well sing “when correctly viewed, everyone’s a terrorist.”  How else do you explain the recent incarceration of Ragip Zarakolu, currently being held in a prison designed for hardened and dangerous criminals?

Zarakolu, 65-year-old and in ill health, is a book publisher and human rights activist who has been accused of terrorism– apparently because he gave a talk at a legal Kurdish political party’s Politics Academy.  Professor Büşra Ersanlı was also detained and records of their interrogation by prosecutors show that both Zarakolu and Ersanlı were asked about their participation with the Politics Academy.