Tearing down the ivory tower

Since rising to energy in 2002, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has imprisoned scores of reporters and NGO leaders, closed magazines and tv stations, banned democratic rallies and satisfaction marches, annulled election outcomes, shut down Twitter, YouTube and Wikipedia, and compelled Netflix to take away a homosexual character from a Turkish rom-com. However by no means earlier than has he seized management of an entire college, forcing all its eminent workers to resign, taking on their campus, libraries and different tutorial properties, and chopping bursaries of its Erasmus college students to silence dissenting voices.

On 30 June, protecting his promise to ‘do away with Turkey’s opposition viruses’ whereas combating Covid-19, Erdoğan cancelled the working licence of Istanbul Şehir College, a prestigious college based in 2009 that grew to become an intersection level between Marxists, liberals and Islamists.

Şehir’s founding rules have been established via talks with the nation’s prime intellectuals: Halil Berktay, an professional on the Armenian Genocide, the Harvard historian Cemal Kafadar, and two dozen others. Bilim ve Sanat Vakfi (Science and Arts) – a basis co-established by Ahmet Davutoğlu, a professor of worldwide relations who served as Turkey’s penultimate prime minister earlier than the place was abolished – administered Şehir for a decade, hiring seasoned students of Ottoman tradition, politics and literature who held decolonising views and amassed massive social media followings. However these days Davutoğlu’s basis is demonised, and its directors are intimidated into silence.

Fatih Altuğ is a number one scholar of Turkish literature who ran Şehir’s Comparative Literature Centre for greater than a decade. He was 32 when he joined the faculty. Its promise to be a ‘democratic, pluralist establishment not dominated by any political group’ attracted him. The monetary assist of Murat Ülker, a number one industrialist and a founding member of Bilim ve Sanat Vakfi, was additionally encouraging. Earlier than its closure, Şehir was the third highest salary-paying college within the nation, after Koç and Sabancı, personal schools owned by two of Turkey’s most affluent tycoons.

Şehir’s multiculturalist agenda prioritised public intellectualism, and the varsity’s roster featured students who have been outspoken about Kurdish rights. Altuğ describes their pupil base as ‘kids of largely conservative households who have been very open to liberal or leftist types of conservative thought’. College students enrolled at Şehir have been among the many greatest within the nation, chosen from among the many 2,000 highest-scoring pupils within the country-wide college examination.

Sehir College underneath the crescent moon, the facade nonetheless displaying its authentic title in October 2020. Photograph by @nosehir on Twitter.

Şehir quickly earned a ‘woke’ status. When 1,128 intellectuals put out an anti-war petition in 2016 titled We Received’t Be Topic to This Crime, six Şehir students have been among the many signatories. Erdoğan known as the signatories ‘traitors’ to verify they have been prosecuted and imprisoned. A subsequent purge in Turkey’s main schools paved the way in which to put in his loyalists. However Şehir students have been let off the hook after the faculty’s administration refused to sack the signatories.

This text first appeared within the Winter 2020 problem of Index on Censorship journal, which appears to be like at how Covid-19 has been utilized by authoritarian leaders to bury tales they don’t need the world to listen to about. Click on right here to seek out out extra concerning the newest problem.

Şehir college students, too, have been fearless. One studied the representations of the Armenian genocide within the Kurdish novel. ‘It was a doubly harmful theme,’ stated Altuğ, ‘however we confronted no issues.’ One other pupil wrote a thesis on Zaven Biberyan and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, discussing an Armenian and a Turkish author’s representations of the Armenian genocide. ‘We heard nothing from the Greater Schooling Council. Maybe they aren’t but conscious of the contents of those theses,’ Altuğ added.

However the scholar, now 43, is visibly shaken whereas recounting what occurred subsequent. After Erdoğan fired Davutoğlu and abolished the prime ministerial submit to construct his one-man regime, Davutoğlu based The Future Get together and the whole lot modified. By December final yr, the previous prime minister had turn out to be probably the most vocal critic of Erdoğan’s regime. Having amassed a wealth of insider details about Turkey’s autocratic system, Davutoğlu shortly grew to become a hate determine within the pro-government press. Quickly, Şehir workers discovered themselves within the eye of an anti-Davutoğlu marketing campaign.

‘They known as us „untrustworthy liberals who cover out at Şehir”’, recalled Altuğ. ‘We have been known as „intellectuals who poison conservative children”’ One nationalist labelled Altuğ and his Şehir colleagues ‘orientalist zoologists who have a look at Turkish literature from a overseas perspective’. In response, they modified their WhatsApp group’s title to ‘Orientalist Zoologists’.

The federal government selected a curious second to lastly shut Şehir: it did so throughout the Covid-19 disaster. Its takedown of the faculty, swift and methodical, was a lesson in authoritarianism. Information of Şehir’s demise was drowned out amongst information concerning the pandemic, turning into probably the most under-reported tales of 2020 regardless of its huge implications.

Worldwide pupil protesting exterior of Sehir College. Photograph from @sehirhepimizin on Twitter.

After appointing an administrative caretaker for the faculty, Erdoğan printed a decree in April which made it potential to shut Şehir, in addition to different personal schools, instantly as an alternative of ready for 3 years after a takeover because the legislation demanded. Altuğ had a 9am class on the day the takeover decree was introduced. ‘College students have been attempting to get used to on-line training. Professors have been attempting to outlive financially and to not replicate Şehir’s difficulties to college students. I talked with my class for quarter-hour concerning the scenario. I felt I needed to carry on doing my job correctly regardless of our ordeals.’

However that grew to become inconceivable as Şehir stopped functioning. Meals was not served within the faculty’s cafeteria. College students on Erasmus scholarships couldn’t obtain their cash. Altuğ went unpaid for 3 consecutive months. On-line training and Covid-19 made it simpler to disregard the bodily actuality for some time, however after Ömer Çelik, vice-president of the ruling Justice and Improvement Get together (AKP), introduced that the varsity’s working licence was cancelled following an AKP central committee assembly, Altuğ realised he was ‘in stark denial of the scenario’. Closure was what the state wished, and there was no escape from it.

In the summertime, quickly after the lockdowns lifted, he visited the varsity one final time to gather his belongings. ‘I had 20 containers of books at my workplace,’ he stated. ‘Once I visited the campus in June, the safety guards working on the school for a decade had been changed by guards from a state school. After I entered the varsity premises, they accompanied me to my workplace. They waited there, taking notes about what I did inside, which containers I took. This was one of many saddest moments of my life. This place, [which] as soon as I thought of house, I may now solely enter by a guard shadowing me.’

Below its caretaker, Şehir has became a ghost city. When Altuğ took a closing stroll on the campus, he noticed that the grass was overgrown as a result of gardeners had not mown it. Prior to now, there had been nice animal range on the campus with a lot of cats, canine and birds. Now there have been just some stray canine. Within the corridors, there have been photocopied papers scattered on the bottom. ‘It was so unhappy to see it so abandoned,’ he stated.

The federal government additionally confiscated private libraries donated to Şehir by households of the luminaries of Turkish social sciences: hundreds of books by Taha Toros, Şerif Mardin, Kemal Karpat, Fuad Köprülü and Talât Sait Halman now belong to the caretakers.

In response to the closure, a gaggle of scholars organised a protest as early as April. However after they got here to the campus that month they have been refused entry to Şehir. Şuhedanur Hacıalioğlu, an expert archer who plans to have an instructional profession in literature, was amongst those that protested on the college’s gates.

‘The battle performed out throughout my closing yr as an undergraduate,’ she instructed Index. ‘As soon as we understood its nature we started elevating our voices on social media. As we did so we observed how all different voices had sunk into silence.’ Hacıalioğlu and her fellow graduates tried to achieve journalists to inform their tales, however intimidated reporters selected to disregard them. The platform she joined, Şehirhepimizin (Şehir Belongs to Us All), held conferences and deliberate marches and issued political statements. ‘As a result of I’m a literature graduate, I helped write the primary assertion. We went to the parliament and talked with MPs. We held our protest march. We simply wished to defend our faculty and lift our voices towards injustice.’

In keeping with Altuğ, Turkey’s tutorial neighborhood doesn’t but realise the importance of the decree which makes seizing universities simpler. ‘It was created particularly for Şehir however it could assist take over all personal schools within the nation,’ he stated. ‘The calamity has not but been comprehended. Even whether it is his personal son’s college, the president can discover financial or different excuses to take over a faculty in a single day.’ He warns that if personal schools resembling Koç, Sabancı and Bilgi rattle the federal government only one bit, they are going to face an analogous finish.

Immediately, Bilim ve Sanat Vakfi plans to take the case to the European Court docket of Human Rights, however with Erdoğan’s autocratic rule nonetheless in place, there appears little prospect that Şehir will probably be returned to its house owners. ‘This could occur to any faculty any further,’ Altuğ stated. ‘And what we skilled will set the agenda and the tone for tutorial life in Turkey within the close to future.’

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