The Turkish Government Closed a University Because It Fears Free Speech
Ankara shut an institution founded by religious conservatives and attacks tech companies in order to stop young Turks from accessing a free academic and media environment.
On June 30, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a midnight decree, announcing the termination of educational activities at Istanbul Sehir University, a nonprofit private university known for its high educational standards. The stated justification for the decision was the financial incapacity of the university to continue its activities. The university, inaugurated in 2010 at a ceremony in which Erdogan himself participated, has come under increased political and financial pressures following an intraparty dispute between Erdogan and his former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. The closure of the university will render me and many colleagues unemployed at a difficult time.
This is not my first encounter with authoritarian governments that seek to intervene in the higher education sector. I suffered from Turkey’s military-led authoritarianism in the 1990s, when my university degree obtained from Malaysia’s International Islamic University (IIU) was canceled following my graduation, forcing me to continue my education and academic career abroad. The Malaysian IIU was conceived in 1982 with the participation of seven Muslim governments, including Turkey, despite the fact that Turkey had a secularist military regime at the time.
But that regime disliked anything associated with visible expressions of religious practice. As part of a campaign to curb religious education during a time when the military controlled Turkish politics, the Turkish Higher Education Council—an authority created by the 1980 military junta to control all universities in the country, decided to cancel the degree recognition shortly after my own graduation. This decision effectively demoted me to the level of a high school graduate and made me unable to postpone compulsory military service and thus renew my passport. At that time, I had to end my Ph.D. studies at the University of Tübingen in Germany and leave for the United States, where I could obtain a longer student visa.
These were the days that many members of Turkish conservative society remember as “28 February,” referring to the date of the event when the military-imposed National Security Council issued its memorandum in 1997, a process that eventually forced religious conservative Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to resign. During this period, headscarf-wearing students could not enter universities, the bureaucracy, or the parliament, and severe restrictions were imposed on the graduates of religious high schools to enter universities. The electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 was made possible by the massive popular reaction to this process.
In 2011, with my degree recognized, I returned to contribute to the newly established Istanbul Sehir University. Built by a prestigious academic organization, the Foundation for Science and Arts, formed by a group of conservative academicians including Davutoglu, Sehir has earned a strong reputation both in Turkey and abroad. In an open letter to Erdogan on May 20, the Middle East Studies Association described Sehir “as an autonomous institution of higher education that quickly established a strong reputation in numerous academic disciplines,” adding that it “was a haven for diverse viewpoints, and attracted some of the most distinguished scholars in Turkey.” I was so motivated to join this new university as a faculty member, partly as a reflection of my previous suffering, that I left behind a tenure-track position at a prestigious U.S. liberal arts college.
But now Sehir has fallen out of Erdogan’s favor. As Davutoglu parted ways with the president and formed his own political party, formerly closed legal cases against the university were reopened, and the university came under severe legal and financial troubles. Thousands of Sehir students are awaiting an uncertain future, and hundreds of Sehir faculty have been forced to enter into the job market at a time when finding an academic job is next to impossible amid the COVID-19 crisis. My experience with authoritarian regimes cracking down on institutions they dislike continues, despite the seemingly different ideological predisposition of the ruling elites at different periods.
Of course, Sehir’s is not the first case of restrictions on academic freedom. Throughout history, Turkey has experienced purges leading to the expulsion of hundreds of academics from their positions during periods of both military and civilian authoritarian rule. Following the July 15, 2016, military coup attempt, many universities were closed down due to their alleged links with the Gulenists, the clandestine network connected to the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen that Turkey charges with plotting the coup attempt. However, what specifically the Sehir closure case shows is that the fight has now taken a new stage and transformed into an internal battle within the ruling party.
Although Sehir was a liberal university with many faculty members from various perspectives, it was still regarded as an institution built by conservative elites. Its uniquely cosmopolitan campus culture was perhaps unmatched by any other institution in the country. Despite its short duration, Sehir had the reputation of a first-class institution, and certainly, its closure will leave a deep scar in the conservative psyche as a case where the absolute power achieved through an electoral democratic revolution has turned against its own sons and daughters. The two new conservative opposition parties formed from within the AKP directly addressed this trauma. Davutoglu, who now leads a conservative party challenging the AKP, the Future (Gelecek) Party, blamed the closure directly on Erdogan.
And former AKP Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, now the leader of the Democracy and Progress (Deva) Party, expressed his reaction on Twitter, describing the closure decision process as antagonistic and illegal. In a sign indicating the emerging sprit of a multiparty pro-democracy alliance, the decision to close down Sehir was condemned by all other opposition parties, including the secularist Republican People’s Party and the nationalist Good Party.
Closing down a prestigious academic university on meager financial pretext is only a part of a larger political program of regressive authoritarianism. The ruling nationalist coalition is also trying to shape young minds by censoring social media. Turkey has a young and dynamic population; 1 in 6 people are between 15 and 24 years old.
According to a study conducted by Sodev, an Istanbul-based research organization, a significant majority of young people (70 percent) do not believe that their qualifications will be enough for them to find a job if they do not have sufficiently strong connections; youth unemployment reached 27 percent in 2019; and 62 percent of youths indicate that they will leave the country to seek a professional career abroad if they have the opportunity to do so. Even more dramatically, half of young people who consider themselves supporters of the ruling party confirm that they would do the same.
The resentment felt by young members of Turkish society was clear during a YouTube live program organized by the president. Young people stormed the site just to leave negative comments and press the “dislike” button, an incident that seems to have triggered the government to denounce social media. Moreover, following some personal insults on Twitter against Erdogan’s daughter Esra Albayrak, who is the wife of Turkey’s finance minister, Berat Albayrak, there have been increased calls against social media companies.
Erdogan reiterated that he understands the importance of social media during his conversation with young Turks but later expressed his reaction against social media platforms that spread “lies, slander, [and] attack[s] on personal rights and dignity.” He called for a parliamentary motion to remove and control social media outlets, specifically mentioning YouTube and Twitter. The government demands that social media companies open offices in Turkey so that their financial structures and content can be officially scrutinized. The government’s effective coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party, has vowed to close its own accounts on Twitter.
The campaign against Twitter is not new. In 2014, Turkey closed down the social media platform but the ban lasted only a month. In an open challenge against the ban, former President Abdullah Gul, a liberal voice in Turkey’s conservative political circles, expressed his reaction by sending a Twitter message.
This time, however, the move against social media platforms has been partly provoked by the suspension more than 7,000 pro-government accounts by Twitter labeled by the company as engaging in trolling activity. Many of the pro-government trolls issue similar targeted insults against opposition leaders and their families. Still, the closing down of such accounts is characterized by the ruling party’s deputy chair, Mahir Unal, as “ideologically motivated” and “unlawful.” Yet the larger reason for the government’s anger at social media companies is that they allow a platform for the opposition and critical voices.
Given the increased monopolization of conventional media organizations by pro-government figures, which severely limits the chance for the opposition to broadcast its opinions, Erdogan’s proposed restrictions on social media are motivated by political goals.
Only a few media organizations out of the government control remain, and they are regularly penalized by the state media regulation authority. However, the existence of social media renders the government’s attempts to control conventional media outlets ineffective, by allowing free speech on platforms that remain outside the government’s control.
More critically for the ruling AKP, new political parties formed by its former members—Davutoglu’s Gelecek and Babacan’s Deva—effectively utilize social media platforms to campaign and address the electorate. Numerous interviews made with them by independent journalists who lost their jobs in the conventional media sector are watched by millions of people on YouTube. Without social media, the Turkish public will be condemned to government-owned and -controlled conventional channels.
Both Sehir’s closure and the government’s efforts against social media companies are indications of the ruling coalition’s desperation as Turkey faces a major economic crisis and a demographic shift that increases the number of young voters in the next elections.
Once a leader who inspired reform and democratization, Erdogan today is unable to project an image that energizes Turkey’s increasingly young society. He is therefore seeking instead to control the mindset of educated young members of Turkish society by denying them access to a pluralistic academic and media environment.
There is still some room for optimism. As history has shown, Turkey cannot sustain close-minded authoritarianism for a long period. Being an energy-poor nation, it needs to be a dynamic exporting economy with a liberal economic orientation. This is only possible through openness to the outside world, exposure to a variety of ideas and viewpoints, and by keeping its youth hopeful about the future of their nation.