‘Never before had such a witch hunt been initiated’

Ella Rhodes reports on concerning developments in Turkey.

Amnesty International has urged the government of Turkey to end the mass dismissal of public servants, including academics, on vague and generalised grounds. Around 100,000 people in total and 5000 academics, including psychologists, have been affected.

In January 2016 the campaign group Academics for Peace held a public press conference to announce a petition signed by 1128 academics, demanding an end to human rights violations by the government in Turkey. Immediately after this President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly denounced all those who had signed the petition, accusing them of treason. Newspapers printed the names and photos of signatories, with many then fired from their jobs and some receiving death threats. One academic we spoke to, Serdar M. Değirmencioğlu, described the atmosphere following this as ‘one of lynching’.

Professor Değirmencioğlu, who was dismissed from his post at Istanbul’s Doğuş University in April 2016 due to his involvement with Academics for Peace, added: ‘Never before had such a witch hunt been initiated in the history of the Republic of Turkey. Away from the metropolitan cities, the situation was quite scary. In smaller cities, the danger was more imminent. An assistant professor from the local university came home to find police officers at work. They had raided her home, they took her laptops, flash disks and even her mobile phone.’ Değirmencioğlu, who has also served as the Vice President of the Turkish Psychological Association, has been declared an ‘at-risk’ academic by the Scholars at Risk network. He is now a visiting scholar at the Université libre de Bruxelles.

In July 2016 things took a turn for the worse after a failed coup resulted in the government enacting a state of emergency, which is still in effect, allowing it to assume extraordinary powers. The government of Turkey can issue executive decrees thanks to the state of emergency, which have been used, among other things, to close NGOs and dismiss public sector employees en masse. According to the Amnesty report No End in Sight, these decrees are subject to little scrutiny from parliament or the courts.

The report states that more than 45,000 people have been remanded in pre-trial detention and the government has closed 375 NGOs in one decree alone, 165 media outlets and hundreds of associations, foundations and institutions. Those who have been dismissed following the coup were dismissed as ‘members of, connected to, or in communication with a terrorist organisation’ without any evidence being presented. Many feel they have been targeted due to their opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) or other ‘illegitimate’ reasons. As well as academics, 24,000 police officers, 22,000 teachers, and 6000 doctors have been dismissed; and 120 journalists are still awaiting trial since the coup attempt.

Ayşe Dayı, a former Assistant Professor and chairperson at the Department of Psychology at Istanbul 29 Mayis University, was dismissed from her role just days after the Academics for Peace petition was released to the public. Now a Senior Researcher at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, she has been helping colleagues in Turkey. Dayı told us of the huge impact of these dismissals as well as how to support colleagues in the country.

She said the mass dismissals and arrests clearly impacted on all aspects of academics’ lives: ‘We have heard of suicides already.’ Dayı suggested some practical ways to support those affected in Turkey, including donating to organisations such as Education International, which sends money to the Turkish Education Union that supports dismissed academics and other public workers. A crowdfunding campaign has also been started in the USA by the Research Institute on Turkey.

Universities can also join the Scholars at Risk Network, which, in part, helps to arrange positions for academics whose lives, liberty and wellbeing are under threat, or who have been forced to flee. The UK-based Council for At-Risk Academics similarly supports academics to find a place of safety to work.

Dayı highlights the Academics for Peace’s international call for an academic boycott of Turkish universities that have opened academic investigations or dismissed academics for signing the petition. She added: ‘We call on our colleagues and the higher education institutions in all countries to suspend immediately all academic collaboration with these institutions that act against academic freedom. We ask universities to suspend all memoranda of understanding signed with these Turkish universities, research and education institutions, to withdraw from any joint research projects or conferences organised with or by these universities, not to invite to academic conferences and meetings the chancellors and deans who were involved in making the decisions to undertake disciplinary investigations, dismiss or take other unlawful action against the Academics for Peace and remove such academics names from academic journals’ editorial boards and not elect them for international academic duties.’

We also spoke to Professor Steve Reicher (University of St Andrews), who is attending a meeting in Istanbul in June, organised by one group of academics. ‘There are a number of initiatives,’ he told us. ‘Both the International Society for Political Psychology (ISPP) and the European Society of Social Psychology (EASP) have been taking action and there will be a discussion about solidarity with “at risk” academics – specifically Turkey – at July’s EASP meeting in Granada.’

Reicher says these discussions are aimed at clarifying the best ways we can help. ‘For instance, finding posts through the Council for At Risk Academics (CARA) for those who need to leave Turkey will be very valuable. But it won’t work for everyone. Lots of people are not only losing their jobs but also having their passports taken away. So we can’t support them by giving them jobs here. We might be able to help by funding jobs there. For instance, if people want to generate research projects which could be – at least in part – conducted in Turkey, then they could employ Turkish researchers on grants.’ 

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