August 25, 2016

In University Purge, Turkey’s Erdogan Hits Secularists and Boosts Conservatives

On the humid afternoon after July’s bloody coup attempt, signs of a rift that is redefining this nation’s academia played out in two cities 400 miles apart.

In Istanbul, Nil Mutluer grabbed her 3-year-old daughter and raced with a suitcase toward Turkey’s coast. The former sociology-department chair at the city’s Nisantasi University narrowly escaped the nation’s looming dragnet.

“Authorities had already begun questioning colleagues at the airports,” said Dr. Mutluer, 42, a Western-leaning liberal who took a ferry to Greece en route to an academic post in Berlin.

That afternoon in Konya, once known as the Citadel of Islam, some local professors cheered the coup’s failure as a chance to remake Turkish academia. “Elitist professors are looking at the world with Western glasses—they’re not really thinking about what the Turkish people want and need,” said Assistant Professor Sedat Gumus, 33, a U.S.-educated lecturer at Konya’s Necmettin Erbakan University, named after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political mentor.

“The current situation might be a golden opportunity for Turkey to write a new constitution,” he said, “and with it reform the higher-education system.”

Turkey’s crackdown after the July 15 putsch has been swift and expansive, sweeping through the military, judiciary and higher education. The government declared a state of emergency and said it has detained more than 40,000 people as it hunts for suspected affiliates of the man officials accuse as the mastermind, Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish imam. Mr. Gulen, who counts millions of supporters in part because of his network’s investments in education, has denied any role.

Overnight, educators became a suspected class. The Education Ministry dismissed more than 27,000 staff and Turkey’s Council of Higher Education forced all 1,577 university deans to resign, saying only those with no ties to coup plotters would be reinstated. The university watchdog also ordered each university to list faculty suspected of links to Mr. Gulen and has suspended 4,225 academics. The 15 Gulen-linked universities have been sealed like crime scenes.

So far, the purge has affected mainly academics on the outs with Mr. Erdogan even before the coup attempt, chiefly those connected to Mr. Gulen and to causes seen as critical of the government. But the chill is broadening, and many academics from top schools, expecting a second wave of purges, are seeking work abroad.

The convulsions in Turkish academia reflect the latest and perhaps most transformative chapter in the long-running story of Turkey’s split between its urban elite and conservative-Muslim interior, showing the acceleration of the country’s shift from stalwart Western ally to aspiring regional power.

The gathering intellectual purge is arming allies of Mr. Erdogan to realize a goal of their own: to tip the balance of power away from the Western-oriented ivory towers in Istanbul and Ankara toward what ruling-party adherents call academies for “New Turkey”—an amalgamation of Islamic piety and nationalism rooted in the Ottoman past.

The government has suspended the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program and canceled the European Union’s Jean Monnet scholarships after the failed coup.

Batuhan Aydagul, director of the Education Reform Initiative at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, said the shift could rob an institutional anchor that has linked Turkey with its Western allies and erode Turkey’s position as an emerging globalized economy.

A senior Turkish government official dismissed concerns that Mr. Erdogan’s vision conflicted with Turkey’s interests, saying: “Turkey has excellent schools and departments. Obviously we would like to have the best departments on all subjects.” The Higher Education Council didn’t respond to requests for comment. Ruling-party leaders have said the post-putsch crackdown has support across Turkish society.

Academics affected by the purge include some of the more than 1,000 who signed an open letter in January calling for peace talks between the government and Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a designated terrorist group that wants autonomy in majority-Kurdish southeast Turkey.

Maya Arakon, 44, a self-described secularist and liberal, faced a dual threat after the failed coup. She signed the letter and was an associate professor at Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University, established by Gulen followers in 2010, which the government closed after the putsch.

“I was in shock,” said Ms. Arakon, whose Istanbul apartment was covered in boxes as she prepared to leave for the U.S. “I feel unwanted and disliked, that my life, thoughts, existence are under threat.”

Candan Badem, 46, a history professor in the eastern city of Tunceli and a signatory to the letter, was suspended in early August, which Tunceli University officials said was related to the crackdown against Gulen followers. His lawyer discovered he was being investigated as a suspected coup plotter because authorities found at his university office a book by Mr. Gulen.

“The investigation is a total joke,” Dr. Badem said, citing his yearslong criticism of the imam. Tunceli University didn’t respond to inquiries.

Fear has spread across academia, with many Turkish intellectuals saying they are afraid to speak out and that their cellphones are tapped and research restricted.

Universities in Sweden, Germany and Austria have reported a surge in inquiries from Turkish academics. Karabekir Akkoyunlu, an assistant professor specializing in modern Turkey at Austria’s University of Graz said colleagues back home had inquired about positions over the past month for the first time.

“All of a sudden we are inundated with requests from junior and senior academics,” said Umut Ozkirimli, a Turkish political scientist at Sweden’s University of Lund, who said dozens of Turkish academics have called him looking for work in Europe or the U.S. “Now there is a sense of urgency as people are desperate.”

Some conservative academics argue professors have never been freer to pursue previously taboo subjects such as Kurdish separatism and Islamic politics. “I’m very certain there’s no systematic pressure on academic studies,” said Necmettin Erbakan University’s Prof. Gumus. “People shouldn’t mix the reaction to political statements and academic freedom.”

A Secularist past

For decades, top universities including Istanbul’s Bogazici and Ankara’s Middle East Technical played an outsize role in shaping a secular-minded national culture in line with principles laid out by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Secularist elites controlled professorial appointments and vetoed research in areas considered detrimental to the government’s pro-Western orientation. Head scarves were banned from campuses, a rule that kept generations of women out of higher education.

When Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, swept to power in 2002, ending that ban was among its priorities. Animosity from the secular elite meant it took almost eight years to repeal.

Mr. Erdogan has defined his philosophy of education as building “a religious generation.” In a May speech accepting an honorary doctorate at Turkey’s Kocaeli University, he trumpeted his government’s success in expanding education opportunities for students from all backgrounds, including his conservative religious constituents.

Under AKP rule, university enrollment more than tripled to 6.7 million and the government has opened 57 new public universities, many in areas historically lacking educational and political opportunity. Universities run by private foundations, including Gulen affiliates, jumped to 68 in number from 20.

The new universities have been a source of pride for provincial academics and communities. Recep Tayyip Erdogan University in Rize, the president’s hometown, has benefited from government largess and is among Turkey’s fastest-growing universities. In the decade since the school was founded—it was renamed after Mr. Erdogan in 2012-—its number of academics has risen almost 10-fold to 1,000 and the student body has tripled to 18,000.

The institution has had a positive impact on the region, said Taner Erol, 36, a communications lecturer and Erdogan University’s spokesman. It has helped establish and staff outpatient clinics in the region, he said, and its researchers are studying fish diseases in the Black Sea and are working on regional disaster-prevention plans. Students from Europe and the U.S. have for decades almost exclusively attended elite colleges of Istanbul and Ankara. Erdogan University has admitted hundreds of international students, burnishing Turkey’s standing in the world, Mr. Erol said.

‘Ideological nepotism’

State funding has been funneled toward the new public universities and faculties that specialize in subjects dear to the ruling party’s interests, such as Ottoman history and Islamic studies, education watchdogs and opposition lawmakers say.

Ahmet Acar, 67, whose eight-year tenure as president of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University ended this summer—not purge related—said he agreed with the capacity-building policy but felt the pace has hurt education quality. “Once you recruit and promote people on anything other than academic or professional qualifications, such as on the premise of political views and associations, then you can forget about the future of these universities.”

Some former members of Turkey’s Scientific and Technological Research Council say the institution even before the putsch had been filled with loyalists who channeled funding toward religious-minded scholarship. The Research Council didn’t respond to inquiries.

“This is about ideological nepotism,” said Ali Alpar, a 65-year-old astrophysicist at Istanbul’s elite Sabanci University who was once a Research Council board member. “As they purged the old ranks, the clear criteria was that new people would be close to the government, be trustworthy—by which they meant they would belong to religious congregations.”

Last week, the ruling party proposed a law to abolish rector elections and allow Mr. Erdogan to pick each academy’s chief from a list provided by the Higher Education Council. The government pulled the bill after a rare show of unity from opposition parties.

In recent years, some academics say, it has been harder to find research funding or jobs in a field once wide open to Western-minded academics such as Dr. Mutluer. She gained her Ph.D. in Budapest before returning to Istanbul to lecture in several sociology faculties. She was promoted to head that department at private Nisantasi University, not associated with Mr. Gulen. She produced a political-analysis television program, Oteberi, or “Paraphernalia,” broadcast on a channel known for championing views critical to the government.

Some universities operated by Gulen-linked foundations became a haven for critical thinkers when other private academies shunned them to avoid angering the government and state universities prioritized the hiring of professors with other ideological stripes.

Earlier this year, the tension between academics erupted over one of Turkey’s most sensitive subjects, its war against the PKK, which Turkey and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization designate a terrorist group. Dr. Mutluer signed the January letter calling for peace talks, which described the government’s counterterrorism operations as a “massacre.” Mr. Erdogan called the statement “treason by so-called intellectuals.” Turkey’s Higher Education Council vowed to act against signatories.

Dr. Mutluer said she received death threats from nationalists. By February, she said, she was fired by Nisantasi University, which didn’t respond to inquiries from The Wall Street Journal. After the putsch, hearing that authorities were about to ban travel by academics, she left Turkey for a fellowship she had lined up teaching at a program for scholars at risk at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to leave, but I couldn’t stay in Turkey—we could no longer speak,” she said. “The civil space has been shrinking…now there’s very little civil space at all.”

On the other side of the rift are dozens of up-and-coming academics such as Prof. Gumus who are optimistic about their careers. He graduated from one of the country’s oldest institutions, Atatürk University in his hometown of Erzurum, with a degree in mathematics pedagogy. He taught in public schools before getting a doctorate at Michigan State University.

Prof. Gumus contested the view that only pro-government ideologues have a chance to advance. He said everyone in Turkey is benefiting from broadening education opportunities under Mr. Erdogan.

“No government sufficiently responded to public demands until the AK Party,” he said. “I see it as a democratization of education.”

*Editor’s note: Hizmet Movement Blog reaffirms its non-endorsement policy of the various viewpoints expressed throughout the articles that are solely shared for the convenience of the readers.

Published on The Wall Street Journal, 24 August 2016, Wednesday