The Fears of a Turkish Academic in the UK

This letter was written by Burcu Senturk for York PEN’s event Listen to the Silence in November 2013.

This is a letter written by a Turkish PhD student in the UK who will start to work in a university in Turkey soon. I would like to express my constant fear about returning where I was born as a person who has always been engaged in political organizations to struggle for the equality and freedom and wrote a number of articles and a book on sensitive political issues such as the Kurdish problem, the Gezi protests and the emancipation of women. 

Turkey has never had a reputable record on human rights. The worse is the fact that the international community as well as the people of Turkey, even the human rights advocators, get used to living with this situation. After a point, killing of civilian Kurdish children, a violent suppression of workers’ and students’ protests and rapes, tortures and killing people under custody do not surprise us. Campaigning against all these violence is more than enough to be tagged as “provocateurs of the enemy” by the Turkish state for the Turkish citizens living in abroad and in Turkey.

We have been witnessing one of the obvious examples of all these state violence and human rights violation since Gezi Park protests started in June 2013.  What started as a peaceful demonstration over the government’s decision to remove the Gezipark in Taksim, the historic centre of Istanbul and replace this with a shopping mall has been repressed with excessive force leading to the injury of hundreds of innocent people. The subject of the protests have since broadened beyond the development of Taksim Gezi Park, developing into wider anti-government demonstrations and the protests have also spread to other cities. Just a month after the protests began, 3.584 people were taken under custody, 121 people were arrested and over 8.000 people were seriously injured. By the end of the protests, 6 people lost their life. The families of these young 6 people search for justice but the state attempts to silence them and the police forces again harshly attack the people who peacefully protest the killing of these young people. In those days, we, the scholars from Turkey who live abroad were extremely confused. Some of us insist on keeping their silence in order not to endanger their scholarship from Turkish institutes or their job in Turkey although most of them were quite aware of the state’s excessive use of force in Turkey. This was absolutely understandable because during the Gezi Protests some of the people were arrested and also fired only because of their posts condemning the government attitude and the state violence on social media. But the most of the academics from Turkey were brave enough to publicly show their anger. Me and most of my colleagues wanted to go to Turkey to take part in protests. While our families, friends, neighbours, students and teachers were struggling for their freedom, it hurt to be far away. Most of us had to tackle with the feeling of selfishness. However, we could transform our position into an opportunity to contribute to the freedom struggle of people in Turkey.  As the Turkish media is observing a blanket ban on reporting the details of the incidents, we feel it is our job to make sure the international media is aware of the details coming out via social media and local people’s contacts with the outside world. People in many parts in the UK as well as in other corners of the world such as Berlin, Copenhagen, New York and so on organized protest meetings, contacted the local, national and international media to ask for solidarity of the international community.

Although Gezi protests finished, people in Turkey continued on their struggle to force the government to give an account of injuries and death caused by the state violence during the protests. Turkey’s reputation on human rights violation exacerbated due to the governments’ continuous pressure and violence against the civilian people. However, this does not result in any amelioration in terms of freedom of speech and stopping state violence. Moreover, the Turkish state did not only use tear gas, plastic bullets or the police forces to suppress oppositional elements, but also manipulate the “legal” instruments and the media to punish and marginalize people who are publicly oppose the political party at the power. I am  terribly sorry to say that this is not a new attitude of the government and therefore I am not surprised to see that actors, journalists, writers who support the recent movements and oppressed people were openly threatened by the prime minister himself, and the state officers from the academics to the judges were questioned, fired and punished in various ways only because they publicly support the people who peacefully demonstrated for a decent life.

The suppression of the state did not start with the Gezi protest and the struggle for freedom is not limited to the Gezi protests. There is an immediate threat to academic freedoms in Turkey. Pınar Selek, who is an outstanding academic investigator and writer, was accused of being involved in an explosion at a market in 1998, a tragic incident which experts say were caused by an accidental ignition of a gas cylinder, not a bomb as the prosecution claimed. Although there is no evidence that suggests that she was involved in the explosion in any way, on January 24, 2013,  the court sentenced her to life in prison. As declared by PEN International Women Writers’ Committee’s, she  is being targeted for judicial harassment.  In October 2011, Prof. Büşra Ersanlı who is a Turkish academic and political scientist, was arrested alongside publisher Ragip Zarakolu, one of Turkey’s most prominent freedom of expression activists and a leading member of PEN Turkey. Prof. Ersanlı was charged leading a terrorist organization regarding her advisory position in a legal political party, namely Peace and Democracy party.  They were kept in the prison for more than a year. So day by day, we hear that dissident, socialist and feminist academics are facing repressive procedures and enforcements from university administrations and these are not exceptions, but are gradually becoming the rule. In Turkey, the politics of escalation normalizes state violence as it criminalizes and marginalizes the opposition in an attempt to isolate it from the society.  For example, since the students and the professors of the Middle East Technical University in Ankara were against the illegal destruction of the thousands of trees in the campus hastily in the dark of the night, this university is currently stigmatized as “modern bandits standing in the way of the government” and this is the epiphany of the marginalization process.  Another example from a different part of Turkey: At the University of Ordu, a formal investigation has been launched for seven academics regarding their union activities, i.e. putting up a poster about their unions (Eğitim-Sen) stating that they want a university which would be in favour of Humanity, Society and Nature, or a poster against the new market-friendly law drafted by the Higher Education Council. The posters themselves were removed by private security forces when five of those seven academics were out of the city. Prof. Busra Ersanli were imprisoned

I am quite sure that when I go back to Turkey, my writings, membership to a trade union and a feminist organization will endanger my position in academia. I will think twice before publicly expressing my ideas due to lack of freedom of expression in Turkey. Just to give you an idea, the committee members of Turkish Society were not very pleased with the aim of this event and as you may guess, they did not inform the students from Turkey about this organization.

As academics, writers, scholars, journalists and artists, wherever we are, we have an important mission to take the side of oppressed people, to promote equality, freedom and human rights. The price can be imprisonment, being fired or losing our eyes as many brave young people lost during the Gezi  protests. But freedom of speech is one of the basic human rights which cannot be taken out by any actor and is a must for a decent life. We will certainly be exposed to suppression, however if we give up, the world will never be a better place to live.

In solidarity,

Burcu Senturk

Burcu Senturk is a Turkish socialist-feminist activist. She is a PhD student at the University of York and she regularly contributes to Turkish periodicals. 

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