For the past two decades, the Turkish academic Ayse Gul Altinay has been providing, through her writing and research, incisive analysis of the impact of violence on her country. Her work offered a better understanding of how conflict has passed through generations and was beginning to build a blueprint on how to break this cycle.
But last May, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sentenced Ms. Altinay, a professor of anthropology and director of Sabanci University Gender and Women’s Studies Center of Excellence, to 25 months in prison. Her crime? Aiding a terrorist organization by signing a 2016 petition supporting a peaceful resolution to a three-decades-long conflict with a Kurdish militant group. Of the petition’s more than 2,000 signatories, nearly 700 were put on trial and over 450 were removed from their posts by government decree or direct action from their own university.
These “Academics for Peace” are only a fraction of the thousands of academics being silenced under the Turkish government’s purge of academic institutions. The crackdown, which followed the failed coup against Mr. Erdogan in 2016, has created a vacuum at a pivotal moment, just as the country was beginning to openly confront some of its painful past. The work of academics has been critical to the process, piecing together more complete histories to promote understanding and basic human rights. The ongoing repression will cost future generations knowledge that is vital not only to overcoming past trauma, but also to easing the perpetuation of conflict.
Two of the most polarizing issues in Turkey’s history have been the campaign of deportation and mass killings of the Armenians by the Ottomans during World War I, and the decades-long oppression of the country’s Kurdish citizens. As Ms. Altinay wrote in a 2013 article , after the emergence of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the new nation experienced a national “forgetting” in regard to the estimated 1.5 million Armenians who were killed and the uncountable number of Armenian women and children survivors who were Islamized to assimilate in the lead-up to the creation of the state. For nearly a century, what is now known as the Armenian genocide was largely deemed a threat to the state’s Turkishness and remained a risky topic in Turkey.
But in the 2000s, Turkish academics began to challenge off-limits issues. The effects of militarism; religious, sectarian and ethnic exclusions; gender politics; and, eventually, the Armenian genocide became topics of academic research and societal debate. What influenced this change? Ironically, it was the ascension to power of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as A.K.P.
After taking office in 2002, Mr. Erdogan’s A.K.P. set off a series of progressive reforms in a push to begin the process of joining the European Union. The hold on academia loosened slightly and historians felt freer to pursue their topics of interest. Laws were amended to allow the Kurdish language, which had been nearly quashed for a decade after a 1980 coup, to be taught in private schools and broadcast in the media. And in 2005 — the same year E.U. accession negotiations commenced — a public discussion on the Armenian genocide was accelerated by academics who hosted a groundbreaking conference on the events of 1915 at Istanbul Bilgi University.
Following the conference, nearly 20 books on the Armenian survivors of the genocide were published in Turkish, including “The Grandchildren: The Hidden Legacy of ‘Lost’ Armenians in Turkey” by Ms. Altinay and Fethiye Cetin. A collection of testimonies by grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Turkey’s “forgotten Armenians,” the book helped challenge a national self-understanding. And, as repressed narratives rose into popular culture, Ms. Altinay paused to analyze the decades of silence in between.
How do gaps in history happen? Ms. Altinay pointed to the four critical moments identified by the prominent Haitian scholar and anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot in his book, “Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History”: “The moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).” Academics are crucial in each of these steps, from recording primary sources through putting narratives into historical context. Without them, this process remains incomplete.
Mr. Erdogan himself seemed to recognize this. Six years ago, when the country was closest to peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., after three decades of bitter conflict that had already cost 40,000 lives, he called on prominent academics to help facilitate the process, and appointed a committee of “wise people.” The group of 63 included prominent academics, intellectuals and artists who traveled the country, hosting panels and town halls to convince a bitterly polarized nation that peace not only was important, but also possible.
But by then, a new way of governance had also begun to emerge, one that favored the nation-building of the early state, to the pluralist promise of 2002. European Union ambivalence had left little incentive to pursue a progressive agenda. In 2013, peaceful protests against Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian 10-year rule erupted and the government responded with a violent crackdown. Peace talks with the P.K.K. officially dissolved in 2015.
Then came the failed coup attempt of 2016. Academic activism on sensitive subjects like the Armenian and Kurdish issues quickly flipped from an act of social progression to near treason, and the Turkish government issued decrees that removed more than 5,800 academics and shuttered over a hundred universities. One wave of dismissals nearly gutted Ankara University’s departments of law and of political science.
Hundreds of the dismissed academics fled to safety abroad, yet they have largely remained quiet, worried their words will be used against family members and colleagues back home. Many others are trapped inside Turkey’s borders, unable to work but — with holds on their passports — unable to leave. Some have become bloggers, secondhand-book sellers, consultants, restaurateurs and organic farmers. Human Rights Watch has sounded the alarm on the trumped-up terrorism charges and general lack of due process granted to these academics, but this has done little to turn the tide. Frightened of falling into this purgatory, working academics have now succumbed to self-censorship.
Nowhere is the silence more profound than in Turkey’s Kurdish region. During an offensive launched in 2015, the Turkish government shuttered cultural sites, multilingual schools and longstanding civil society organizations like the Kurdish Institute in Istanbul. The effects of these actions remain scantily documented because of a culture of fear in academia. Interviews by Human Rights Watch detailed delays on research related to the Kurds imposed by university ethics committees and instances of senior academics refusing to advise on student theses on the Kurdish issue.
This spring, nearly 200 of the Academics for Peace cases were concluded. All ended in sentences of one to three years in prison. Most of the sentences were suspended, but three dozen of them — including Ms. Altinay’s — were not.
In May, Professor Fusun Ustel, a prominent political scientist, historian and activist, became the first signatory to report to prison. As she was put behind bars, Mr. Erdogan and his A.K. Party were softening polarizing rhetoric on the Kurds in an attempt to court their votes for a rerun mayoral election in Istanbul. The tactic didn’t work. The A.K.P. lost the election in June, ceding a 25-year control of Turkey’s largest city to the opposition party. It seems a crack is beginning to show in the government’s hold on history.
Brennan Cusack is an associate producer of The New York Times television show “The Weekly.”
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