Dilsa Deniz, an anthropologist of the Alevi-Kurdish religion, was fired from her position as an assistant professor at Nişantaşı University in Istanbul after she signed the Academics for Peace petition issued in Turkey on January 10, 2016. More than 1,000 scholars signed the petition to protest the Turkish government’s disengagement from the peace process with the Kurdish opposition and the killing of civilians in several Kurdish towns. Under the auspices of the Scholars at Risk network, Deniz left Turkey in August 2016 to take up a visiting lecturer position at the University of New Hampshire.

Deniz, along with five colleagues who also signed the petition, was fired without due process or right of appeal. The authorities detained several signatories as well. The dismissal of these and many other faculty was a harbinger of the much broader purges that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pursued after the failed military coup of July 15, 2016. As of the following April, as reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, an estimated 130,000 civil servants and military and university personnel had been discharged from their positions. Using the coup as a pretext, the government has targeted legitimate Kurdish institutions and representatives. The government has sacked approximately 12,000 Kurdish teachers as well as 24 elected mayors, closing Kurdish-language media outlets only recently legalized and generally creating a climate of intimidation and repression. The government’s return to casting all Kurdish opposition as terrorists associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party has taken the country back into open conflict. Clearly rattled by the military success and de facto territorial control achieved by Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, the government has opted to intensify military operations in the Kurdish regions of Turkey.

Jeannie Sowers, a political science professor at New Hampshire, spoke with Deniz in December 2016 about her activism, the situation of scholars in Turkey and the Turkish state’s renewed attacks on Kurdish culture, language and political participation.

What prompted you to sign the Academics for Peace petition that would cost you your university position?

From 2012 to 2014 the Turkish government and the Kurdish movement were engaged in a peace process that was progressing quite well. But after the June 2015 parliamentary elections, the government disengaged from dialogue and turned back to repressing the Kurdish movement. Erdoğan likely did this because in the 2015 elections, the HDP [People’s Democratic Party], a party with large Kurdish support, showed that it could win votes across communal lines and become a strong democratic force against his authoritarian tendencies.

Erdoğan took revenge against the HDP and the Kurdish people by attacking the Kurdish towns of Şırnak, Cizre, Lice, Silopi, Nusaybin, Sur, Yüksekova and others. There were killings of civilians—some people were trapped in basements where they had sought refuge. Instead of getting them out, forces affiliated with the state killed them. The residents were so desperate and terrified. They had to watch their family members set on fire and see snipers shooting civilians.

The regular media stuck to the old script—that these were bad people being hunted down by the state. There was no outcry from Turkey or from abroad. We watched all these terrible things happen only through coverage from independent and social media.

We signed the peace petition because we could not fathom that these things were happening again, even after the peace process. The petition was a demand for peace and for respect of basic rights. And it was a refusal to be silent—if we had been silent, we would have been cooperating with what was taking place.

On January 11, the day after the petition appeared, President Erdoğan threatened the signatories by calling us colonialists and traitors. This kind of talk emboldened some of Erdoğan’s supporters, who threatened us, saying such things as, “We are going to bathe in your blood.” Some of the newspapers put our names and pictures online. The message was, “We have you—we have your pictures and your addresses, and you are going to get what you deserve.” When our lawyers filed a petition for these web pages to be removed, the court decided that it was freedom of expression.

Honestly, none of us expected such a strong reaction from the government, because ours was just a normal petition addressed to the state. Many of us had signed a previous petition in 2013, in which we urged both of the parties, the government and the Kurdish movement, to continue the peace process. We didn’t have any problems then, because the government was part of the process.

Liberal Turkish intellectuals have also been targeted by the state. It’s a symbolic thing for the Turkish authorities. They don’t want cooperation between Turks and Kurds, because that undermines their case for an exclusionary Turkish nationalism that marginalizes the Kurds. There are notable cases of Turks who have a connection with the Kurds and therefore have been dealt with harshly, such as the famous writer Aslı Erdoğan, and the linguist and translator Necmiye Alpay.

The government’s reaction to us prompted another thousand scholars to sign the petition, as well as international scholars to join us. But the universities, particularly the private ones, are insecure and have few defenses against political pressure. So they dismissed us. More than 30 faculty from the original Academics for Peace group have taken refuge abroad, mostly in Europe. Germany has been particularly welcoming. Many of us have found positions overseas through the Scholars at Risk network and the Scholar Rescue Fund.

How did you become a feminist and an activist? What is your personal background?

I am Kurdish, an Alevi and a feminist—all positions that are not welcomed by the nationalist, racist, chauvinist and militarist ideologies prevalent in Turkey now. I was born in the village of Kupik in the Dersim region in 1964, and lived there until the age of eight, when my father moved us to a small town for his work. We started our primary education in that small town.

My eldest brother, who died in 1978 at the age of 28, helped all the girls in our family get a secondary education as well. My father wanted at least one of his three daughters to stay home after finishing primary school, in order to help out my mother. But my brother was determined to take his sisters to secondary school in Ankara. My brother was involved with the socialist movement, and he really believed in gender equality.

So I moved to Ankara for high school. When my brother was exiled to another city for his political activities, I had to move with him. I came back to Ankara in 1980, but then there was a military coup. We had to get rid of all of my brother’s books—thousands of socialist, political and scientific volumes. We were so scared. My sister was taken to prison and tortured. She was dismissed from her job. It was a very hard time, with thousands of people—mainly young leftists and trade unionists—fired from their jobs, tortured and even killed.

So your family has long been involved in politics.

Yes, but because the state makes everything political. Even using the words “Kurd” or “Alevi” is so political in Turkey. I am part of these communities. So whenever you do anything related to these communities—asking for equal rights and fighting against racism, discrimination and male chauvinism—it is political.

For example, the Gezi protests in 2013 started with an effort to save some trees and green space in Istanbul. There are hardly any parks left in the city where people can enjoy themselves and let their children play. People wanted to prevent the Gezi park from becoming a mall. But because the profits from real estate development accrue to powerful companies backed by politicians, protesting this mall became political. Therefore, if you are a person involved in environmental issues, if you are Kurdish, Alevi, a woman, feminist, socialist, gay or a green activist, that means you are already involved in politics.

Scholarly work on the Alevi and Dersim Kurdish communities is also seen as a political act—one that can doom your academic career. For instance, studies of the etymology of the dialect used in Dersim draw mainly on the Persian, Armenian and Turkish languages, but not on Kurdish, the dominant language in that area. You almost never see the two local dialects of Kurdish, Kurmanci and Kurmancki, used for studies in etymology.

One can say the same about the study of indigenous Alevi religious traditions, many of which predate Islam. For my dissertation, I chose to focus on the religious traditions of Dersim and surrounding areas because I thought it wouldn’t be considered political. I didn’t know that the Alevi religion was considered so political by the state—how ironic! Your communal background, your subject of study, your approach and findings—all of these are seen to have political ramifications. So there is deep structural discrimination that threatens you in many ways.

How has your family been affected by recent events? Are they still in Turkey?

Part of my family is there. My brother is a journalist, and he worked at a TV station with many Kurdish viewers. The channel was shut down this past fall, however, as part of the Turkish state’s broader crackdown on the media. He lost his job, his press card was cancelled unlawfully and he is not allowed to travel outside the country.

How do you engage in activism now that you are outside of Turkey?

Recently, I have been active on social media, mostly Twitter and Facebook, because people in Turkey are so depressed and so scared, which I really understand, truly. So I am trying to make people around the world aware of what is happening in Turkey. Our group Academics for Peace is also active online.

What has it been like teaching in the United States? How does it compare to academic life in Turkey?

The system is so different—the university culture is so strong here. I really like the attitude toward people of diverse backgrounds that I’ve found at the University of New Hampshire. When people here meet me, and learn that I am from Turkey and of Kurdish background, their first reaction is, “How good—students can learn from you.” I was shocked, as this is so unlike reactions in Turkey! People here are aware of the importance of diversity among the academic community and how much it helps students. That has been very refreshing.

How to cite this article:

Jeannie Sowers "Imperiled Academics in Turkey," Middle East Report 281 (Winter 2016).

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