Evren Altınkaş is a Turkish scholar who was pushed out of his academic position by his university’s administration as a consequence of participating in the Gezi Park protests of 2013. With help from the Scholar-at-Risk initiative he was able to relocate to Canada in 2018 to continue his career. Altınkaş obtained his doctoral degree from Dokuz Eylul University in 2011. His dissertation analyzed and compared the development of the concept of intellectuals in Europe and in the Ottoman state and Turkey. Altınkaş is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Guelph. He received the Chevening Scholarship for the academic year of 1999–2000 and is a MESA Global Academy Fellow for the academic year 2020–2021. Altınkaş is also the newly appointed editor of H-TURK.
MERIP editors Nabil Al-Tikriti, Ayça Alemdaroğlu and Elif Babül interviewed Evren Altınkaş in April 2021.
MERIP: What was your experience as a scholar in the months and years following the 2013 Gezi Protests in Istanbul and the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey?
Evren Altınkaş: I was employed at a public university in Turkey as an assistant professor between March 2013 and July 2014. As an active participant in the Gezi Park protests, I was subjected to five different administrative proceedings between September 2013 and July 2014, when I was forced to resign. One of the proceedings stated that I violated the law by acting “inappropriately for a public servant” and included one of my social media posts as evidence. Although I had a chance to defend myself during the proceeding, I received a “warning” from the university as a result. This proceeding was followed by others and eventually the administration of the university used some ridiculous methods to cause more problems for me, such as assigning me to teach two separate courses in two different schools approximately 80 miles apart. One class ended at 1:30pm and the next one began in the other school at 1:50 pm. I appealed to the university administration, but they only said that they expected me to find a way to be present in the class on time, which was impossible. This resulted in more administrative proceedings against me. As a result of ongoing harassment, I had to resign from my position in July 2014, which was accepted within 24 hours.
The systematic but unofficial mistreatment by university administrations of academic staff who participated in the Gezi protests resulted in approximately 800 resignations of academic personnel from public and private universities in Turkey between September 2013 and December 2014. I was unemployed after that period. As a Turkish citizen with no job and no steady income, I could not obtain visas to attend conferences or go to job interviews. My academic career was hindered between 2014 and 2018 until I arrived in Canada to work at University of Guelph as a visiting assistant professor under the Scholar-at-Risk initiative.
MERIP: Is your research agenda informed by challenges you have faced as an academic in Turkey?
Altınkaş: When I was a graduate student employed to do research and teach in Turkey, the challenges I faced as a student of history (especially Turkish history) made me think about the country’s intellectual tradition. One of these challenges was the lack of diverse academic resources in libraries and in the curriculum offered by graduate programs. Most of the readings and resources available in universities and research institutions were either produced by official government entities or offered no challenges to those official views. It was quite interesting to see how universities were transformed into essentially advanced high schools after the 1980 military coup. Approximately 100 academic personnel were dismissed from universities in Turkey due to their alleged leftist political tendencies following the coup and were replaced with unqualified high school and night school teachers.
These newly appointed teachers were granted the title “assistant professor” overnight, even though they did not hold doctoral degrees. They became the new deans, department chairs and professors at the regime’s universities. During my academic career as a graduate student, I had a chance to meet some of them in seminars, talks and conferences. This experience made me think about the origins of the intellectual tradition in Turkey and I decided to write my PhD dissertation on intellectuals in the late Ottoman state and early Turkish Republic. I have compared the development of intellectuals in this period with the development of intellectual strata in Britain, France and Germany. My research showed that the lack of intellectual capacity and critical thinking in most Turkish universities can be traced to post-1950 intellectual traditions.
MERIP: American commentators often blame liberal intellectuals for fostering widespread resentment in certain segments of society, thus paving the way for the rise of right-wing Trumpism. In Turkey’s case, do you think that the rise of support for right wing populism is tied to the failure of intellectual elites to integrate the masses into political liberalism’s promise?
Altınkaş: The Turkish Republic is the product of a revolution from above. After the Turkish National Struggle between the years 1919 and 1922, the new Republic was established by the leaders of this resistance movement. No consultations were made with the people and no referendums were held. Given the new map of the Middle East following World War I, this might seem like typical nation-state formation. However, what made Turkey different from the newly established countries in the region such as Iraq, Jordan or Syria was the lack of a mandate regime or a kingdom and a king. There was a constitution, elections were held every four years and, more importantly, the new regime wanted to instill a Western-style series of reforms into society. All these changes were implemented from above, and the reactions to these reforms were consolidated under conservative politics.
Although there is a liberal tradition in Turkey, there is also an ongoing conflict between liberal and Republican groups. This conflict is based on different views about the role of the military in politics, religious freedom and the state’s form (Republicans favor a unitary state whereas the liberals, since Prince Sabahattin and his Liberal Party in the early twentieth century, favor a federal structure). Kemalism, which many have been indoctrinated to see as unique to Turkey, was simply a series of solutions to the problems faced by the young Turkey in the late 1920s. For instance, due to the global Great Depression, statism was introduced as an economic principle of Kemalist ideology. This principle was considered permanent following the death of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (the first president of the Republic of Turkey), and any attempts in the Turkish economy or any programs to amend this principle were considered counter-revolutionary movements. The same logic applies to all other principles of Kemalism, which were also conjunctural. This Republican rhetoric in the early years was easily adopted by right-wing political parties that regard the form of the state to be unitary and the government to be the main driving force of reforms and the protector of the regime, thereby leaving the liberal tradition at the extreme end of the political spectrum. Since a unitary state is considered a given, liberal ideas and political parties that favor a federal state or limited involvement of the state in the economy are not welcomed by society and public opinion, resulting in a tendency toward right-wing populism. To elaborate a little bit on this, I should clarify the concept of liberalism and its perception in Turkish society. For most Turkish people, liberalism is related to economic freedoms, not to political freedoms. As long as the people can carry out their business transactions and trade freely, the type of regime or the level of government interference in their political choices is not seen as a major issue. That is why right-wing populism works perfectly for the Turkish people, it offers a Turkish-Islamic synthesis with free trade.
MERIP: What are your thoughts about the project of the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to create its own intellectual and elite class? How does this agenda parallel or contrast with previous efforts to create a new elite in the early Republican era?
Altınkaş: Elites in the early Republican era were a byproduct of positivism. Goals such as rapid development in the economy, realizing the rapid transfer of positive science and technology and thus catching up with the West became the basic elements that shaped the Turkish government and intellectuals of that period. There were two fundamental points in the formation of early Republican intellectuals. First is the importance of the contribution of the Turkist and Western-oriented intellectuals during the last period of the Ottoman Empire in determining the ideological foundations of the modern Republic. And the second one is the fact that the Islamic tradition could not find a place in the contemporary Republican regime and the Islamist discourse remained silent. The motto of early Republican intellectuals in line with the Republic’s goals was: “Turkification, Secularization, Modernization.” As a result of this, the Republican government initiated a full-scale transformation of the core urban parts of the country. Rural areas, which constituted more than half of the territory, were not the priority. The modernization and development efforts of the Republic following the multiparty system after the 1950s was limited in rural towns and villages, which remained peripheral and distant social realities.
What the AKP did was to integrate the periphery into the core through a vast project of constructing buildings, hospitals and schools around metropolitan areas, providing long term mortgages for low income groups and bringing the alienated segments of society into the urban areas. When I was a teenager in the 1990s I visited the hometown of my grandmother, Bergama (Pergamon), almost every summer. Bergama is famous because of its historical and archaeological attractions. Normally one would consider it a developed city, located in the Aegean region within the borders of the third largest city of the country, Izmir. However, the town was full of government buildings and apartments while most of the population lived in the surrounding 114 villages. I was seeing families from those villages travelling to the town center in their newest attire to visit the state hospital or to carry out their deeds at government offices. The AKP government changed things for them. With the introduction of new structures surrounding the metropolitan areas, migration from the villages to cities increased. During the AKP government, the number of people living in the 114 villages of Bergama has decreased by 60 percent, for example. This transformation did not necessitate an intellectual stratum.
MERIP: How would you characterize the impact of US foreign policy on Turkey’s domestic politics in the past and today?
Altınkaş: US foreign policy during the Cold War was based on containing the Soviet Union and securing allies of the United States in the region. The concept of a “strategic ally” was used by Turkish governments to explain the position of Turkey in her relationship with the United States. After the end of the Cold War, Turkey declared that it would continue supporting democracy and the quest for a free world by being a close US ally again. However, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, US policies toward the region changed significantly. With a more active presence in the region, the United States also started to search for “model countries” that would set good examples for integrating Islamic societies with the tenets of democracy. Erdoğan, as the leader of the AKP (established just one month before September 11) was the ideal candidate. In 2003, Erdogan gave a speech at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and said: “As Turkey proceeds in the direction of membership to the EU, also the modern democratic values which she represents create greater attraction in the Middle East. This attraction will enable the Euro-Atlantic community to act as a catalyst for positive change in peace and interaction with the outside world.” This image projected by Erdoğan during the beginning of AKP government in Turkey has been an important driving force in the support he received from the United States and other Western countries. The transformation in Turkey that was carried out by AKP government since 2002 has been labeled as a “democratic and civilian” one by global public opinion during the beginning years of AKP rule.
After consolidating its power, the AKP started to implement more authoritarian policies and diverted its path from democracy to autocracy. Especially after the coup attempt in 2016, the anti-democratic policies of the AKP within the country—such as detaining anyone the new regime considers as a threat, shutting down private companies and universities, dismissing countless civil servants, imprisoning journalists and opposition members—were not criticized at the government level by the new US administration of Donald Trump. No sanctions were imposed on Turkey regarding the purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia or regarding the Halkbank case, where the deputy head of a public bank run by the Turkish state was arrested by American authorities with the allegation of conspiring to evade sanctions against Iran by illegally funneling millions of dollars to the country. Today, Turkey is an authoritarian state hidden under the mask of a “democratic and strategic ally” of the United States.
MERIP: As a scholar who has closely studied Turkey’s political history, what do you think will be the main dynamics and conflicts to shape the country’s future?
Altınkaş: Turkey is a country of dichotomies. Turks consider themselves to be a country torn between different civilizations and cultures and they refer to a multiethnic empire, the Ottoman Empire, as their ancestors. The popularity of TV series such as “Resurrection: Ertugrul” among the Turkish people is an indicator of that. The conflict between Republican groups and AKP supporters is based on the questioning of identity. AKP supporters, embellished with a sauce of Neo-Ottomanism, blame the Republicans and even the founders of the Republic for being elitist and Westernist. They question the Lausanne Agreement, which is not only a peace treaty between Turkey and the Entente powers after World War I, but also a document that declares the establishment of the Republic of Turkey four months prior. On the other hand, Republicans accuse AKP supporters of being ignorant and Ottomanist. They say that by questioning the foundations of the Republic, AKP supporters pave the way for the partition of the country. This dichotomy within Turkish society will continue to shape the country’s future.