Academic freedom has always been limited and under threat by the state in Turkey. But since the beginning of 2016, academic freedom in Turkey—and the broader field of higher education—has been subject to a sustained campaign of state repression that is unprecedented in the history of the Turkish Republic.
The University of Toronto is not known as a particularly progressive institution. Like many universities, it has adopted neoliberal thinking and practice, becoming part of Academia, Inc. But two seemingly unrelated events during the 2014-2015 academic year showcased the increasing political activity of the school’s graduate student body.
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.
Constraints on academic freedom or violations of it are not new in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, while there is certainly variation among the countries of the region, regime attempts to control what is studied, how it is studied, and what faculty and students may do and say both on and off campus have a long history.
For those familiar with even the barest facts of the case, the provisional sentence of Emad al-Din Shahin to death seems appalling. Professor Shahin is a widely respected and accomplished academic who has taught at Notre Dame, Harvard, Georgetown, the American University in Cairo and George Washington University. He has no record of organized political activity. The list of the other alleged participants—a group that resembles a list of political opponents and associates and technocratic aides of ousted President Muhammad Mursi far more than it does a real set of plotters—makes the charges seem even more improbable.
In the past few years, pro-Israel groups have mounted an escalating and concerted effort to set the contours of scholarly debate about Israel on American campuses. This fall, two such organizations, the AMCHA Initiative and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, are lobbying Congress and the Department of Education to punish Middle East studies centers that present alternatives to staunchly pro-Israel viewpoints. The lobbying campaign demands that the Education Department stop federal funding to these centers under Title VI of the Higher Education Act or engage in intrusive oversight of the departments to assure the prevalence of viewpoints more sympathetic to Israeli government policies. The Higher Education Act is up for Congressional reauthorization this year.
The educated middle class that played an influential role in electing Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency in June 2013 is anxious to see his promises of “prudence and hope” fulfilled. One area that Rouhani’s administration is expected to reform is higher education, which was targeted for political and intellectual purges under the hardline conservative administrations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Ten years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Iraqi women suffer from pervasive hardships — the overall lack of security, gender-based violence, the feminization of poverty and poor access to basic services. Women working at universities face all these challenges, as well as others particular to higher education.
The Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America has published an open letter regarding armed attacks on university campuses in Syria. We reproduce the letter below:
Open Letter to the Office of the Syrian President and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces
February 19, 2013
To Whom It May Concern,
Conventional wisdom among scholars of the Middle East is that the September 11, 2001 attacks left behind a threatening professional environment. Graduate students and faculty alike speak of hostile infiltrators in their classrooms, inevitably bitter tenure battles and the self-censorship that both can produce. At the same time, in the aftermath of September 11 Middle East scholars anticipated that the perennially spotty job market might improve.
An ideological campaign to reshape the academic study of the Middle East in the United States has begun to bear fruit on Capitol Hill. In late 2003, the House of Representatives passed legislation which would, for the first time, mandate that university-based Middle East studies centers “foster debate on American foreign policy from diverse perspectives” if they receive federal funding under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. The new legislation, which the Senate could consider in 2004, came after conservative allegations about abuse of Title VI funding by “extreme” and “one-sided” critics of US foreign policy supposedly ensconced at area studies centers across the country.
On May 19, 2002, Ilan Pappé received word that an order for him to stand trial at Haifa University, where he teaches political science, had been rescinded. The prosecution, represented by Haifa’s dean of humanities, had demanded Pappé’s expulsion from the university due to positions he has taken on the controversial M.A. thesis of Teddy Katz. Katz claimed to have discovered evidence that Israeli soldiers massacred Palestinian villagers at Tantura in May 1948.
Princeton University recently launched a massive fundraising campaign in its palatial Prospect House for maximum media exposure. But its public relations people are unhappy with reporters snooping around the Near Eastern studies division — a lumbering dinosaur of a department housed in nearby ivy-covered Jones Hall. The unwelcome attention involves a new member of the faculty, Heath Lowry, whose Ataturk chair in Turkish studies is paid for by the Turkish state. Lowry has a history of being beholden to Turkish governments and, as City University of New York psychologist Robert Jay Lifton charges, of doing their bidding.
When a group of Islamist lawyers filed a suit this summer to divorce a Cairo professor from his wife, against the couple’s wishes and without their knowledge, on the grounds that he was an apostate, the story got attention even in the Western media. But little attention was given to the intellectual work of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, associate professor in the Arabic Language and Literature Department at Cairo University, which prompted this incredible move.
A scandal erupted in October over covert CIA funding of ostensibly scholarly projects at Harvard University. This has confirmed long-held suspicions that at least some US academic research on the Middle East is only a cover for intelligence work.