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.
Alevis are the second largest faith community in Turkey. As a religious collective incorporating aspects of Shi‘i Islam into their teachings, Alevis have faced systematic state exclusion since the 1923 establishment of the Turkish nation-state, which privileges Sunni Islam despite its avowed secularism. Although the community constitutes 15-20 percent of Turkey’s population, their places of worship, cemevis, have no legal status and do not enjoy the state economic support accorded to mosques. A glass ceiling blocks Alevis from obtaining high-ranking government jobs, and various other forms of daily discrimination push members of the community to hide their identity in public.