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Why is Erdoğan Furious with Academia?

Kurds fleeing the security forces' assault on the city of Cizre.
Kurds fleeing the security forces’ assault on the city of Cizre.

Turkey is in a state of political turmoil, which is likely to end with a full-scale civil war if clashes continue to escalate at this pace. On the one side of the conflict, there is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been riding a pragmatic coalition since the restart of the conflict between the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK) and the Turkish state in July. By mobilizing an ultra-nationalist discourse and ending the negotiations with the PKK, Erdoğan was able to recover the electoral losses he suffered in the 7 June 2015 elections within only five months.

The coalition under Erdoğan’s wings is still an odd one. It includes conservative AKP voters, ultranationalist voters, religious fundamentalists, and some orthodox Kemalists (though this last group is not fond of Erdoğan at all). However, the clashes with the PKK seem to convince these actors to throw their lot in with the Erdoğan regime. The Turkish army as well is under the full control of Erdoğan since the Army has been able to regain some of the prominence it lost under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government over the last 13 years. However, this is a pragmatic and temporary coalition, the sustainability of which depends on the continuation of the clashes between the PKK and the Turkish state. It was this coalition that enabled Erdoğan to get 49.5% of the votes on 1 November 2015 (from 40.3% only 5 months earlier). Therefore, he feels compelled to keep it intact as the results of the 7 June elections revealed that his position is fragile even after 13 years in power. The continuation of this pragmatic coalition, however, requires the continuation of the clashes in Turkey. This, unfortunately, is the dilemma of Turkey right now, and the cost the population has to pay is less democracy and more deaths.

Positioned against this coalition are several actors, which are not necessarily in an organic relationship with each another. The PKK is the main actor fighting the Turkish state. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is the pro-Kurdish political party, which was able to get 10.7% of the votes in the latest general elections. Lastly, there is a small group of Turkish liberals and socialists, who try to differentiate themselves from both groups. This article comprises a short analysis of the current discourse about the conflict in Turkey, so I choose not to spend too much space on the analysis of the actors involved.

The actual conflict runs on different levels. The political violence that put the Kurdish cities in flames is not likely to end in the near future. The PKK, most probably due to the pressure coming from the youth in Kurdish cities, started a new strategy whereby enclaves free of state authority were established in the Kurdish districts Cizre, Nusaybin, Silopi, and Sur. The answer of the Turkish state to this new strategy has been very severe. After the declaration of curfews in these districts, the armed forces of the state entered them, not hesitating to use tanks, artillery, and other advanced weaponry.

wardestructionkurdThe information flowing from these conflict zones is hardly reliable, but the local journalists claim that the state forces do not discriminate between civilians and the PKK members during these operations. During operations in these towns, at least 58 children died and another 56 children lost body parts due to war-inflicted injuries.

HDP MP Faysal Sarıyıldız says that at least 96 civilians have been killed in Cizre, Silopi, and Sur alone, where the curfew conditions are harshest. Just to give an example, Taybet İnan’s body (57), who is claimed to have been killed by a police sniper, could not be picked up by her family since the police also opened fire on people who wanted to take her body. In another instance, three-month-old Miray died due to head injuries caused by gunshot wounds. Her family stated that Miray was killed by fire opened from a police vehicle. However, in both cases, no police officer was held responsible and the state officials put the blame on PKK militants despite eyewitnesses’ statements suggesting otherwise.

At present, there is only a little civil actors can do in the short term since Erdoğan’s government is determined to continue with the curfews and operations in Kurdish cities. Erdoğan and his government repeated several times that ‘the operations will continue until they wipe out the last PKK member from the region.’ Erdoğan also claims that ‘there is no longer a Kurdish question in Turkey. If you read this statement in conjunction with the previous one, the conclusion is obvious. Erdoğan has revived the security-oriented policy in the region, which is decoupled from a political programme that could appease Kurdish political and cultural demands from the state.

Though the scope of what civil society and socialists can do is quite limited in the short term, the actions of these groups might change the course of events in Turkey in the medium run. This depends on the possibility of defeating the prevalent discourse used in the public sphere.

Over the years the Turkish state has developed a standard discourse for its conflict with the PKK: Praise the culture of martyrdom (of the security forces); demonize the enemy without any discrimination; and boost the morale of the ethnic Turkish population by claiming that the PKK is about to crumble. Since July 2015, Erdoğan and his allies have also been using this discourse with great success. Soldiers and police killed in action were declared to be martyrs who will go to heaven as a prize for their sacrifices for the nation. The pro-Kurdish party HDP and those who support this party are demonized as accomplices of the PKK. The government and its allies attacked those intellectuals and artists who publicly declared their support for the HDP in the harshest terms. The state media and the pro-government trolls have been trying hard to create an image of the HDP as the political wing of the PKK. Lastly, the state officials and mouthpieces of the government argue that the PKK has found itself in a corner, losing thousands of its members in the clashes. According to the government and the pro-AKP media, the PKK is after a ceasefire to get some room for recovery. Therefore, it is necessary to continue with operations so that they can put an end to the PKK once and for all. Those who are familiar with Turkish politics would hardly be surprised by the elements of this discourse. It is not new, but quite instrumental, garnering the support of the society that is essential in such a war.

A new development in Turkish politics has been the promotion of a discourse that was always present, but did not have much visibility in the 1990s. This discourse promotes the view that security-oriented policies will give birth to an even more violent Kurdish movement paving the way for an even fiercer civil war; a sustainable peace is possible only with the recognition and inclusion of all parties to the conflict; and that state security forces commit grave human rights abuses during their operations. This discourse, formerly confined to some Kurdish intellectuals and Turkish leftists, has started to gain prominence since the 2000s. The social media platforms and alternative reporting channels such as citizen journalism or Youtube, and the Gezi protests seem to convince more and more people to take this discourse seriously. For example, last week, 1128 scholars belonging to a group named ‘Scholars for Peace’ signed a petition holding the state security forces responsible for some civilian casualties; condemning curfew practice in Kurdish cities; and demanding a return to peaceful negotiations. This petition swiftly met with a very harsh reaction by Erdoğan and the pro-government media.

In three consecutive statements, Erdoğan declared these scholars to be traitors, cruel and vile individuals who are enemies of the Turkish nation. Only a day after Erdoğan attacked the scholars, several universities opened several investigations each against the signatories; police detained several of them; and a witch-hunt led by pro-government media and ultranationalists started against these scholars. During these last four days, 27 private and public universities opened investigations against signatories on their faculty. Many other university presidents also gave public statements that they did not approve of the content of the petition and promised that the scholars will pay for their deeds. The level of black propaganda reached such levels that a pro-Erdoğan mafia boss, Sedat Peker, promised to have a bath in their blood.

Sedat Peker addresses the crowd at an AKP rally, making the traditional ultranationalist gesture with his right hand.
Sedat Peker addresses the crowd at an AKP rally, making the traditional ultranationalist gesture with his right hand.

A petition that would otherwise go mostly unnoticed provoked Erdogan to such a degree that he felt the need to mobilize ultra-nationalists, university administrators, and the courts to teach these scholars a lesson. One might say simply that Erdoğan seized this opportunity to subordinate academia in Turkey (one of the few areas where he does not have full control yet). Yet this would only be partially correct. I think a second motivation is even more important. Erdoğan understands that an increasing number of civil society actors and politicians have started to challenge the official discourse on the Kurdish question. This was already evident in the funerals of the deceased soldiers and police officers who had died during the clashes with the PKK. The classical martyrdom culture in Turkey holds that these security officers died for the nation and religion, and their relatives should welcome these losses by saying ‘Long live the nation’. However, several funerals between 7 June and 1 November elections witnessed the protests of family members who refused to say ‘long live the nation’ and blamed the AKP government for their losses. Though the media shies away from airing more of these protests by the families of soldiers and police officers after the latest election victory of the AKP, I believe they mark an important benchmark in the dismantling of the official state discourse, the effects of which will be seen in the years ahead.

The recent petition signed by the scholars represents a similar moment. In it, the scholars question the causes of the clashes and hold the state responsible for the spiral of violence and civilian deaths. Therefore, they tarnish the official state discourse by daring to voice an alternative discourse in the public sphere. This is unacceptable to Erdoğan and his allies as the official state discourse is their major instrument to continue with their current policies. This is the major reason why this petition attracted such great fury. It might present a grave danger to the state policy in the longer term if the alternative discourse could find a fertile land in the public sphere. Therefore, it needs to be marginalized and demonized at all costs. In other words, the normalization of this alternative discourse is the greatest danger as this possible normalization might cause a marginalization of the official discourse in the future.

I believe the hope for a durable peace lies in the protection of these brave voices, who dare to challenge the official discourse publicly and offer an alternative view of the conflict. If we seek peace, we need to produce a discourse that puts human lives and peace before ultranationalist norms. We need to convince the greater portion of Turkish society that this war is unjust, that it is not a holy war, and it is not the state that is sacred but the more than 40,000 lives who have already been lost in the state’s war against the PKK and the lives that could be lost in the future.

This is why the international community and civil actors should raise their voices in solidarity with these 1,128 scholars, who ventured to challenge the official discourse.[1] Peace is a limited commodity and its price is not measured with coins but the bravery and sacrifice of such people. It is my call to you that you recognize these people’s bravery and sacrifices.

[1] Despite Erdoğan’s reaction, the number of academics who have signed the petition has now reached close to 2,000 in the three days since the petition was made public.


Osman Şahin is a Political Science Ph.D candidate at Sabancı University. His interests include democratization, MENA politics, and ethnicity.

By Osman Sahin

Osman Şahin is a political science Ph.D candidate at Sabancı
University. His interests include democratization, MENA politics, and

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