Terrorist Students, Terrorist Academics

In Turkey, there is a hefty price to pay for student activism.

March 19, 2018. Bogazici University, my alma mater. Istanbul.

A group of students are handing out Turkish delight to commemorate the martyrs of Afrin, the Turkish soldiers killed in Turkey’s ongoing intervention in Northern Syria. Their banners read “We don’t want terrorists at our university”; “Greetings to Afrin from Bogazici”; “Turkey with Free Syria”; and “Turkey Brings Peace to Afrin,” among others.

Across from them, another group of students gather in protest. Their message: “Invasion, massacre cannot be marked with Turkish delight.”

“Kurdistan will serve as a graveyard for fascism,” they shout.

“The palace [that the Turkish President built a few years ago amidst much controversy, and where he now resides] wants war, the people want peace,” they chant.

Then comes the quarrel. The two groups clash. Turkish delights are scattered across the ground. The police intervene and break up the fight. Both groups make short statements, and disperse.

A few hours later, the Turkish president roars from television screens in the manner with which we all now are familiar: “We will spot those terrorist students, and do what is necessary. Also to remind you, the teachers in these universities have to be extra attentive. If we find out that they are connected to these students, we will also do what is necessary to them. We will catch those marginal people by the ear and hurl them to the ground.”

What is necessary, according to the president, is “to strip these communist, treacherous, terrorist youths of the right to education”—the same right that is protected under the Turkish Constitution.

In the New Turkey, one can have little faith in the judiciary, let alone the Constitution.

A day after the President’s speech, the houses and dorms of a number of Bogazici students are raided. They are detained. As of April 14, 12 of those students are in jail for spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization. They are facing, at a minimum, five years behind the bars. They are 12 of the 70,000 (seventy-thousand!) students in Turkey currently either convicted of a crime or in pre-trial detention.

Although I can hardly envision any room for peaceful protests by dissenting groups in Turkey today, I am not writing this piece to condone the use of violence by either party, the pro-Afrin or the anti-Afrin camp. I do not think that kicking trays of Turkish delight to the ground and engaging in a physical fight to stop the pro-Afrin camp is a constructive way to communicate a message for peace.

Then again, can we even speak of any room for constructiveness in a debate when the receiving end shuts down any attempt to communicate with violence?

Do you keep on speaking to someone who slaps you on the cheek each time you open your mouth? Or do you slap him back in return?

Do you keep on speaking to someone who slaps you on the cheek each time you open your mouth? Or do you slap him back in return?

Neither is jailing students a way to communicate. Nor is the fact that the decision came from the Turkish president, rather than a campus disciplinary committee. But this is the stark reality of the New Turkey. Decisions are made not according to the constitution, not through fair trial, but in line with what the president demands.

Following the students’ arrests, a group of scholars penned an open letter of support to be sent to the diplomats in the US and politicians in Turkey, including the President himself. When I signed it, there were two hundred other signatories.

As of April 17, the petition has been signed by over 2,200 from around the world. Over 2,200 new “terrorist” students, and academics who are now on President Erdogan’s blacklist.

What good is a petition though?

For those overseas, such as myself, signing a petition is a way to extend solidarity to students and scholars in Turkey. It is a risky affair, given how the Turkish government responded to other petitions in the past, including the Academics for Peace. As of April 12, three more signatories—professors at Turkish universities—have been sentenced to 15 months in jail.

But is there any other way to raise awareness to the situation in Turkey? A petition, no matter how risky it is, is one of the few things we can do. Another is for professors from around the world to follow Michael Taussig’s lead and go to Turkey and show his solidarity by actively participating in the process. Yet another is to continue on writing, an equally risky affair given the Turkish government’s growing appetite for surveillance, and making others, such as the audience of this piece, aware of the ongoing struggles and the price that is being paid to keep them up.

But given our privileged status as outsiders, we also have to be aware that we are less likely to pay the consequences. The petition has real-life effects on those who live in Turkey. They pay the price of their bravery by risking their homes being raided, by risking being detained and even jailed. Hence, while their names initially appeared on the list, they were later redacted:

[Name Redacted], Student, Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkiye.

[Name Redacted], Graduate Student, Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University

[Name Redacted], MA Student, Ankara University, Ankara, Turkey.

The list goes on with 120-some other names, all redacted, for their safety.

Turkey has a long history of taming politics and dissent on university campuses. Take the tumultuous 1970s that followed the coup of 1971, an attempt to tame workers’ unions and left-wing student movements. The tumult continued until the coup of 1980, which was yet another attempt of the same kind. In her book, Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy the prominent Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran reminds us with a broken heart of the lives lost to state violence in those days. Following the hanging of three revolutionary youths in 1972, Temelkuran writes,“Being young in Turkey became synonymous with being ‘possible suspects.’” Today, it is the young people who participated in the Bogazici University protests, like their peers in the Gezi Park protests, who are possible suspects. With one difference though. In the 1970s, they were called anarchists. Today, they carry the label of terrorists.

That is a discomfort that keeps on haunting me, in my flat which will not be raided, and in my office where I can write this piece. All I can wish for is that it haunts you too.

I admire the bravery of those who continue to put their lives and livelihoods at stake by making their dissent visible in public. But I also realize that the consequences that they will face for their valiance will be dire.

Today, we have little to no knowledge of the suffering of the 12 students now in jail. We somberly acknowledge that they are another bunch of futures lost under Turkey’s one-man rule.

And that is a discomfort that keeps on haunting me, in my flat which will not be raided, and in my office where I can write this piece. All I can wish for is that it haunts you too.

Oguz Alyanak is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology and a McDonnell scholar at Washington University in St. Louis. His fieldwork in Strasbourg, funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, was on moral anxieties pertaining to Muslim Turkish men’s going out habits. Twitter: @oguzbikbik

Featured Image: DC/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Cite as: Alyanak, Oguz. 2018. “Terrorist Students, Terrorist Academics.” Anthropology News website, April 24, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.839

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