Turkish academics in a bind over conservative policies

Since May 2013, Turkey has seen a wave of protests from part of the population expressing its opposition to conservative government moves imposed on a society that is no longer aligned with its traditional culture. Scientists in international circles expressed concerns about their Turkish colleagues, as reports of police violence and oppression emerged. They wonder how best to support the Turkish scientific community. Is it safe to come to Turkey or should scientific meetings be called off? What will the future hold for Turkey? Will it be reliable partner in European research collaborations? Will it be a country where human rights and the freedom of science are respected? Here, the Euroscientist attempts to provide answers to some of these questions by focusing on the future of Turkish scientists.


In the past three months, the Turkish government has imposed a series of increasingly conservative policies that have been opposed by the large part of the population who does not support Erdoğan. For example, restrictions for alcohol advertisement and sale in the vicinity of mosques and schools have been introduced. Meanwhile, there have been attempts to remove some of the symbols of the Atatürk secular republic and to replace them with Muslim or Neo-Ottoman symbols. This was the case when a new bridge was named after an Ottoman Sultan, called Yavuz Sultan Selim, who is responsible for a massacre on the Anatolian Alevit minority. What is more, calls for every woman to have at least three children, to observe strict anti-abortion policy, were combined with attempts to forbid births by Caesarean sections. Besides, there have been announcements in the Ankara metro that couples should not kiss in public.

More recently, on 31 May 2013, the police brutally repressed a peaceful protest in Istanbul’s central Taksim square—one of the symbols of the Atatürk secular republic. The protest was for the protection of the Gezi Park as people opposed its conversion to a shopping mall. For many people, this last move was the proverbial final straw that broke the camel’s back. It triggered a wave of protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

According to the Turkish Medical Association (TMA)’s latest report, over 8,000 people were wounded by 24 June. They have suffered various injuries, during the protests, including respiratory disorders, asthma crisis and intra-abdominal organ injuries. Five people died in the protests, not including three fatal heart attacks that are likely to be caused by tear gas exposure. The TMA also confirms reports that doctors who treated injured protesters were attacked and detained while gas bombs thrown into makeshift infirmaries and the German hospital.

One of the strongest pictures of the repression was published in the international press in the first days of the uproar. It showed a police officer spraying tear gas in the face of a lady in a red dress. This photograph totally captured the moment. The “lady in red” is Ceyda Sungur. She is an academic at Istanbul University of Technology, in the planning department. She and her colleagues had observed first-hand how highly prestigious urbanisation projects were decided behind closed doors, ignoring modern principles of participatory planning. The protest, however, now goes beyond the protection of the Gezi park. Rather, it is about “freedom of speech and the power of the people,” Sungur was quoted in an interview to a British newspaper.

Climate of government obedience

Sungur is not alone in having suffered from the total lack of transparency and accountability of the current regime towards scientists and academics. Indeed, in the past years vacancies for management positions in state universities and government agencies were filled with affiliates of the governing AK-party and supporters of Erdoğan’s policies.

This has predictably led to a climate of government obedience. The most staggering example was the decision of the senate of the state-funded Rize University, in 2012, to rename its institution Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Üniversitesi, after the current Turkish prime minister.

Another example of academic obedience stems from a tweet from Ahmet Atan, the president of the scientists and scholars association TÜBIAD and the head of the faculty of arts at Yıldız Technical University, who, on 16 June 2013, thanked the Turkish police force for “taking care of the situation”, referring to the recent repression against protests. What is more, Yunus Söylet, rector of Istanbul university advised via twitter one of his students who was concerned about becoming victim of tear gas attacks on the way to university not to worry “because the police will surely take care of those vandals and outlaws by that time”.

By contrast, those considered disobedient paid the price. The rector of Özyeğin University is one of the leaders of institutions—including mainly privately funded higher education institutions—having shown consideration for protesters by prolonging end of the year examinations. This initiative was not without consequences as he was pressured by the university trustees to resign.

What is more, several incidents in the past few years did not bode well for nurturing an independent scientific community. “There have already been a number of moves against the independent nature of scientific and academic research in Turkey,” says Thomas Keogh, an Irish lecturer in history of art and design, based at the Izmir University of Economics. In March 2009, a cover story on Charles Darwin and the evolutionary theory was retracted from a science and technology magazine called TÜBİTAK. It was a last minute decision by the board of directors. And it attracted substantial media attention.

And in 2011, the self-governing system of the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA) was abandoned through a by-law. The majority of members are now appointed by government agencies. This led to the resignation of 74 out of the 137 original members of the Turkish Academy of Sciences, most of which joined a newly founded Independent Science Academy, as previously reported in our columns.

Shift in foreign scientists’ perception

With no end of the protests in sight, international scientific associations worry about the safety of holding meetings in Turkey. For example, the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL) has called off its 650-delegate conference in Istanbul. The American Society for Microbiology Emerging Technologies Conference (ASMET), scheduled for June 25 – 28, 2013, at the Swissotel Grand Efes in Izmir, was cancelled too. “We deeply regret that we have had to make this difficult decision, but we must consider the safety of attendees and staff before anything else,” William Goldman, the chair of the conference committee explains in a message posted on the conference webpage.

Keogh, who has become object of police violence himself, believes that Turkey is “safe at the moment unless individuals were to become directly involved in protest action” due to the repression by police. He suggests organisers “could use the conference as a means to make their own feelings clear regarding problems in Turkey, if they felt this was appropriate and had clear support with participants of the conference”.

What’s next for Turkish academics?

Key policy decisions could influence the future of Turkish science. Keogh believes Turkey is now at a turning point in its history. “Turkey has changed enormously over the last ten years, and now has the opportunity to move forward to a new era of pluralist politics,” he says. “This fact has to be acknowledged by the entrenched elements both within the government and also within certain groups within the protest movement,” he notes.

However, the future of Turkish research also hinges a more rigorous approach to the way research funds are allocated. “Official figures show that investment in research has steadily gone up in the along with the positive economic development, however there is great doubt on how money is spent,” says Emre Köylü, a researcher at the faculty of science at Ankara university, whose name has been changed to protect him. He deplores the “politisation” of research. “We don’t work for any religious groups or political party, we work for scientific progress and the benefit for society,” he explains, “research needs a free, open and creative environment. That is not compatible with the political climate that becomes more restrictive and authoritarian”.

In addition, there are concerns in academic circles that the government attitude may trigger a brain drain. “If the sense of hopelessness regarding how the Turkish government is trying to smother all forms of dissent and the related every day sense of individual freedom there will be a brain drain from Turkey by educated individuals who will be able to secure positions in other countries,” Keogh says.

For Köylü, the fact that people now go to the streets to speak up gives rise to optimism that things turn to the better for researchers in Turkey as well “Turkey has a huge potential as regards to research” Köylü says, “we have strong scientific communities that interact with Europe and the world.”

Stefan Schneider

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by mtmsphoto

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One thought on “Turkish academics in a bind over conservative policies”

  1. The situation in Turkey today kind of draws attention to parallels in the West.

    It reminds us of the reaction in France during the 1968 movement, when most deans and university administrations aligned with the Gaullist power (De Gaulle certainly being a reference for Erdogan), vs. most of the scientific community that called for a total reshuffle of the cards and complete autonomy of Research (some was still quite hampered by traditionalist Christians, while some other was directed to enhancing nuclear warfare and big industry)
    It also brings back to mind today’s situation in some states in the USA (Kansas being an obvious target) where creationism or phoney so-called Itelligent Design are officially dispensed and funded in universities.

    The point is: Turkey is on a long journey, it still has a lot to cover and transform. Let us remember that its geographical environment is quite reactionary, and that UE’s refusal to link Istambul to Brussels should be more flexible if we want to help this powerful (and very often, fascinating) society to evolve and join the modern community of research.
    Tu put it briefly, let Erdogan know that helping broad, wide fields of modern education and open scientific approach is the best way to move forward and gain influence, prestige and whatever else he craves for.