When in 2014 sociologist Azat Gündoğan and his wife – both Western-educated professors of Kurdish origin from Turkey – made the decision to move home, they felt excited. The couple had accepted teaching jobs at Mardin Artuklu University – a university created in Turkey’s south-east region, in the city of Mardin, as part of the so-called Kurdish Opening in 2007 – and were looking forward to reuniting with their families, friends and their people.
“When we decided to go back, we knew that we would find great colleagues there. We were so excited to do our research there, bring our experience of alternative world to generally first generation Kurdish students. It was a good thing to do, plus as a family, we would be together,” he recalls.
Little did they know that their euphoria would be short lived, and that it would take something as benevolent as a 2016 peace petition to crush the foundations of Kurdish academia in Turkey.
A small window for Kurdish Academia
For decades, the Turkish state dismissed its 12 million-strong Kurdish minority and their right to education in their native language, let alone Kurdish studies. After being prohibited during the 1990s because the Turkish state saw it as an element of separatism, the Kurdish language resurfaced in public life as Turkey attempted to enter the European Union in the 2000s. The government initiated the Kurdish Opening, a multi-tiered policy approach intended to resolve tensions with the Kurdish minority.
“Unfortunately, in Turkey, like with any other minority, when it comes to Kurdish professors, associate professors, or researchers, it was not an environment where people could openly declare their [ethnic] identity, in academia they would try to cover it to the possible extent, wouldn’t ever try to come forward with their Kurdish identity prior to the Kurdish Opening,” says Ali Akel, freelance journalist and former Washington correspondent for Yeni Şafak newspaper, adding that not a single university taught Kurdish studies prior to the Kurdish Opening, and when there were attempts to do so, the Turkish government shut them down for various technical excuses.
However, during the Kurdish Opening, “Kurdish academics did demonstrate courage to make their positions known,” he says.
Gündoğan recalls that in 2007 the AKP opened a number of universities across the country. One of them, the Mardin Artuklu University, became the cradle of Kurdology. In 2009, Turkey’s Board of Higher Education allowed this university to set up a Department of Living Languages, including Kurdish. The university invited Kurdish scholars from abroad to help. The department was not only to research Kurdish language, history and culture, but also train professors and scholars to teach future generations. In 2009 the head of the board, Yusuf Ziya Özcan said, “This is the model we will use if other universities want to serve citizens who speak different languages,” and then president Abdullah Gül spoke on TV about the importance for the Kurdish minority to use its own language.
Yet many of the efforts were just on paper, Akel says, reminding of an example from 2015, when the Turkish Ministry of Education published the names of the teachers certified for various disciplines.
“How many people do you think there were for the Kurdish language? Just one,” he stressed. “This shows the attitude.”
The Gündoğans, encouraged by the Kurdish Opening, returned home and started teaching at Mardin Artuklu University. But, he says, they felt that things were quickly deteriorating.
“There were local changes: the Kurdish peace process was halted, plus the refugee crisis, and the electoral victory of the HDP [a pro-minority Peoples’ Democratic Party]. And we witnessed the local reflections of these developments. While for the Turkish academia, in general, the turning point was the peace petition, by then in the Kurdish academia we had already started to experience oppression, and the changing attitudes at the university,” Gündoğan says.
In 2015, the liberal rector of the university was replaced by an Erdoğan-backer, and once appointed the new rector terminated contracts with 13 foreign professors. Other professors protested and started organizing to create a collective titled “Independent University Platform” on campus as an alternative academic community, he recalls.
But while Kurdish scholars were fighting to preserve what little was created during the Kurdish Opening window, Turkey was hit by a larger academia crisis.
When calling for peace is a threat to the state
The fledgling process came to the complete halt in February 2016 when numerous members of the Turkish academic circles started circulating a document that became known as a “peace petition.” The document meant as a benevolent appeal to the conscience of the Turkish state and citizenry and calling for the immediate end to hostilities against the civilians in the majority-Kurdish regions of south-eastern Turkey was initially signed by 1,128 academics, reversed the tentative progress of the Kurdish Opening and erased all of its humble gains.
However, Gündoğan considers himself and his wife “the lucky ones” in this entire ordeal: “Our colleagues, their careers are finished. One of them, in Ankara, committed suicide. Others lost jobs. Some are jailed.”
He calls this “the very turning point for the Turkish academia” as it relates to the state’s reaction: “They react only whenever they [the state] feel that there is a point of articulation between the Kurds and the Turks, and alliance that would create a danger, a risk, that would offset the official discourse.”
In his opinion, this was the exact such moment, “Because that initiative didn’t come from the Kurds per se. If it did, as was the case a ton of times in the past, the state could contain it easily, by violence, by marginalisation, by stigmatisation, by oppression.” However, this time, the movement came from academics at the most established and prestigious universities, and they started demanding peace, and the peaceful nature of these demands coming from the most established segments of the society, the academia, was exactly what scared and angered the state, Gündoğan concludes.
Akel agrees, considering the leading role played by the Turkish, rather than Kurdish academia in circulating the peace petition.
Among those who signed the petition, be it from abroad, or from Turkish universities such as Boğaziçi, Galatasaray, Gazi or ODTÜ (Middle East Technical University) “there were Kurds, of course, academics of Kurdish origin,” and in large numbers, according to Akel, which led the government to label the entire initiative as the pro-PKK propaganda and sue many of the signatories, even before the orchestrated crackdown began.
Akel, speaking of the government reaction, says, “I believe, the number of the removed [from university jobs] was 5,200 and growing. It was no longer about those who merely opposed the government, but not actively being on the side of the government was enough.”
Rosa Burç, an ethnically Kurdish academic from Turkey, a political scientist at the University of Bonn, speaking of the scope of the government retaliation and university expulsions in the aftermath of the peace petition, calls it a “witch hunt”: “According to the Turkish state, the [petition] didn’t condemn the terrorists’ actions. So, thus, a whole witch hunt against all kinds of thinkers- academics, writers, journalists, and not just Kurdish, but also non-Kurdish people started there.”
The return of the 1990s
Two years after the peace petition, things are further deteriorating, Gündoğan says. And according to Burç, the charges against the academics were never dropped, and an increasing number of them are losing jobs.
“The ban of the word ‘Kurdistan’ in the parliament happened a few months ago. And then a few weeks ago, they changed it so now you can’t even mention the Kurdish region. This is also reflected in the academia. For example, a Ph.D. student, defending their thesis, using the word ‘Kurdistan’, or anything related to the Kurdish realities. A few of my friends told me that the reviewing committees advise the students to change and remove those words. The general conclusion is that either one has to leave the country to do it, or just stop their Ph.D. thesis. Or they have to adjust to the new standards in the academia,” she says.
She adds, however, that in future there will be research, and “anything that is related to the issue of autonomy, the issue of communalism in the Kurdish areas, the Kurdish identity, since they are considered a threat to the current Turkish government narrative,” will remain banned topics for academics.