Turkey’s repressive regime turns academic's life upside-down

"There is no future, no jobs for us as long as Erdogan and the AKP rule the country."

09 Aug 2018
Bermal Aydin

Bermal Aydin’s life was turned upside-down by Turkey’s government after she stood up for peace by signing a petition.

Aydin had decided to pursue academia spending years in Turkey’s media industry. She found her  work in that profession was neither fulfilling nor sustainable, and felt that academia was her true calling. Deciding to pursue an MA and then a PhD, she took the leap into academia. In the second year of her PhD program, Aydin found a job as a lecturer at Mersin University, where she worked until her dismissal in April 2016. Now, she is a research fellow at London School of Economic’s Department of Media and Communications.

In January 2016, Aydin had signed a petition that called on the Turkish government to stop the ongoing brutal violence directed against Kurds. She couldn’t have known at the time that this innocent action would result in being dismissed from Mersin University, having to move to a different city, and eventually, leaving Turkey for the UK in the hope of being able to continue with her academic career.

The Academics for Peace petition called on the Turkish government to settle the Kurdish issue not by more military intervention and oppression in Kurdistan, but by re-establishing peace negotiations. Aydin signed the petition because she felt helpless that she was unable to do anything to stop the violence. In Turkey, the pro-government mainstream media had been turning a blind eye to the sufferings of thousands. Signing the petition, Aydin thought that she was contributing to bringing more attention to the tortures and killings of Kurds. She wanted to stop the inhumane destruction of lives, buildings and infrastructure in cities and towns like Diyarbakir, Cizre and Sur.

But in Turkey, the freedom to read, to write and to express one’s opinions is hardly respected, since almost anything not deemed pro-government is deemed instead “terrorist propaganda.” Those who signed the petition were condemned, detained and put under investigation. If found guilty of alleged terrorism charges, the petitioners could face one up to seven years in prison.

After Aydin signed the petition, the rector of Mersin University launched an investigation against her and her colleagues. She was fired, in April 2016, even before the investigation was finished. Without a job, Aydin had to vacate her home and move to Izmir to live with family. After unsuccessfully suing the rector to get her job reinstated, Aydin sought the help of international organisations that support academics. Finally, in April 2017, she came to the UK thanks to a scholarship from the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) and LSE. Since then she has been working at LSE on a research project on the relationship between the Turkey’s repressive regime and the precarisation of academic and journalistic labour.

Like many academics that have been forced to leave their homes and country, Aydin is faced with an uncertain future. She misses her family and friends dearly, but cannot see them since her passport was cancelled 10 days after she arrived in the UK. Moreover, returning to Turkey means risking imprisonment and losing her freedom – the situation is even more dire since the newly introduced presidential system allows Erdogan to wield unlimited powers, with absolutely no checks and balances. On top of all that, the uncertainty of her UK work visa status continually looms on the horizon.

Aydin spoke to Long Dang of Index on Censorship about her experience.

Index: What motivated you to become an academic?

Bermal Aydin: I have always been interested in reading and writing, as well as in politics and social events. Thus, being an academic fits my interests – it speaks to my soul somehow. Also, after working for many years in Turkey’s media industry, which was exhausting, unstable, uncertain and precarious, I realised that this kind of work was not sustainable – it consumed all of my energy and did not contribute that much intellectually or financially. So I decided to quit working in the media industry and continued my education by pursuing first an M.A and then a PhD. In the first year of my PhD, I found a job as a research assistant in a newly established communication faculty in Turkey. Almost one year after that, I began working as a lecturer at a different university called Mersin University.

Index: What were your reasons for signing the Academics for Peace Initiative petition?

Bermal Aydin: I signed the peace petition because I witnessed the human rights violations against civilians in Kurdish-populated cities such as Cizre and Sur. I saw and heard about the violence from the government against Kurds through alternative but reliable media outlets, while the mainstream media was completely mute, deaf and blind. Even worse, they misrepresented the victims of violence as terrorists. I felt desperate that there was nothing I could do. When I reflect on my motivations for signing the petition, I can say it was to relieve my remorse for not being able to do anything, and more importantly, to draw more attention to the issue. But I did not expect the severe reactions and mechanisms of punishment from the state and rectors against the signatories.

Index: What happened to you and your colleagues after you signed the petition?

Bermal Aydin: After President Erdogan had badly insulted the signatories and called for public prosecutors and rectors to punish us, the rector of Mersin University, Ahmet Camsari launched an administrative investigation against me and my colleagues. But without even finishing the investigation, he did not renew job contracts for those working as lecturers, research assistants and assistant professors. So I lost my job in April 2016. He could not fire associate professors and professors in this way since they had permanent and relatively safe jobs in Turkey, without renewable job contracts. However, after the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the rector of Mersin University put all academics who were signatories of the petition on the emergency decree 689 of 29th April 2017. Thus, he was able to get rid of all the signatories – about 20 academics in total. Due to this decree, I was fired from the university for a second time and banned from all public positions in Turkey, even though I had already been dismissed. Having your name on the emergency decree list means being fired from your current public job, being banned from any public job, and having your passport cancelled. My situation was not unique – the same thing happened to thousands of academics and public employees. It simply does not make sense, and one can explain it neither by logic nor law.

Soon after the petition was released, some academics from other universities were detained, and four of them were arrested for 40 days. There were police raids at academics’ houses and their rooms at universities. Although I and my colleagues at Mersin University were not raided by the police, we received several threats via social media and some local newspapers. A notorious organised crime boss, Sedat Peker, who is also pro-Erdogan, posted a statement on his personal website, threatening all academics: “We will let your blood in streams and we will take a shower in your blood.” This was on 13th Jan 2016, soon after the petition was released. And as far I know, there has been no sentence or penalty for him after the trial process. Meanwhile, there have been decisions to imprison academics after their trial processes. It is such an unfair and biased system. The same thing could happen to all of us.

Index: How did your dismissal affect your professional and personal lives? What about your family? Are they still living in Turkey?

Bermal Aydin: My dismissal turned my life upside-down. After losing my job in April 2016, I had to leave my rented house in Mersin since I could no longer pay rent, and moved to my family’s house in another city. Like my colleagues, I sued the rector to take back my job. But all the decisions from the courts were unfair and biased – they found that the rector was right to fire us. After the courts’ decisions, I realised that there was no way to get my job back or find another at a different university in Turkey, at least not for a few years. So I contacted several international organisations that provide support for academics at risk, such as CARA and Scholars at Risk. After I had provided all necessary documents, CARA found me eligible for support. Then, a few months after the coup attempt, on 19th April 2017, I came to England on a Tier-5 visa thanks to a scholarship opportunity provided by CARA and LSE. Since then, I’ve lived and worked in England. My family is still in Turkey and I have not seen them for more than a year because my passport has been cancelled. They are fine, but we miss each other dearly. Nobody knows what will happen in Turkey from now on. I am quite worried about my family, relatives, friends and colleagues there.

Index: Could you tell us more about your work at LSE?

Bermal Aydin: The title of my current research project at LSE is The Relationship Between Repressive Regimes and Precarisation of Academia and Media Professionals: A Discussion of The Case of Turkey. According to the interviews I conducted with academics and journalists from Turkey but living and working in the UK due to political reasons, the precarisation of intellectual labour in Turkey goes beyond the usual performance concerns and language of success in the neoliberal university and neoliberal media order. Even though performance criteria are still important (some academics and media professionals have been dismissed due to performance criteria, especially in private universities and media outlets), ideological and political pressures are far more influential over academia and media in Turkey’s current political atmosphere. It this sense, it can be said that the most significant factor of the precarisation of labour is the current authoritarian regime, which I prefer to call the “distinctive authoritarian neoliberalism” along with populism. In this climate, transnational solidarity is crucial. Although there have been some initiatives such as the Solidarity Academies, Kampüssüzler (those without campuses) or the Culture House in Mersin by my dismissed colleagues, they need international support, since their survival is very difficult under the current regime, both politically and financially.

Index: What is your assessment of Erdogan’s new constitutional powers and their implications for freedom of speech and of academics?

Bermal Aydin: After the elections last month, Turkey has changed from the parliamentary to the presidential system, granting Erdogan unlimited powers. However, it is not a presidential system like those of the US or France where legislative, executive and judicial powers are strictly separate and independent of each other. Instead, it is a system in which one man wields all powers. Yes, there is still parliament, but it is much less effective than before. Even if Erdogan needs support from parliament, it is too easy for him to gain support since his ruling party (AKP) has an unofficial coalition with the main nationalist party (MHP). They share the same ideologies on issues such as the Kurdish issue, cross-border interventions and suppression of dissent. It is quite obvious that they will continue to suppress all dissenting voices, including academics, journalists and politicians. They will continue suppressing freedom of speech, labelling those who do not support their ideologies terrorists, and arresting people randomly and arbitrarily. They can do all of this since they have won the election and thus have the support of the masses, at least half of the country. Moreover, the powers Erdogan had been implementing even before the election have finally achieved their legal grounds.

Index: What has life been like for you in the UK?

Bermal Aydin: My life in the UK has not been easy. First, I have been trying to survive in a quite competitive academic environment. Academia in the UK is an excellent example of a neoliberal university. I’m not sure if I could adapt myself. Academics here have a lot of burden on their shoulders – teaching, publishing, researching, administrative tasks, etc. Also, finding a permanent job in academia in the UK is a quite difficult and long process, even for native academics. Academia here is precarious and quite preformative. We are political precariats in Turkey, whilst here, in Western countries in general, academics are precariats not because of political pressures but because of neoliberal conditions and performance expectations. Second, I have been missing my family and friends in Turkey. Since my passport has been cancelled, I cannot see them unless they come to the UK.

On top of all that, I have been living in a vicious cycle with my passport and visa situation. As I mentioned, my passport was cancelled 10 days after my arrival in the UK, due to emergency decree 689. It also expired in January 2018. In December 2017, I went to the Turkish Embassy in London to see whether I could renew my passport. The official there told me that she could not take my application since a restriction had been put on my passport by Turkish authorities. She gave me back all the documents I had submitted and told me they could just grant me a 1-month-travel document to go back to Turkey. I refused it since I still had a visa at the time. In April 2018, when it was time to renew my visa, CARA’s team, my supervisors at LSE and the head of the Department of Media and Communications at LSE really laboured to help extend my scholarship for one more year. CARA also provided me with legal support before I applied to the Home Office to extend my visa. I applied for the visa extension with my expired and cancelled passport, as well as all supporting documents which included a cover letter explaining my unusual passport situation, my national ID card, etc. I did not know whether the Home Office would extend my visa, but fortunately, they did. However, it will expire next April and I will not be able to further extend it since my visa category is valid for up to 2 years and I am now in my second year. I cannot switch to a different visa category, either, since to do that I would have to go back to Turkey and submit my application there. If I go back, I will not be able to leave because my passport has been cancelled. Also, it seems that passport cancellations will last for at least 3 more years according to a new draft law, even though the state of emergency is now over.

Index: Do you have hope that you’ll be able to return home at all?

Bermal Aydin: Until the election in June 2018, I had hoped that I would be able to return home some day. After that, however, I don’t think it would be possible anytime in the foreseeable future. There is no future, no jobs for us as long as Erdogan and the AKP rule the country. Furthermore, I could lose my freedom since there have been trials against academics for alleged involvement with terrorism. Even though the state of emergency is over, Erdogan will continue to rule the country as if it is under the state of emergency. As I mentioned, there is a draft law that is expected to be enacted soon. According to this law, people who were dismissed under emergency decrees will never have their jobs back or be able to find other public positions, even when the state of emergency is over. Moreover, people whose passports have been cancelled would not be able to renew their passports at least for the next three years. Governors will have extraordinary and unchecked powers in cities: a 4-day detention period could be extended up to 12 days. The Council of Higher Education in Turkey (the YÖK) will be able to dismiss academics directly without any investigation. This would officially mean the end of autonomy in Turkish universities. The state of emergency would become permanent. I see little future for me in this picture unfortunately. I’m not sure if there is a future for me in the UK either – I’m concerned with the country’s strict immigration laws, Brexit, and the competitiveness in academia. But it is still worth trying.

Index: What form of support would you want to see for academics who have been unfairly dismissed like you? Could momentum for change be generated from within Turkey, or would international support be fundamental?

Bermal Aydin: Transnational organisations that support academics at risk such as CARA and SAR and supportive universities such as LSE should consider the passport situations of peace academics in Turkey and provide those who cannot leave the country with support through some new scholarships such as associate research positions, etc. I know some friends and colleagues in Turkey who have received scholarships abroad but cannot travel due to their passport cancellations. In addition, higher education councils and universities should stop collaborating with the main higher education organisations like YÖK and TÜBITAK in Turkey. Right now, there is no mechanism in Turkey that could stop the suppression of academic freedom or freedom of speech. Thus, transnational solidarity with peace academics is crucial and fundamental.

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