No future without the past

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”100439″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]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. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1526917973893-b1ee57cb-d4ac-6″ taxonomies=”8843, 55″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Padraig Reidy: Life in paranoid Erdoganistan, where every day brings a new censorship story

(Illustration: Shutterstock)

(Illustration: Shutterstock)

Another week, another social media ban in Turkey. I email a friend. to ask what are people making of this latest gross violation of free speech. “Nothing much,” comes the reply. “Lots of jokes though.”

Such is life these days in Erdoganistan, where every day brings a new censorship story, greeted now with what my Turkish friend calls “the humour of desperation”.

The latest ban on social media came, perhaps, with slightly more justification than previous attempts. Pictures of a state prosecutor, Mehmet Selim Kiraz, were circulated by the hard-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front (DHKP-C), which had taken him hostage. Hours after the pictures were released, Kiraz was dead. A court ordered that the picture of the dead man in perhaps his final moments be removed from certain sites, but the image proliferated. Hence the blocking of social media on Monday.

It was a case, as Kaya Genc wrote, of “burning the quilt to get rid of the flea”.

This is not unusual in Turkey. Last spring, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to put a stop to social media after leaked wiretap recordings circulated on Twitter. Back in 2007, the whole of YouTube was blocked because of a video that insulted Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. That ban lasted three years, and even then-president Abdullah Gul raised his objections. During his presidency, in fact. Gul was never the most reliable friend of the authorities when it came to online censorship. Even during the 2014 ban, he tweeted “”The shutdown of an entire social platform is unacceptable. Besides, as I have said many times before, it is technically impossible to close down communication technologies like Twitter entirely. I hope this measure will not last long.”

In 2008, in one of my personal favourite incidents of online censorship, Richard Dawkins’ website was blocked because of a dispute with ridiculous, but powerful Turkish creationist Harun Yahya.

One has to admire Turks’ sanguinity in the face of such idiocy. It is not as if the web and social media are marginal in Turkish everyday life. As with any other country where half-decent smartphones are available, Turkish billboards and TV adverts are festooned with the familiar logos urging us to like, share, follow and the rest.

But Erdogan and the authorities appear convinced that the web is something that can be harnessed and controlled and without any detrimental effect.

Not that the Turkish president is alone in this belief. During the 2011 London riots, David Cameron famously suggested shutting down social media, to the delirious whooping of the likes of Iran’s Press TV and China’s Xinhua news agency: “Look,” they gleefully pointed out. “The British go on about free speech, and at the first sign of trouble, they want to shut down the internet.” It was rumoured that the Foreign Office had to intervene to point out how bad Cameron was making its diplomats’ human rights lectures look.

But there is a special kind of madness at play in Turkey’s multiple bans, a particular persistence. Ban it! Ban it again! Harder!

The Turkish state at times seems too much like a cranky uncle to be taken seriously, staring confusedly at the Face-book and worrying that somehow it’s a scam because they once heard about an email scam on the radio and now the computer is plotting against them.

But the problem is that Turkey isn’t your confused uncle. Turkey is a hugely important country. The attitude toward web censorship tells us a lot about Erdogan’s regime: it’s erratic, volatile, prone to paranoia, and increasingly suspicious of new things and the outside world. The president is prone to talking about his and Turkeys enemies, internal and external. The recent moves against the Gulen movement (including its newspaper Zaman) and refreshed hostility towards the PKK suggest Erdogan is up for a fight. Last month, he lumped the two movements together declaring that they were “engaged in a systematic campaign to attack Turkey’s resources and interests for years.” – sounding for all the world like Stanley Kubrick’s Brigadier General Jack D Ripper obsessing over plots to taint our precious bodily fluids.

Invoking the age-old Turkish paranoia of hidden power bases, Erdogan said: “We see that there are some groups who turn their backs on this people […] Two different structures that use similar resources have been attacking Turkey’s gains for the past 12 years. One uses arms while the other uses sneaky ways to infiltrate the state and exploit people’s emotions. Their aim is to stop Turkey from reaching its goals.”

Endless obsession over threats does not make for healthy government, let alone democracy. Some suggest that in his outspokeness and utter partiality, Erdogan is already overstepping the mark and creating a defacto US-style presidency –  a stated aim.

Men with enemies lists are best avoided, and probably shouldn’t be allowed to be in charge of anything. Erdogan has all the appearance of being one of those men, and he’s been quite clear that the internet is on the list, saying after the 2013 Gezi protests that “Social media is the worst menace to society.”

This attitude is not a rational, but paranoia never is. For all that Turks can laugh at the president and the system, deep down they must worry.

This column was published on April 9, 2015 at

Erdogan’s threat to shut down social media is warning for media freedom in Turkey

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: Philip Janek / Demotix)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: Philip Janek / Demotix)

In February, Turkish president Abdullah Gül prompted intense criticism when he approved restrictive new amendments to the law that regulates internet activity in Turkey, known as 5651. Since then, the Turkish government has continued to threaten internet freedom, placing added pressure on social media platforms. Earlier this month, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested that his government could block access to Facebook and Youtube after municipal elections on 30 March.  

With over 34 million Facebook active users, Turkey is among the top 15 countries on the platform, and both the prime minister and Gül each have over four million Twitter followers. One day after Erdoğan’s statement during a live television interview, Gül countered that blocking access to social media was out of the question. Last week, Erdoğan followed by backtracking on his own comments.

Considering the already strained relationship that Erdoğan’s government has to social media, the turnaround on his comments is still no promise that there may be less restrictions on internet freedom to come in Turkey. In recent months, a number of wiretapped telephone recordings, allegedly of Erdoğan’s conversations, have been leaked onto social media platforms, including YouTube, SoundCloud and Vimeo, suggesting the prime minister’s meddling in corruption and intimidation of mainstream media. On the day that Erdoğan’s television interview aired, a new phone conversation was leaked onto YouTube, purportedly featuring the prime minister berating the media magnate Erdoğan Demirören for coverage in his daily Milliyet of a 2013 peace talk with Abdullah Öcalan of the separatist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).

Erkan Saka, an assistant professor at Istanbul Bilgi University and a researcher on new media, says

Erdoğan’s comments about Facebook and YouTube reflect his interest in controlling Turkish media. “Most of the mainstream media is already under their control, so this seems to be the only way now for people to express their opposition,” Saka said. With leaks appearing on video or audio sharing websites and spreading through Twitter and Facebook, social media platforms have become instrumental for circulating information related to the ongoing government corruption scandal.

Shutting down entire websites as Erdoğan suggested would mean going beyond the very recent amendments to law 5651 that make possible URL-based blocking of individual web pages ruled offensive, without restricting access to entire websites. YouTube was previously censored in Turkey for over two years after a video was posted on the site that was deemed insulting to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. Earlier this year, Vimeo and SoundCloud were both temporarily shut down within Turkey following leaks that were published on those websites. Lawmakers from Erdoğan’s party, the AKP, have defended the controversial new version of 5651 because it allows for an alternative to restricting access to entire websites. Supporters of the law claim that with URL-based page blocking, defamatory content can instead be removed selectively.

In the run up to the elections at the end of this month, the recurring leaks and violent protests around Turkey threaten to tarnish Erdoğan’s popularity with voters. Responding aggressively in the televised interview, Erdoğan’s derision of social media platforms is personal, tactical, and aimed to discredit the websites as a threat to internet users’ safety. “We will not leave this nation at the mercy of YouTube and Facebook,” the prime minister said in his interview with journalists on broadcaster ATV. Calling the websites immoral, Erdoğan added, “they don’t have limits.” By casting social media websites as damaging to all internet users in Turkey, Erdoğan set the stage for potentially restricting access to those sites on moral grounds. Even after correcting his statement, Erdoğan’s suggestion that social media platforms are a source of danger is in line with his government’s use of internet filtering programs and ad campaigns that portray the internet as debauched to justify restricted access to content it considers harmful.

Aside from facing access restrictions, websites operating from Turkey are forced to comply with other laws that compromise their users’ privacy. Sedat Kapanoğlu, founder of the popular satirical, user-generated online dictionary Ekşi Sözlük, says internet companies in Turkey are put under pressure by laws requiring them to share user data. “A successful platform must create a free environment which protects its users’ rights. We are not able to do that. We are forced to provide IP addresses to prosecution even for completely legal content,” Kapanoğlu said.

One of the social media websites that Erdoğan singled out in his interview, Youtube, which is owned by Google, has an office in Turkey, while other large platforms like Facebook, SoundCloud, Vimeo, and Twitter do not.

Although he later rescinded his original statement, Erdoğan’s recent threat is alarming because it shows that in Turkey’s precarious climate for media independence, it might be plausible for his government to increase control of social media. With elections approaching this month, Erdoğan is himself coming under more pressure to win votes while facing a corruption scandal playing out on social media. The amendments to 5651 already make it easier for the Turkish Directorate of Telecommunication (TİB) to remove web pages from the internet. As more leaks continue to emerge, there is a lingering risk of new restrictions targeting social media platforms that have been at the centre of freedom of speech debates in Turkey.

This article was posted on 19 March 2014 at