Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s appointment of a party loyalist as the university president and his efforts to gain control of Bogazici University are a part of his Islamization and survival polices. As he has wanted to reverse the country’s secularist orientation by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, his mismanagement of the economy and declining public support force him to cater to the agenda of reactionary Islamist groups and use public university resources to benefit loyal businesses.
On January 2, 2021, Turkey woke to the news that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appointed Melih Bulu as the Rector (President) of Bogazici University (BU), one of the country’s top universities. Bulu’s political identity and party loyalty outweighed his academic credentials, and more importantly, his appointment disregarded the University’s established practices and undermined even the current government’s set procedures for rector appointments. Thus, the announcement sparked a series of protests by the BU faculty and students. The government responded to the peaceful protests by sending anti-riot police to the campus, placing snipers at rooftops near the campus gates, arresting students and subjecting them to naked search, raiding their houses, restricting entry of students and graduates to the campus, blocking the establishment of the campus’ LGBT+ organization, and dismantling the Committee on Preventing Sexual Harassment. The faculty’s protests included daily vigils of standing at the campus quad. They rejected “the appointee,” declining to meet with him or assume positions in his administration; it took a month to find someone willing to serve as a vice-rector. Professor Naci Inci accepted the role and started to work with Bulu.
As support and solidarity statements poured in from various national and international groups, another Presidential Order announced the establishment of two new schools (law and communication) at BU on February 6, 2021. Challenging the legality of both presidential orders, seventy faculty members filed a case with the administrative high court of appeal, and some BU graduates and three current students’ families filed a joint appeal. A labor union for academics, Eğitim-Sen, also took the establishment of two new schools to the court. On April 7, 2021, a group of alumni joined the faculty’s daily protest with a petition demanding Bulu’s resignation. Signed by over five thousand graduates, the petition was placed on the lawn in front of the Rector’s Office, yielding a 35-meter-long paper carpet.
The government’s actions in BU may resemble some past interventions, but they reach a new high and illustrate Erdogan’s increased authoritarianism. Government efforts to control academia have not been uncommon in Turkey; the country’s volatile democracy witnessed many episodes of academic purges. After the military coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980, many academics were dismissed from their positions in an effort to “cleanse” universities from “harmful entities,” which typically meant left-wing scholars. In the transition to civilian rule after the 1980 coup, the military rulers took various measures to maintain their political tutelage, including curbing universities’ autonomy by instituting the Council of Higher Education (YÖK).
Holding the presidency since 2007, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leadership has used the executive authority over YÖK to control university appointments, but President Erdogan issued new laws and executive orders to make that control more direct and effective. These orders, and what is happening at BU today, show that Erdogan’s approach to controlling academia differs from past practices, both quantitatively and qualitatively. These differences are better understood if analyzed in light of other recent policies, including: seeking closer ties with Muslim-majority countries and Islamic institutions; changing Hagia Sophia’s status from museum to mosque with fanfare; attacking women’s hard-won rights, ranging from alimony to reproductive health; repressing and demonizing LGBT+ individuals and groups; increasing attacks on Kurdish politicians and elected officials; attempting to break up and weaken bar associations; and, defying the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. Another addition to the list is the Presidential Order of March 20, announcing Turkey’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention.
Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and exploitation of “cultural politics” of Islamization, nationalism, and conservativism originally stemmed from a sense of confidence but were later sustained out of desperation. More specifically, the AKP began pushing for cultural transformation in the late 2000s due to its strength and ambition, but such policies have been pursued with more vigor as an existentialist, survival strategy since 2015.
The AKP assumed power on a human rights platform and continued with the reform process and EU membership agenda set by previous governments. However, emboldened by successive electoral victories, AKP leadership found catering to the will of some liberals unnecessary. Moreover, acquiring the political power was inadequate; the ultimate goal was hegemonic power and reversing the secular path of the Republic, declared in 1923, in order to create a new Turkey in its conservative Islamist vision by 2023. Thus, starting with the military, it systematically and gradually dismantled all state agencies, bringing them under executive control, and repressing actual and potential opposition groups that would obstruct its mission. Restrictions on alcohol sales and consumption, pronatalism, emphasis on raising pious generations, pathologizing homosexuality, and subjecting LGBT+ organizations to various forms of repression became a part of the public discourse with an eye on shaping policies accordingly.
A major and unexpected public reaction to this trend was the 2013 Gezi Park protests. What started as a few environmentalists’ effort to save a small Istanbul park from Erdogan’s demolition plans quickly escalated into a country-wide protest movement. The spontaneous mobilization of the youth and some normally apolitical groups and the demonstration of an unusual solidarity among ideologically and culturally diverse participants alarmed the government. Its use of disproportional force to crush the movement, however, only turned many against the AKP.
The second blow came later that year from within, when the AKP’s ally Gülenists – the followers of an Islamist cleric named Fetullah Gülen – turned against the party. They revealed high-level corruptions by cabinet members and circulated audio-tapes implicating Erdogan and his son. Following these “attacks” against the AKP, Erdogan declared the Gülenist network a terrorist organization. Now referred to by the acronym FETÖ (Fetullah Gülen Terrorist Organization), the group was accused by the government of orchestrating the failed 2016 coup attempt and association with the Gezi Park protests. Referring to it as a “blessing from God,” Erdogan exploited the coup attempt to declare a state of emergency, allowing him to rule by decree, free from the parliamentary oversight, and to repress all opposition voices through the courts.
Although completely disconnected, the Gezi Park protests and the Gülenists’ split with the AKP marked the beginning of erosion in the AKP’s public support. The AKP managed to establish another majority government in November 2015 by repeating the parliamentary elections that it lost in June and transformed the regime from parliamentarianism to a unique form of presidentialism with unusual presidential power through a public referendum in 2017, but both were achieved through some significant manipulations.
After 2015, the AKP and Erdogan, who eliminated his party rivals and turned the party into an apparatus of personal rule, had to resort to authoritarianism and cultural politics out of desperation. The political and electoral machinery, which largely relied upon rentier capitalism and patronage system, could not be sustained when the economic resources of both the party and the government were diminishing. There was no equivalent of the Gülenist network to mobilize the masses. The national treasury was practically empty, Turkish lira rapidly declined in value, and no state economic enterprises were left to privatize. Losing the key municipalities to the opposition in the 2019 local elections further deprived the AKP of significant resources that it previously used to boost its public support through discriminatory service delivery and patronage. Without the means to continue with distributive policies, they have resorted to culture wars and identity politics, which tend to find fertile ground in Turkey. That is why we see the Hagia Sophia’s status changed and the Istanbul Convention rejected. Conservative gender policies framed as following Islamic principles and protecting the family – ranging from legalizing child marriages to trapping women in abusive households – are employed to mobilize the support of reactionary Islamist groups, which seem to have become the AKP’s core constituency.
The government’s increased control of universities at this juncture would serve multiple purposes. With party loyalists as rectors, the universities’ affairs – including creating new schools and positions – can be more easily dictated by the President. Universities can be redirected from their academic mission and into tools of cultural transformation (towards Erdogan’s goal of raising ‘pious generations,’), sources of patronage, and new opportunities to enrich loyal businesses through government contracts and procurement.
However, the BU students and faculty are determined to resist these plans, and according to a major polling agency’s nationwide survey of 2,643 people on their opinion about the BU events, 67 percent support the students’ protests, including 35 percent of those who identify as “ultra-religious.” Another study finds that 52.3 percent of the public disapprove Erdogan’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, as opposed to 26.7 percent that approve. When combined, these numbers imply that Erdogan’s authoritarianism and reliance upon conservative and repressive cultural policies, which increasingly detach Turkey from international human rights norms, not only lack support but may even backfire and shrink his electoral support further, especially since some other studies indicate that only 20 to 25 percent of the population identify as religious and vote according to their religious beliefs. However, having lost the trust of liberals, secularists and the economically disenfranchised, Erdogan has no other constituency but the reactionary religious groups and some ultra-nationalists. Despite the Constitution’s definition of the Republic of Turkey as a “secular state,” Erdogan presses for an Islamic identity and Islamization with statements like “Turkey has no conflicts with the Taliban’s beliefs” or by beginning the ceremony marking the opening of the new building of the Court of Cassation and the 2021-2022 judicial year with prayers. He is likely to continue on his reactionary and aggressive path until he is voted out of office.
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Zehra F. Kabasakal Aratis Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, where she also contributes the Human Rights and Women’s, Gender and Sexualities programs. Engaged in human rights both as a scholar and advocate, she is Founding President of the Human Rights Section of the American Political Science Association and a founding member of Women’s Platform for Equality (ESIK)-Turkey. https://polisci.uconn.edu/person/zehra-arat/
Disclosure: Professor Arat is an alumnus of Bogazici University and a participant in the joint appeal filed by the alumni in support of the faculty’s lawsuit.
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