When academia is declared null and void – Eylem Çamuroğlu Çığ

When academia is declared null and void – Eylem Çamuroğlu Çığ

The latest attacks from Turkish politicians on universities are far from the first – and they should be viewed within their larger context


In Turkey, I was fired as a scholar twice. First as an Assistant Professor in the journalism department at the University of Mersin in October 2016, and then a second time – by orders of an emergency decree – in April of 2017, although at that point I was not even a public employee anymore. Grounds for my dismissal were that months before, I’d signed the peace petition entitled ‘We will not be party to this crime’, which had been put together by the ‘Academics for Peace’ initiative. Under the call for peace stood the names of 1128 scholars. Then, despite repeated critiques by President Erdoğan, the number grew to 2122. Primarily it was researchers in the humanities and social sciences who took up the appeal, but they were also joined by those in medicine, engineering and the natural sciences.

Since my second dismissal happened as a result of the emergency decree, this basically meant my social death in Turkey. Please imagine the following: suddenly, one day, you don’t earn a salary anymore and you’re no longer allowed to work in public services – you’re probably not allowed to work in your home country at all, because future employers are afraid to hire you. Your passport is declared invalid, so you can no longer leave the country. And you’re reminded of what one of the politicians in your country’s ruling party said: We don’t care about the dismissals; from now on, they can eat the roots of the trees. Can you comprehend how horrifying the situation in Turkey is?

Although the political situation in my homeland has worsened since 2016, even now – in these dangerous times – we fight for freedom. In many places, student movements are demonstrating their solidarity and meanwhile, there is even an ‘Academics for Peace’ group in Germany that is openly committed to colleagues in Turkey. Although the official state of emergency was to have ended in mid-July 2018, in reality, the  state of emergency is largely unchanged because of increased ‘anti-terror’ laws.

"What we are currently observing in Turkey is actually just the latest stage of the neoliberal project that nowadays happens to wear Islamic colours."

The most recent attacks on the Turkish institutions of higher learning were in no way the first. However, the scope, method and moment in which they were carried out deserve special attention. At the same time, one should not view the persecution of Turkish researchers in isolation from attacks on universities in other countries. On the contrary, a closer look will reveal important global interconnections.

Particularly noteworthy is that the government is especially keen to attack those who stand up for a classical (more common) definition of academic freedom. In contrast, anyone who advocates a neoliberal version of academic freedom remains spared from political attacks. This may be astonishing at first sight; after all, neoliberalism sees all knowledge as a commodity, education as a service to be privatised, and academic freedom as the ability to provide a variety of educational ‘customer services’.  It would seem that there is no room in this concept for government regulations, not to mention interventions or attacks, so one should understand that the political attacks, which the Turkish government have carried out against the universities, stand in contradiction to neoliberalism.

"For only at first glance does neoliberalism demand that universities created in its image be protected from government regulations"

But it’s more complicated than all this, as the autonomous Marxist philosopher George Caffentzis has illustrated, using the example of African universities. Although these institutions operated within the confines of a neoliberal model, they were still affected by the American anti-terrorism paradigm – for only at first glance does neoliberalism demand that universities created in its image be protected from government regulations. We cannot let ourselves be blinded by ideological rhetoric; in fact, according to neoliberal doctrine, the state must intervene with regulations when the market system profits from it. Therefore, with this in mind, Caffentzis discusses which possibilities for resistance remain. First and foremost, it should become clear which further, larger interconnections exist – for example, the connection between the interventions of Turkish politics in its universities and the economic precarisation of researchers in Germany.

"Economic precarisation has transformed into political precarisation"

One example of such precarisation is, again, easily found in Turkish universities. In recent years, they have undergone a transformation that was originally economically motivated before it was egged on from the political side. What we are currently observing in Turkey is actually just the latest stage of the neoliberal project that nowadays happens to wear Islamic colours.

In Turkey, the neoliberal transformation began with the 1980 coup; first the greater society was redesigned then, later, it was the universities’ turn. In this case, the conditions of academic labour were made more flexible, which led to precarious employment. Similar reforms were also deployed in the media, health care and primary and secondary education sectors. For some time now, neoliberalism has not shaped Turkish society merely in the economic respect; indeed, economic precarisation has transformed into political precarisation. The upheaval has been so profound that the country now stands on the brink of fascism.

Of course, a neoliberal definition of academic freedom is not the only one; there is also a classical definition, which is based on a general concept of academic freedom. This views knowledge as a resource shared by everyone, and education as a public good. Accordingly, academic freedom is a means to equip people to gain access to knowledge and generate new knowledge for themselves. It is obvious that economic and political intrusions are aimed at exactly this concept of freedom.

Moreover, the neoliberal transformation has also been ushered in with help from public discourse. For example, the Turkish president speaks of ‘local’ and ‘national’ universities, in doing so criminalising the renowned University of Boğaziçi. At the same time – in a second discourse – the ‘entrepreneurial and competitive university’ is spoken of. These two fundamentally divergent terminologies lead to contradictions in many discussions about academic freedom.

The "acceptable academic" is not a critical one.

The idea of the security state that has been implemented in Turkey, and the concept of a neoliberal understanding of academic freedom, come together in the introduction of the so-called ‘acceptable academic’. This ‘academic’ is of course competitive, but never critical in thought or reaction. He or she also never questions capitalism and the security state, which in contemporary Turkey are fused together.

Particularly illustrative is an interview with Ümran İnan, president of the private Koç University. Despite the political and regional problems in Turkey and its neighbouring states, he explains, numerous aspiring academics have applied for a position at his institution. ‘The people are looking for a challenge’, he says. ‘They are not looking for easy cop-outs or high salaries or things like that. They want to rub elbows with quality people, they want an environment in which non-linear, unpredictable things can happen.’ Another statement makes the current standard of the academic world quite clear; ‘The talent pool that I’ve been interviewing for this year has been amazing.’ Inan’s words towards the peace academics expose the usefulness of the definition of neoliberal academic freedom in terms of the security paradigm or state of emergency regimes like in Turkey : ‘Some of our scholars have perhaps done something outside of the operations of the university itself. Perhaps they signed petitions that don’t have anything to do with their academic accomplishments.’

"accumulation by dispossession"

Our experiences at Turkish universities have given us, as dismissed scholars, a clear understanding of academic freedom. As a general basis for such differing conceptions – through neoliberal deregulation and state-security measures – we find the accumulation of capital, which has also been described by the American philosopher David Harvey as accumulation by dispossession. This requires an environment that is competitive, individualistic, and ‘purged’ from every publicness, every commonness, and every resistance. The academic freedom acceptable in Turkey today should, then, create an environment in which such capitalism can move freely and destructively. Critical academics were fired, or, to put it another way, were dispossessed because they stood opposed to the neoliberal variant of Islamism. For neoliberal Islamism depends upon an environment with no resistance in order to fundamentally transform the political system – and so it can provide an environment where that kind of capitalism can move freely and destructively. All of these transformations, incidentally, fit together with the global rise of right-wing populism.

"The solidarity of the academic world is apparent in the unremitting effort to define knowledge as a public good"

But what can the ‘Academics for Peace’ do, when some of them are precluded from working at Turkish universities, some are still working at Turkish universities, and some had to leave the country? They have not remained idle, but rather founded solidarity academies in Kocaeli, Ankara, İzmir, İstanbul, Mersin, Dersim, Antalya, Eskişehir and Berlin. The purpose of ‘Solidarity Academies’ is to pass on knowledge to all of the people who have been pushed aside by the government. Instead of withdrawing the peace petition, we want to keep in touch with each other through alternative organisations and continue with an academic exchange. Our colleagues who were dismissed in Ankara now teach in ‘street academies’ – only for twenty minutes at a time, of course, before the police intervene. And the dismissed Turkish scholars who live in Germany have founded ‘Off-University’; from here, they use the internet so that colleagues who have been fired or prevented from leaving the country can continue to teach. In Istanbul, we have kampüssüzler (‘no campus’) and in Mersin, a new house of culture called Kültürhane, that fuses the solidarity academies together with cultural and artistic activities in a new format.

Our peace petition emphasises the concept of academic freedom in its general sense once again. The solidarity of the academic world is apparent in the unremitting effort to define knowledge as a public good. As philosopher Judith Butler has observed, a right is exercised even when no right exists – or precisely, when no right exists. Therefore, we, academics for peace, exercise together a right to academic freedom, even though the Turkish state and global capital has declared it null and void.

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