Turkish Protests Against Erosion of Academic Freedom and Virulent Heterosexism

Sevgi Doğan

Summary: Students and professors resist attempts to place Boğaziçi University under the control of an increasingly authoritarian state, which is using heterosexist propaganda against them — Editors

“Aşağı bakmayacağız (We will not look down).”[1]


In many countries, the values of higher education, such as academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and freedom of expression, are under terrible attack. From Belarus to Turkey, the same authoritarian politics is at work. Many demonstrations in Belarus have continued against the current government since the presidential election on August 9, 2020 because of concerns about a fraudulent election. Protesters across the country demand a democratic election. Most of the protests have been led by university students who are subjected to the police violence. One can find similar treatment of protesters in Turkey to that faced by Belarusian students taken into custody and arrested. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 25,000 people have been imprisoned in Belarus. The same report says that “students, who have rallied in support of people on strike, have been threatened with expulsion from their educational institutions, and since 26 October, at least 127 have reportedly been expelled from their courses, jeopardizing their right to education and prospects for employment.” The parallels between Belarus and Turkey are not only based on how the governments of these countries commit violence against students but can be also found in their authoritarian character: aggressively demanding to be recognized by the intellectuals and the academy.

After the attempted coup in 2016, the institutional autonomy of Turkish universities has been targeted once again by the Decree Law, or KHK (kanun hükmünde kararname). Previously, according to the YÖK law, rectors were elected by university teachers. Now, rectors are being elected and appointed by the president of the country from candidates proposed by the YÖK (Higher Education Council). Therefore, the academy (which is already undemocratic) is once more suffering another heavy blow after the impact of the KHK in the 1980s. This is how Prof. Melih Bulu, a businessman known for ties to the ruling conservative AK Party, was appointed as a rector of Boğaziçi University, one of Turkey’s top universities. Immediately after his appointment, students and faculty began to protest the undemocratically elected rector. These protests have attracted international attention as well. Today, Turkish government repression has taken on a different dimension. The appointment of a new rector by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) has caused great concern, not only among students and teachers, but also among the people, triggering many reactions throughout the country. The protests began on January 4th and has been going on for over a month. Students and professors continue to say that they do not want a rector appointed from “above, but one “democratically” elected by their professors within the University. Police had already begun brutal interventions on the first day of demonstrations. Students organized several events both inside and outside the University. For more than a month now, professors have been protesting the appointment by symbolically turning their backs on the Rector’s building every day at noon for thirty minutes. Moreover, the students in other cities such as Ankara and Izmir protested both the appointment and police violence against their friends. Murat Gülsoy, a writer and academic at Boğaziçi University, speaks of the situation: “For the first time I have witnessed such a thing at Boğaziçi University, where I have been a student and teacher for 37 years. I am very, very sorry.” A lot of students have been taken into custody. In total, more than 500 students have been taken into custody in 38 cities, and many of them were actually arrested.

Moreover, the LGBTI+ movement is being targeted and being held responsible for the protests. Within a protest at a university, some students held an exhibition on the campus. The exhibition included a poster that indicated Islam’s most sacred site, the Kaaba in Mecca, with LGBTI flags on it. This image led some reactions on the part of government, like Turkey’s interior minister who described the students in question as “LGBT perverts.” Moreover, President Erdoğan, while praising his party’s youth for not being LGBT youth, accused the students involved in the protests for being terrorists. However, Muslim students from Boğaziçi University, in a joint statement, said that they were on the side of their LGBT+ friends by reiterating their demand for the resignation of Prof. Melih Bulu (appointed by the president Erdoğan) and by saying that “polarizing language must be abandoned” so that all views and beliefs can exist freely. They said that they talked with their LGBT+ friends and their friends apologized for what was happening. Their LGBT+ friends also added that it was not their intention to insult religious values but instead, to express philosophical and artistic concerns.

Against harsh reactions and hatred, one student said that “we, as Muslim students, are completely against such a culture of lynching. At Boğaziçi, everyone says why they are hurt, and the ground for reconciliation is formed. When we expressed our discomfort about this work (image), believe me, no one told us, ‘you’re wrong.’ On the contrary, our friends said, ‘We understand you, I wish we could get ahead of this and talk among ourselves first.’” She continued: “If we had discussed this issue among ourselves first, the parties would have come to a compromise, and no students would have been harmed. Students who spread this image with their ‘Muslim’ identity on social media and supported the attitude towards the LGBT+ club have been dropped from their groups because some friends within the group felt threatened. You may not want to be in a group with people you think hate you.” After their statement supporting their LGBT+ friends, Muslim students were accused of being factious, hypocritical, and not being Muslim. Another student said that she was “not considered a Muslim” because she defended her friends and the human rights of LGBT+ students.

In addition to the hate speech of the current regime, “members of Islamic fundamentalist Anatolian Youth Association (AGD) – the youth branch of the Islamist Felicity Party – were freely spreading hate in front of Istanbul University, while Boğaziçi students were battered by police.”

However, the dissident political parties such as CHP (The Republican People’s Party), HDP (The Peoples’ Democratic Party) and Deva (Democracy and Progress Party) (composed of former members of AKP) supported the students’ protests and expressed their concern about the way the rector was appointed.


New Design and Future

Erdoğan’s project is to create a new Turkey; the universities and academia are not exempt from this design. The goal is to have obedience and the subordination of universities. In this way, the academic world takes on an autocratic character, which means that absolute obedience would govern the university through strict rules. With appointments like this, Erdoğan tries to control the world of intellectuals and the academy, which has never recognized him. This appointment has a symbolic meaning as it was made in a university that historically has always supported democratic values such as freedom of expression and freedom of research. For Erdoğan, having control over Boğaziçi University means conquering and dominating the academic world as well. Aware of this, teachers and students are struggling to not lose these values. They are engaged in a resistance struggle against an increasingly autocratic power.

Much has changed since 2013 when the protest for Gezi Park began… In these latest protests, we find young people again in front of the government, but it is the same government. Young people and students are concerned not only for their future, but for that of their country, for democracy, and for their educational institutions, which seek to provide a safer future. The parallels between these two protests, occurring respectively in 2013 and in 2021, consist in the fact that in the Gezi Park protests we find the same concerns for democracy. Young people were tired of authoritarian government. Perhaps they saw in Erdoğan a domineering father and did not want him anymore. Erdoğan, like the others, did not expect Gezi Park to become a major youth movement and now tries to avoid such a thing again, so he continues to accuse the students of being terrorists. In 1997, then Mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan said: “Democracy is not the goal. It is a means to an end.” At another moment, Erdoğan said: “Democracy is like a tram. You get off when you have reached your destination.” It can be said that both in the Gezi protests and in those of today in Boğaziçi, the desire for democracy challenges the desire for power, for authoritarian power.

These young people, called Generation Z, who were born between the mid-90s and the beginning of 2010, make up 39% of Turkey’s population of 82 million. There will be around 6 or 7 million new voters in the next general elections scheduled for 2023. A demographic shift could have huge political implications for the AKP’s voting margins. Research done on Generation Z shows that the anxiety levels of Generation Z are higher than in previous generations. In addition, according to the same research, 76.4% of Generation Z consider as important justice, democracy, freedom of expression and thought, merit, and art– principles and values that do not seem to be embraced by the current system. In addition, according to the research, it seems that Generation Z is sensitive to issues such as human rights, animal rights, and sexual discrimination, and has an understanding based on equality. This could certainly affect future electoral consultations.

The difference between Generation Z from other generations is definitely their relationship with technologies. President Erdoğan cannot ignore this fact. According to the above-mentioned research, anxiety about the future, unemployment, and economic problems are an integral part of this generation. As a consequence of the impossibility of expression due to repression, they also show an intense use of social media, such as Instagram and Twitter, in their search for free places to exchange ideas and information. Today, much of the news, for the new generations, is acquired on social media because there is great mistrust for traditional news media. With these new technologies, Generation Z opens up an infinite world and can see so many possibilities, despite the previous generations not having had this access. In this way, this generation can see the brutality of the political, cultural, and economic conflicts around the world. In short, they can see anti-human events and more broadly, total inequality. The old generation got used to the classical or traditional policy and got used to hearing promises of constructing new streets and hospitals in political campaigns. However, these are not significant for those who already suffer from unemployment and an insecure future. The Turkish Generation Z has never known and experienced anything other than the AKP government; that is, the party of President Erdoğan. With this current government, they experience both political and economic instability. Thus, they can see the reality through social media, and therefore cannot be deceived simply by a party policy that claims they would like to create new roads and new hospitals! Therefore, politicians cannot ask for votes with such a campaign! For the new generation, this is not realistic.

[1] A police officer told a student to “look down” in order to prevent students from walking collectively. This prompted nationwide outrage, and the phrase “we will not look down” became a slogan for the movement.



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