The Heavy Cost of a Call for Peace: The Academics for Peace

By Emine Ay
Academics for Peace is an initiative established by a group of academicians in 2012 to call on Turkish government for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing war between the Turkish army and the PKK forces. The academics came together to speak up against asymmetrical warfare applied by the government in the Southeast Anatolia against Kurdish people, including armed forces and civilians, and the violation of human rights protected under international treaties.

The main motivation of the academics, as they state, is to contribute to the peacebuilding process by providing academic knowledge and research, especially on topics which are at the heart of the Kurdish issue such as conflict resolution and negotiation process, the role of women in peacebuilding, the integration of native languages into education, the ecological destruction of the war and so on. The idea is to take an active part in the conflict resolution with an academic approach and to raise awareness at the national and international level.

Accordingly, since its establishment, Academics for Peace has been very proactive in many ways. The organisation was engaged in many contributions towards peace negotiations, such as publishing academic studies and reports, taking part in peace talks and signing petitions to raise awareness of the Kurdish question. The online petition calling for peace, launched in 2016, was the one of them. It was publicised with the motto “We will not be a party to this crime!” and signed by 2212 academics in two subsequent waves. And this is how the academic termination process started, putting the signatories at the target of a crackdown by the government.

The targeting of the academics started right after signing the petition, openly acknowledged by Erdoğan in many of his public speeches. He called them “so-called academics”, “ignorants”, “terrorists who make propaganda of the PKK” and “liars”, emphasising the severe limitations of freedom of speech. He even made a call to judicial authorities and university senates for the academics’ punishment in one of those speeches. Following this open call, the Council of Higher Education made a written declaration saying that action would be taken against those who signed the petition. After this, purgations, dismissals, imprisonment and custodies took place.

“Over 400 academics were purged without any trials or hearings.”

Over 400 academics, including professors, doctors, research assistants, associate professors and instructors were purged with State of Emergency decrees without any trials or hearings. The lists of the academics were prepared by the university rectors to be sent to the authorities. The purgations happened collectively with cooperation between the rectors, security forces and Council of Higher Education.

Those who were not purged collectively with decrees were accused of “making terrorist propaganda” and “insulting the Turkish people, Republic of Turkey and Governmental institutions and bodies”. They have been on trial since 2017. 646 signatory academics have been standing trials individually by specially authorised Assize courts. There are 129 sentences, 25 of which have been convicted so far.

But that was not all. The witch hunt started by the president went on with a threatening and lynching wave on various platforms. Many columnists condemned the academics in their articles, alleging their alliance with terrorists and illegal groups and blaming them for treason. Encouraged by the president, even mafia figures such as Sedat Peker threatened them, saying that he “would take a shower with their blood”.

What the academics have been going through since then is described by a term on which many people have already agreed: “a civil death”. The punishment not only was about losing a job and imprisonment, but came with a cost they have been paying heavily since then: criminal and administrative investigations, dismissals, passport cancellation or confiscation, travel ban, prevention from finding a job in private sector, stigmatisation, being labelled as terrorists/terrorist allies and so on.

So what are they doing now? It is true that the academics have been surrounded by every possible restriction and threat by a mafia state which operates in collaboration with a wide range of agents spying on each other. Being trapped within the country without being able to travel, get a job and make a living, they still try to survive with solidarity; they go to each others’ hearings, write daily columns in the newspapers, organise off-campus seminars, publish books and even set up a Human Rights School.

But, it is a necessity to remember that this does not apply to many of the purged academics. Many of them are trying to make a living under terrible conditions, are forced to get underpaid and physical laborious jobs, experience psychological problems and even commit suicide such as Mehmet Fatih Tıraş.

“The result is not only termination of academic life but the cultivation of a ‘horror empire’.”

Academia is one of the fields which has been the political playground of the regime. The crackdown has reached an unprecedented scale. The result is not only termination of the academic life for both the dismissed academics and students, but the cultivation of a “horror empire” at universities: self-censorship; spying rectors, colleagues and students; nepotism; corruption at administrative and academic levels and so on.

This is what the AKP regime has achieved in 16 years of rule.

Edit: During the editing process Prof. Dr. Füsun Üstel, a political scientist, was sentenced to 15 months in prison. She was one of the signatory academics under trial since 2017. The series of trials since then have resulted in prison sentences with a suspension provision on the condition that those academics stay away from committing further crimes (meaning keeping silent). However, Füsun Üstel rejected this as she believes doing this would mean accepting that what she did was a “crime”.

Emine graduated from English Language & Literature and Sociology departments. The development of Turkey within the last decade led to a developed interest in human rights. However, she could not complete a master’s degree in Human Rights at Ankara University due to the mass purgation of academics by the government in 2016. Emine is interested in symbolic reparations in transitional justice, memory sites and prison museums.