Like mothers throughout history, Turkish academic Elcin Aktoprak’s hopes and fears are many. “I am afraid for my son’s future the most,” she says. “The political situation in Turkey is unpredictable and although I am a political scientist, sometimes I feel like a rabbit caught in the headlights.”
Her words are a simple truth cutting through a confusing rhetoric increasingly clouding the political situation in Turkey, Aktoprak’s country of birth, and a place she no longer understands, or trusts. And she is not alone.
Headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who served as prime minister from 2003 to 2014 and as president ever since, Turkey is a country reeling with confusion in the wake of changes brought under his leadership. Elected as a pro-European, free-trade supporter bent on pursuing membership in the European Union, Erdogan has instead embarked on a path of transformation not toward modernization and strengthened human rights, but toward isolation and fear. In the process, he has altered the country’s constitution to eliminate checks and balances and control he judiciary and legislature without accountability.
It is clearly not the stable, secular state sought by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s, and under which Aktoprak came of age. Born in Istanbul, she moved to the capital of Ankara in 1997, full of hope and brimming with dreams. “I decided to be a scholar when I was a sophomore and I still like my job, not only academically but also ethically,” she recounts.
Life and success, both professionally and personally, followed in orderly fashion: a PhD in international relations at the University of Ankara, research assistant in 2002, assistant professor in 2010, marriage to a fellow professor, and the child, a boy, arriving 4 and a half years ago.
The almost prosaic recitation of accomplishment defies what followed, as Turkey descended into a place violently divided along ethnic, religious and rural/urban lines. The July 15, 2016 coup attempt handed Erdogan just the pretext needed to arrest or dismiss tens of thousands of suspects, including thousands of academics.
Of those scholars, 1,128, including Aktoprak, had signed a declaration in January 2016 calling for an end to violence, and branding themselves “Academics for Peace.”
Another signatory to the declaration was Bulent Aslan, a physicist and faculty member since 2009 at Anadolu University in Eskisehir, a smaller city not far from Ankara. Aslan, who worked with the National Research Council of Canada and lived in Ottawa between 2004 and 2009, would be joined by 29 of his Turkish colleagues at Anadolu in abrupt dismissal from their duties in February 2017.
“I can no longer work in any government-related jobs,” Aslan says. “My passport has been cancelled and Turkish authorities won’t issue a new one. So, I can neither work nor go abroad. Of course this affects not just me. Everyone who was dismissed under the government’s state of emergency decrees is in the same situation, if not worse.”
Critics charge that the government’s series of decrees enacted since the attempted coup of July 2016 are an excuse for crackdown against anyone seen as politically opposed to Erdogan’s systematic erasure of democratic free-speech rights, no matter how moderate their stand.
And it is patently true that merely by signing the ‘peace petition,’ Aktoprak’s “stable, boring life of an academic,” turned into something she couldn’t have envisioned.
“Both my husband and I were visiting fellows in the UK in July 2016. We were urgently called back by the rectorate after the coup attempt and they did not give us research leave after that,” she recalls.
“Because of the rising violence, I signed the petition and due to the fierce reaction of the president and the government we were living in limbo. Many of the signatories to the petition for peace started being dismissed from their work and put under administrative and criminal investigations,” she recalls. “We were expelled at the end with our colleagues.”
Aktoprak and her husband, Aslan, and countless other dismissed academics remain thus, prisoners in their own land, unemployed and blacklisted, their passports seized, fears enflamed, and the search for hope and sustenance alike a new, daily chore.
Similar stories, and worse, are heard throughout Turkey, but often in bits and pieces, hastily posted on left wing websites run by free-speech proponents trying to fill the information gaps caused by the jailing of 120 journalists in the days and weeks following the coup attempt.
Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index reveals a decline in Turkey’s ranking from 99th in the world in 2002, to 155th in 2017, behind Afghanistan, Russia and Pakistan.
Funda Başaran, also a signatory to the peace petition, and also dismissed after the coup attempt from her position as a professor in the faculty of communication at Ankara University, serves on the editorial board of Sendika.org, a left-wing online news portal aiming to illuminate social struggles especially pertaining to labour issues in Turkey, and world-wide.
The Bulletin attempted several times to contact Dr. Başaran, who remains in Turkey, but failed to reach her.
But the website speaks volumes, listing detailed descriptions of the fates of many of the Academics for Peace: hundreds banned from public service, hundreds more under disciplinary investigation, and 56 in police custody.
And Erdogan continues to hold sway. On April 16, he achieved a narrow victory in a constitutional-change referendum. New rules will seemingly allow him to remain at the country’s helm for another decade, and increasingly to wield the authoritarian sledgehammer for which he’s become known.
He’s vowed to reinstate the death penalty, abolished since the year 2000, and introduce other changes which cannot bode well for those philosophically opposed to his approach, those in major Turkish cities who voted “No” to the constitutional changes, better-educated Turks, and marginalized Kurds, Alawites, Armenians and other minorities who make up more than 30 per cent of the population.
When asked for their final words about their country, Aktoprak and Aslan speak almost as one about building a future on peace and justice.
“I of course want to see this oppressive regime change. People with the ruling power say and do things that cannot be explained with a decent mind. Neither justice nor law is in place right now, and I’d like to trust the judicial system again,” Aslan says.
“I want to continue my studies,” Aktoprak says. “I’d like to produce academic works even though I am not officially a scholar in a university right now. I am against all violence and I would like to see a positive change through a peaceful future and the continuation of Turkey’s stalled democratization.”