Turkish students protest their freedom of speech in Ankara (placards read “Universities belong to the students and they will be free with us”). Photo: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images
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From Ukraine to the UK, academic freedom is under threat

The freedom to think, discuss and disagree is being eroded in institutions around the world.

When Resat Baris Ünlü sat down to write an exam question for his students, he didn’t suspect that the consequences would include death threats on his life.

Ünlü, a modern historian who teaches at Ankara University, asked his students a question on the 1978 Kurdistan manifesto written by Abdullah Öcalan.

But when a Turkish newspaper found out about the content of the exam question it was suggested that academics were supporting “terrorist activities” and hiding behind “the cloak of freedom of expression”.

Since the newspaper article, Ünlü has received multiple threats on his life.

This is just one incident from many around the world that we have charted in a special report about to be published in Index on Censorship magazine, that show the variety of threats to the principle that academic life is about presenting, debating and reviewing different attitudes and evidence from a multitude of sources without fear of harm.

Another case that sends out chills was the report from academic Tatyana Malyarenko in Ukraine about how the fighting in her country has led to massive divisions between those working at universities. Special committees have been set up at universities in Ukraine to uncover “separatist” attitudes among those teaching on campuses. Reports, like those made to witch trials centuries ago, are being filed by students and other faculty to these attestation committees. Those named are being calling before committees for investigation, where lecturers can end up being denounced and losing their posts. When words like “patriotism” are flung around as weapons, then leaders of nations are drawing on the bluntest, and most pathetic, of instruments to keep their citizens in check.

Faint echoes of McCarthyism cannot be ignored when you hear of the details of these accusations and those called before such committees. Those infamous trials in the US during the 1950s have dark memories for a nation where first amendment rights are often touted as fundamental to their values, and where people self-censored their views.

But today the US is certainly not immune to placing limits on what academics and students can argue. Shockingly, certain US campuses have created small free speech zones, painted areas, often in remote parts of the universities, where people are allowed to speak about “controversial” subjects. Just there. Nowhere else.  What does that say about attitudes to learning and questioning? Most people outside the US are absolutely astounded to find out about these free speech zones. “Really? They can’t possibly exist, can they?” Yes, they can, and do. These zones are small, but significant, symbols of the limitations that are appearing in each part of the globe, ranging from the ridiculous to the downright frightening.

Painting a white line around a square and saying “here is where you can do your free thinking” does nothing but undermine the idea of academic excellence being about an inquiring mind and an ability to challenge preconceptions.

Meanwhile in the UK, academic freedom is also being challenged. Over the past couple of years, Index and others have also challenged “safe space” policies adopted by many UK universities. These policies have been used to ban speakers or debates that groups of students disapprove of.

Students are freed from the cotton wool when they head off to university; they are out of the clutches of mum and dad, and get to make their own choices. Quite rightly. But they are also, many for the first time, hearing people speaking about policies, politics and ideas they might have never heard before, and with which they might vehemently disagree with. But there’s nothing wrong with that. If you are sure that your position is right, then you lose nothing by hearing the counter arguments. It might help you work out how to win over the opposing side, or, it just might, convince you to change your point. Sure, there should be a chance to argue back. Yes, panels should carry a range of positions.  But when powers that be, and even students themselves, want to wrap up their world so they can’t hear opinions they don’t like or agree with, then they are doing themselves no favours.

Trigger warnings, where students are told that passages in textbooks might cause offence and no-platforming policies are being used to close off avenues of discovery and inquiry. Putting together this report has shown that the threats to academic thought are different in different regions. But all around the world, the freedom to think, study, teach and discuss is coming under threat from a variety of forces.

That’s why it was no surprise that around 70 academics and authors have signed an open letter of concern that is printed in the upcoming magazine.

The freedom to think, discuss and disagree should be central to every institution of education, and, sadly, that idea seems under debate.

Rachael Jolley is editor of the quarterly Index on Censorship magazine, which will publish its summer edition in mid-June. Index on Censorship's debate on academic freedom is on 1 July. It is called "Silenced on Campus". Details here.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue