Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
Over the last two decades, Turkey’s universities have witnessed stunning changes ⎯ changes in which one can see contour lines of the political regime the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has gradually built. While universities have been in the grip of market-led structural reforms along with global trends since the mid-1990s, AKP’s devastating interventions into the field of higher education, after 2002, have further undermined academic freedoms, intellectual creativity and cultural vibrancy students and academics have long fought for.
Despite the double straitjacket of neoliberal authoritarianism, however, antagonistic voices have not vanished, and in fact cyclically resurfaced, as is the case with the recent protest campaign at Boğaziçi University. Since the first days of 2021, a handful of faculty members and students have demonstrated their disapproval of the appointment of an outside rector by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Given the shocking nature of events marking the political scene in Turkey at least since the coup attempt of 2016, a governmental measure that recklessly overlooks academic merits and institutional conventions would not be a surprise to anyone. What is more compelling however is that this modest act of resistance has been a common platform for sustained complaints of various kinds ranging from academic freedoms to LGBTQ rights, and revealed the tenacity of social opposition despite the longstanding and ubiquitous repression of freedom of speech, right to assembly, and political organizing.
Often described as Turkey’s most prestigious university, Boğaziçi University has a well-deserved reputation for intellectual independence. Being the first university that has paved the way for the easing of political and bureaucratic constraints imposed by the Higher Education Council in the wake of the 1980 coup d’état, it has been relatively free of top-down interference and has become a bastion of open-minded, critical academic community in Turkey. Hence, a presidential decree issued in the middle of night on January 1, 2021, appointing Melih Bulu, an academic that stood as an AKP parliamentary candidate in 2015, as the rector, arose a widespread opposition. Boğaziçi University has a longstanding tradition of selecting its administrative cadres from within the faculty members through extensive deliberations at various scales ranging from departments to the university senate. The reduction of all these well-established mechanisms and time-honored settlements for an appointee whose academic credentials are highly suspicious in the eyes of protesters sparked an ongoing wave of demonstrations.
The discontent was initially born out of a particular debate regarding an administrative decision but has immediately gone beyond its immediate boundaries and targeted the overall disintegration of democratic norms in the country. Organizing forums and sit-ins at the campus, students began protests on January 4. Police carried out widely televised home raids in response, and detained students so as to cater a sense of deterrence. The next day, faculty members silently protested the appointment and the police violence by turning their backs on Melih Bulu’s office. This symbolic act, inspired by the phenomenal public performance of the Standing Man who protested the forceful eviction of the Gezi Park by the police, after fifteen days-long occupation of the city center, in June 2013, continued until today. Moreover, students, despite the arbitrary use of pandemic restrictions, arranged daily gatherings, festivals, public exhibitions at campus premises, organized mass rallies in a central square of the city in order to come together with students from other universities, and held online symposia to breed international awareness and solidarity.
In the face of the flaring up of demonstrations by students that have managed to garner public support and approval, the government has responded heavy-handedly by terrorizing the peaceful events and stigmatizing students and academics.
The way in which the government pictures the protests is a perfect example of its authoritarian populist orientation. Accordingly, faculty members have been publicly denounced as elites alienated from moral values of the nation writ large, and been accused of obstructing the fulfillment of its will. Pursuing a majoritarian conception of democracy that regards the elected government as the sole embodiment of the popular will, pro-government media have insistently underlined ‘undemocratic’ and ‘elitist’ thrust of academics’ objections. Such a distortion of the truth along with the vocabulary of right-wing authoritarian political movements, which have mushroomed all around the globe in the last decades, has been reinforced by much more manifest marginalization of some faculty members as public enemies. Listed as supporters of terrorist organizations, foreign intelligence services or ‘immoral currents’ such as feminism and LGBTQ movement, academics were deemed as ‘ungrateful’ and ‘infidel’ ⎯ tropes that have been repetitively used by the government for the signatories –publicly known as ‘peace academics’– of a petition protesting the state’s atrocities in Kurdish populated cities during the urban warfare of 2015, and calling for the resumption of negotiations between the government and the Kurdish movement.
Symbolic violence targeting students was nothing short of physical abuse they faced. Along with pointed and ungrounded detentions, and recurring allegations of breaking the public order, governmental authorities from President Erdoğan to Süleyman Soylu, Interior Minister who has lately cultivated an image as a hardliner, have mobilized a discourse that both defames and infantilizes students. Translating willingly a political debate into a cultural one, they have depicted protestors as purveyors of western ideologies such as feminism and LGBTQ rights, which are considered as alien to native moral norms, and used slurs like ‘LGBTQ perverts’ to criminalize ordinary acts such as carrying a rainbow flag. Cognizant of the fact that previous attempts at denouncing political adversaries through waging a culture war (kulturkampf) have proven successful, they sought to belittle protestors’ plain demands by labeling them as agents of chaos and animosity ⎯ a Cold War narrative the right-leaning currents in Turkey has developed and employed often to account for various waves of student movement from the 1960s to today.
Notwithstanding the severity of repression and shattering consequences of President Erdoğan’s expansive power, what is more impressive about the Boğaziçi University resistance and contemporary social movements in Turkey in general is the resilience and perseverance they exhibit. Considering Turkey’s action-packed public agenda swamped with social unrest exacerbated by the pandemic, economic crisis, polarization and political scandals, such a minor intervention of the government and its repercussions might seem insignificant. However, besides revealing the cornerstones of Turkey’s rising authoritarianism, Boğaziçi Resistance has proven that the oppositional undercurrent that resurfaced during the massive Gezi protests still exists even after successive turbulences we all have experienced. Such acts of resistance might not lead to immediate changes in Turkey’s political establishment, yet they are unquestionably permeated with a sense of solidarity and creativity on which potential recovery from damages of the last two decades would be based in the long run.