Academic faces criminal complaint due to Ph.D. thesis on authoritarianism in Turkey

A criminal complaint has been filed against a Turkish academic over the content of his Ph.D. thesis on the subject of rising authoritarianism in Turkey, Turkish Minute reported, citing the Sözcü daily.

Mehmet Baki Deniz, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis in the field of sociology at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton, is facing charges of insulting the president and terrorism in Turkey due to the content of his thesis.

In his 250-page thesis, which was approved by the jury at SUNY in 2019, Deniz examined the relationship between the owners of capital and politics in Turkey. His thesis, titled, “Who Rules Erdogan’s Turkey? Business Power and the Rise of an Authoritarian Populist,” earned him a doctorate.

When Deniz sought to continue his academic studies in Turkey, he applied to the Inter-university Board (ÜAK) to have his Ph.D. officially recognized by Turkey.

The dissertations of holders of Ph.D. degrees awarded by universities abroad are by law required to pass the board’s review for their degrees to be valid in Turkey.

Although it normally takes three or four months for the ÜAK to process the recognition of foreign diplomas, the board made Deniz wait for 14 months before notifying him that his Ph.D. would not be recognized due to its content.

The academic challenged the board’s decision and sought an injunction at the Council of State, claiming that it violates Article 130 of the Turkish Constitution, which stipulates that “Universities, members of the teaching staff and their assistants may freely engage in all kinds of scientific research and publication.”

In its defense submitted to the Council of State, the ÜAK said Deniz’s Ph.D. thesis was rejected because it argued that Turkey has had a more authoritarian rule under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and that the government’s relationship with the owners of capital had an effect on the rising authoritarianism in the country.

The ÜAK subsequently filed a criminal complaint against the academic in May 2021. Deniz’s trial has yet to take place.

Although academic freedom is guaranteed in Turkey’s constitution, academics frequently face legal action or harassment due to their academic work or for simply expressing their views about a problem in the country.

Many of the signatories were fired, sentenced to prison or subjected to overseas travel bans when 1,128 academics who referred to themselves as the “Peace Academics” signed a declaration in early 2016 calling on the government to halt operations by security forces in southeastern Turkey, restore peace to the country and return to the negotiating table to restart shelved talks to find a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue.

The Kurdish issue, a term prevalent in Turkey’s public discourse, refers to the demand for equal rights by the country’s Kurdish population and their struggle for recognition.

In a move that curbed academic freedoms in the country further, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in October 2016 canceled the intra-university elections that used to be held to elect university rectors. That position is now directly filled by the president.

Erdoğan insisted that the abolition of the election system would be beneficial for the country although the move attracted widespread criticism in that it will eliminate the autonomy of universities.

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