Int’l political psychologists: Turkish example shows how authoritarians rise and institutions fail in a democracy

The Turkish government’s crackdown on critics of the government may be a harbinger of things to come in currently democratic nations as authoritarianism is on the rise across the world, three international political psychologists wrote in USA Today on Thursday.

David Redlawsk, chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of Delaware and president-elect of the International Society of Political Psychology; Masi Noor, Lecturer of Psychology at Keele University in England, serves on the Governing Council of the International Society of Political Psychology; and Stephen Reicher, the Wardlaw Professor of Social Psychology and former Head of the School of Psychology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, visited İstanbul to attend the trial of one of more than 1,128 academics charged with terrorist offences after signing a peace petition in January 2016 calling on the Turkish government to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Kurdish rebels.

Saying that their Turkish colleagues had done nothing more than they might have done in expressing disagreement with their government’s policies by stating the government was wrong to escalate the use of violence against the Kurds, the authors wrote that “For Erdoğan however, these academics represent a threat to his government, and the response has been aggressive. At universities feeling the pressure, there have been mass firings in violation of academic freedom. Many of those purged have been barred from any work, with passports canceled as well. For hundreds of scholars the stakes are even greater, as they now face criminal charges for the simple act of signing a petition.”

“Those with whom we met represent what had been a flowering of academic political psychology in Turkey. Our experience was deeply moving and deeply disturbing,” said the academicians have summarised a case o defendant that they witnessed in the courtroom: “We had come to the courtroom to support the next defendant in the dock, a young academic psychologist. She had been indicted after signing the petition. Her signature is the only evidence against her. But the specific charges were not confirmed until her initial hearing, the one we were there to witness. Once informed she would be tried for supporting terrorists, she was given only three weeks to prepare her defense. She will be back in court Friday. If found guilty, she faces over seven years in prison. For signing a petition.”

“Some of those purged are Ph.D. students, just starting out. One we met had lost his Ph.D. scholarship and was forced to sell his personal goods to survive. Another colleague lost access to all social services when she was barred from her university, including health care for her child. The collateral damage of the Turkish government’s actions extends to the families and friends of those under siege,” they wrote.

“The Turkish government’s agenda is clear: Deprive critics of their livelihood. Deprive them of solidarity with peers by trying them individually. Ensure that they remain on edge, uncertain as to what will happen next. And deprive them of their personhood. As academics, our professional identity defines us most prominently; it is who we are. Removal of this identity by force creates a sense of meaninglessness in their lives, as well as trapping people in poverty, unable to care for their loved ones,” wrote the three academics.

Events in Turkey also demonstrate what can happen when political leaders demonise their critics, say the psychologists and added that “Authoritarians fear the power of ideas, and so they attack, attempting to make critics into pariahs. Their attacks start off as verbal, attempting to silence through contempt. Critics become enemies and reprobates. Terrorists and filth. Next, jobs are taken away, freedom curtailed. All in the name of ‘protecting the state.’ Perhaps this can happen in any democracy, as authoritarians rise and institutions fail.”

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