Turkey’s own record of freedoms questioned amid Gaza-related criticism of US: report

In this file photo, Boğaziçi University faculty members hold small placards showing the number of students detained during protests. The staff have also been protesting the appointment of a pro-government rector to the university by standing with their backs turned to the rector’s office in February 2021.

Criticism expressed by university administrators in Turkey, where academic freedom and freedom of speech have sharply declined in the past decade, regarding the state of freedoms in the US due to recent attempts to suppress Gaza protests on college campuses has been called hypocritical, bringing Turkey’s own record into question, Turkish Minute reported.

Protests calling for universities to cut ties with companies helping Israel’s war in Gaza and, in some cases, with Israel itself, have swept college campuses across the US. There have been nearly 550 arrests in the past week at major US universities, including the University of Southern California, Emory University and Emerson College, according to a tally by Reuters.

The administrations of a number of Turkish universities expressed criticism of the attempts to suppress the protests on the US campuses. Their reactions were found hypocritical by many in Turkey, who accused them of complicity in rights violations and unlawfulness at their own universities.

“Turkey’s university administrations’ supportive messages for student protests in the US are nothing but hypocrisy. You should just keep quiet,” columnist Ali Yaycıoğlu said in a tweet, posting photos of police violence targeting protestors at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) between 2019 and 2023.

Journalist İrfan Aktan said that it’s “impossible” to understand how those who supported what has been done to the Peace Academics in Turkey now have the nerve to speak out against the detention of US academics involved in the protests.

A total of 1,128 academics and other intellectuals calling themselves “Academics for Peace” signed a petition in 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, which refers to the demand for equal rights by the country’s Kurdish population and their struggle for recognition.

The move attracted widespread criticism from the government. Many of the signatories were fired, sentenced to prison or subjected to overseas travel bans.

Posting a video of the arrest of Noelle McAfee, chair of the philosophy department at Emory University for attending Gaza protests, veteran Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar said: “Sheer disgrace. Reminiscent of what was being done, in many ways, to Turkish academia over the past years.”

One of the rectors who was accused of hypocrisy for expressing concerns about the state of freedoms in the US was Naci İnci, the rector of İstanbul-based Boğaziçi University, whose appointment by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan despite a 95 percent disapproval rating prompted outrage among academics and students and led to protests that have been continuing since 2021.

“Irony just died a thousand deaths. Boğaziçi University’s Erdoğan-appointed rector who invited police and security forces onto the campus to detain protesting students, [and] arbitrarily dismissed professors and deans is ‘saddened’ by the state of academic freedom on US campuses,” Gönül Tol of the Middle East Institute in Washington said on X.

Nick Ashdown, a Canadian journalist who mainly covers Turkey, quoted İnci’s criticism on X, adding, “Says the government-appointed (despite a 95 percent vote of no confidence) head of Turkey’s foremost university, where student protesters have been arrested and professors have been holding a protest vigil every day for 1208 days.”

Journalist Baydar also said that İnci should be “the last guy on the face of the earth to utter a single word” about what takes place at US universities since he is responsible for “demolishing a gem of an academia institution to a rubble” and is the symbol of “sheer oppression and cynicism.”

A prolonged series of protests took place at Boğaziçi University after Erdoğan appointed Professor Melih Bulu, a founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Sarıyer district branch and former deputy chairman of the AKP’s İstanbul provincial chapter, as rector in January 2021.

Shortly after Bulu’s dismissal by a presidential decree in July 2021, the university community demanded that a democratic election be held at the university to elect a new rector since they opposed the appointment of rectors by Erdoğan.

However, Erdoğan on August 20 appointed İnci, a former deputy to Bulu, as the new rector.

University staff members have been standing with their backs turned to the rectorate building every day in protest of the presidentially appointed rectors.

Erdoğan is accused by critics of trying to eliminate academic freedom in the country by appointing figures close to his government as university rectors, dismissing academics who criticize his policies and replacing them with pro-government figures.

According to a recent update to an index drafted by German and Swedish scholars, academic freedom in Turkey has sharply declined in the past 15 years, putting the country in 164th place among 179 countries as of December 2023.

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