For more than a century, one school of political science dominated the education of Turkey’s governing class — until the Erdogan regime set about destroying it.
‘The Era of People Like You Is Over’: How Turkey Purged Its Intellectuals
For more than a century, one school of political science dominated the education of Turkey’s governing class — until the Erdogan regime set about destroying it.
For more than a century, one school of political science dominated the education of Turkey’s governing class — until the Erdogan regime set about destroying it.Credit…
Above: Former members of the Ankara University faculty of political science, also known as Mulkiye, including Canberk Gurer, Ilhan Uzgel, Elcin Aktoprak and Kerem Altiparmak. Photographs by Emin Ozmen/Magnum, for The New York Times.
Ilhan Uzgel learned he had been fired while driving his Honda Civic from the village of Ayas to Ankara, after a visit to his ailing, elderly father. A little after midnight, one of his former research assistants called his cellphone. “Ilhan hocam,” the student said, using a Turkish honorific (“my teacher”) bestowed on educators. “Your name was on the list.”
When Uzgel returned to his Ankara apartment, his 4-year-old son was sleeping, but his wife, Elcin Aktoprak, was up waiting. She hadn’t wanted to call him herself with the news while he was driving. Now she comforted her husband — and then Uzgel comforted her, because Aktoprak, also a professor, told him that she had lost her job, too. They had been professors at Ankara University, on the faculty of its storied school of political science, widely known as Mulkiye.
Uzgel attended a provincial university in his home city, Bursa, before enrolling in Mulkiye to get a master’s degree and eventually his doctorate — an accomplishment for someone of his modest origins. In Turkey, to be a part of Mulkiye was to have a special status: to be both of the country and, in a way, superior to it. The joke went that for Mulkiyeliler, or Mulkiye alumni, it was “First Mulkiye, then Turkiye.” Uzgel, one of Turkey’s leading specialists in American-Turkish relations and the author or editor of books with grand titles like “National Interest and Foreign Policy,” proudly remained at Mulkiye for 30 years until Feb. 7, 2017, when he was fired. Some 6,000 of Turkey’s 150,000 academics would ultimately share his fate.
Many Turkish academics grew up hoping that they would one day see their country become a democracy. They studied sociology or philosophy; they specialized in conflict resolution, peace building, minority rights, things like the creation of civil society. They received their Ph.D.s in political science or history, expressly to participate in liberal-minded universities that would bring forth generations even more democratic than themselves. They had faith in things like good governance practices, a fair judicial system, a free press, human rights and women’s rights. There was a goal, and an understanding that you were either part of democratization or you weren’t. In Turkey, those who engaged in the creation of a democracy as a painful, step-by-step process constituted a small, passionate group, but they shared this experience with people all across the world, from Poland to Taiwan, with those who also lived in democratizing countries, who felt that their countries were on the upswing, getting better, whatever that meant.
An authoritarian state can do many things to get rid of these democratic types — put them in jail, put them on trial — but ultimately the government must attack the institutions that produce and sustain them. Newspapers can be easy to buy. NGOs are easy to shut down. Universities are much harder to dismantle.
But this is what, through the great purge, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his allies sought to do. Thousands of academics lost their jobs, and many lost their right to travel, their passports canceled. They would not be able to work at public or private universities again. Legal proceedings would be opened against them — and drag on to this day, leaving the fired in limbo. Many who were abroad would not return. They feared being quoted in the press or even speaking to journalists. Some were sentenced to prison. At least one committed suicide. Around 90 of the purged academics came from Ankara University, and 36 came from Mulkiye alone, raising suspicions that the 160-year-old faculty of political science had become a particular target.
In October 2017, months after the firings began, Mulkiye held a conference called “The One Hundredth Anniversary of the Russian Revolution: The Soviet Union, the Cold War and the International System.” Uzgel was the keynote speaker. In order to attend the conference, he had to be brought discreetly onto campus in a friend’s car.
In his speech, Uzgel, a small, soft-spoken man in his mid-50s with wispy, longish gray hair, spoke about recent events, particularly the failed military coup against Erdogan only 15 months earlier, as well as the previous successful military coups in Turkey’s history. “In 1980, when there was a military coup, the threat was the Soviet Union, and it was academics who paid the price,” he said. “In 2016, when there was a military coup, the threat was the United States, and still it was we who paid the price. The threat changes, but those who are fired stay the same. Academics pay the price.”
Uzgel’s voice began to crack. Almost every day since his 20s, he had taken the bus or driven his car to the university’s stately campus in Ankara’s busy, wide-laned central Cebeci neighborhood; entered through the imposing concrete gates surrounded by lush foliage, then passed through the doors to the early modernist structure that served as Mulkiye’s home; walked across the inner courtyard where young men and women smoked many cigarettes and fought about politics; and climbed the floating staircase, flanked by paintings and photographs of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to arrive at his office. His life’s work, his status in the country, had now been stolen from him.
As Uzgel pointed out in his speech, Turkey’s governments have often purged the country’s intellectuals, only for the nation to stumble slowly back toward some semblance of democracy. As the Turks proved again this past June, when they resoundingly elected an opposition candidate as mayor of Istanbul — after two decades of control by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P. — free elections in Turkey have always defied its authoritarian state system. Yet something about this era under Erdogan has still felt different, more lasting, as if the continuing existence of the A.K.P.’s repressive policies will permanently impair otherwise resilient, historic institutions. Mulkiye, after all, was more than just an academic faculty; it was the academic faculty that provided the Turkish state with its administrators and statesman, its legal experts and political historians. Those associated with Mulkiye not only understood how the Turkish state worked; they were, to some degree, the Turkish state.
Mulkiye was established in what was then called Constantinople during the Ottoman Empire to train civil servants and diplomats. Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, moved the school to the new capital city, Ankara, in the 1930s. This measure was both practical and symbolic: The decaying Ottoman Empire had given way to a rebellious new nation that required statesmen (like himself) who were dedicated to secularism, modernity and nationalism. Over time, Mulkiye would become not only a primary intellectual and political engine of the Turkish republic but also a center of dissent for Turks who wished to both uphold and transform it. Since Mulkiye’s founding during the Ottoman Empire as a school for diplomats and civil servants, it has been a central, stabilizing institution.Credit…From Archive of Faculty of Political Sciences
Many of the scholars engaged in creating Turkey’s early constitutions came from Mulkiye. The legislators tasked with building the young republic were able to do so in part because, even if their political backgrounds differed, they shared some of the same republican values. Foreign ministers, governors and ambassadors often came from Mulkiye, much as French politicians commonly come out of Sciences Po. Uzgel told me that it was generally known that you were less likely to attain a position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs unless you had a degree from Mulkiye.
It was at Mulkiye, in part, that the foundations of Turkey’s foreign policy were established. In reaction to devastating wartime experiences during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the new Turkish republic’s foreign policy would be one of caution, independence and self-defense, characterized by a reluctance to meddle in foreign wars and a general orientation toward the West but without deep allegiance to a single power. As Timur Kuran, a Turkish-American professor of economics and political science at Duke University, put it to me recently, “The members of Mulkiye helped to restrain the state and helped to prevent politicians in power from using foreign policy for momentary gain.”
This entwining of the government and Mulkiye intellectuals explains why they have so often been persecuted. In 1960, students so vociferously protested the changes being made to the country by Adnan Menderes, Turkey’s leader at the time, that the university was temporarily shut down. Even as Mulkiye continued to serve its function as a feeder department to the Turkish state, university campuses like Mulkiye’s came to be seen as inspiration for greater, nationwide political opposition. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, after two military coups, many leftist Mulkiye professors were purged and even thrown in jail. But even following these dramatic events, the very Mulkiye people who suffered would eventually go back to work for the government or return to teaching jobs. In 1971, for example, a Mulkiye dean named Mumtaz Soysal was accused of making Communist propaganda and sent to jail. “I heard he cleaned toilets in prison,” one former Mulkiye professor told me. Yet 20 years later, Soysal was Turkey’s foreign minister. Over time, several aspects of Mulkiye’s influence in the state bureaucracy were diminished, especially in the realm of local administration and finance. But even after so much trauma, Mulkiye — and particularly its prominence in foreign policy and the Turkish Foreign Ministry — survived.
In the 1980s, students like Ilhan Uzgel entered Mulkiye to work toward advanced degrees and stayed on as professors. By that time, a government-controlled institution called YOK, created to exert more centralized control over the universities, had been given purview over a suite of traditionally independent functions ranging from admissions testing to tenure decisions. The Mulkiye faculty split into right and left. The secularist-nationalists opposed some liberal reforms to the economy; they were critical of the Kurdish struggle and political Islam, and some were against joining the European Union. The leftists and liberals favored human rights (including for Kurds and Islamists), entry into the E.U. and broader democratization. In 1998, the Turkish military shut down the ruling Islamist political party and imposed further restrictions on political Islamists and other religious figures. Erdogan, then mayor of Istanbul, was sent to prison. By the 2000s, a more liberal-seeming, post-Islamist party led by Erdogan was ascendant. Many Mulkiye academics were so inclusive in their thinking as to have been sympathetic to Erdogan when he became prime minister in 2003.
Soon after, though, something began happening behind the scenes. “Mulkiye’s ties with Turkish bureaucracy began to be cut off around 2004,” Uzgel told me. “The A.K. Party just cut it off. Their own people began to dominate the bureaucracy system.”
“I grew up at Mulkiye,” Elcin Aktoprak was saying. “Inside the campus, there was a kind of freedom that didn’t exist in the rest of the country.” I met Aktoprak, Canberk Gurer and Kerem Altiparmak, all former Mulkiye academics, at their office at a European Union-funded human rights organization, which sits in a lovely central neighborhood in Ankara. They are in their 30s and 40s. Aktoprak has short, unfussy hair and the easy confidence of many female Turkish intellectuals. (She and Uzgel have divorced in the time since the purge.) She felt more comfortable at Mulkiye as a woman than in other parts of Turkey, as did many self-described feminists, gay students, Kurds and leftists.
But when those at Mulkiye talk about its freedom, they are primarily referring to the liberty to criticize — not only peers but also professors and deans, the people with authority. During Aktoprak’s tenure at Mulkiye, a certain radical spirit had been reignited there, mainly in response to the so-called Kurdish issue. During Turkey’s founding, Kurds had been victims of pogroms and categorized as “mountain Turks,” rather than ethnic Kurds, and were forced to speak Turkish; the Kurdish regions in the southeastern part of the country were neglected economically. In the 1970s, a new separatist-terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), was founded by Abdullah Ocalan — himself a former student at Mulkiye — to lobby for the right to embrace Kurdishness and also to fight for separation from the Turkish state. A vicious war erupted. Turkish military forces burned down villages and tortured and killed Kurds, and the P.K.K. attacked security forces and terrorized town squares.
There was — and still is — no issue in Turkey that galvanizes Turks and Kurds more than the war with the P.K.K. For many Turks, the idea of Kurdishness invalidates the central idea of the Turkish nation, which is that Turkey is a country for the Turks. In the political rhetoric of the Turkish state, to be pro-Kurdish is almost to be a terrorist yourself.
By the 2000s, the early years of Erdogan’s rule, the government began engaging in a “peace process” with the P.K.K. At the same time, Kurdish students continued to flood the universities, and many were attracted to Ankara University’s legacy as a place of protest. In particular, they entered into certain faculties — communication, education, law and political science (Mulkiye) — located on the same campus. Leftist and Kurdish and pro-Kurdish-rights students enjoyed a kind of freedom there almost singular in Turkish life, which is predominantly conservative, among both the religious and the secular. For conservative students, the Cebeci campus might have seemed like one in which pro-Kurdish students somehow had more power than themselves.
“More than half of the students might be nationalist or conservative,” Aktoprak said, “but the atmosphere was more leftist, giving leftist students the ability to express their views more than at any other universities, without banning other voices.” In this regard, there’s some resemblance to American universities like Berkeley and Columbia in the 1960s, but it’s important to remember that university campuses are some of the only places in Turkey where a young Kurdish leftist would be able to openly declare his politics.
The rector of Ankara University and the dean of Mulkiye also saw Mulkiye’s openness as crucial to the education of its students. An episode in 2009 shows how this commitment could play out. Mulkiye’s Human Rights Center held a conference, what it called “a public civil-society dialogue,” with representatives from the European Union. Cemil Cicek, deputy prime minister of Turkey — that is, deputy to Erdogan — asked to attend.
“We didn’t invite him, but we had to accept his participation,” said Kerem Altiparmak, who was head of the Human Rights Center at the time and is one of Turkey’s leading human rights lawyers. “But the night before the event, one of my students said, ‘Professor, I guess we will be protesting your event tomorrow.’ I said, O.K. I cannot decide on behalf of them. Peaceful protest is the right of students.”
The next day, those students arranged themselves in plush blue seats throughout a large, auditorium-style Mulkiye lecture hall, all of them facing a dais flanked by Mulkiye insignia and photos of Ataturk. Among the attendees were the rector of Ankara University and a Mulkiye dean. Cicek rose to speak behind a wooden lectern.
And then the students, one by one, stood up to interrupt him.
“Can I please ask something?” one young man said, his hand raised. “In this country, people like Engin Ceber” — a human rights activist — “are taken into custody and killed by torture.” He went on: “In this kind of country, as the deputy prime minister, I don’t believe you have much to tell us.”
“With these speeches and this applause, you have used your rights in the name of democracy,” Cicek said over the cries. “If it’s O.K. with you, I will now exercise my right —”
“Dear minister,” another young man broke in, standing up. “This democracy and human rights forum is happening with a police blockade around it. Can you explain why?”
Cicek kept talking. The young man kept talking, too. The applause grew louder.
“It’s true that I came here knowing this may happen —” Cicek said.
“Then how dare you come here!” one man yelled. “If you knew that, why did you come?”
“There is no place for Cemil Cicek in this school!” another young man yelled, and the crowd cheered. “There is no place for people like you in a university! You have no right to speak here! You’re not here to talk about human rights!”
At that point, the minister’s security guards tried to stop this man from speaking.
“Is this democracy? You have 50 men trying to take me out of here!”
Cicek decided to leave. The rector of the university and the Mulkiye dean politely escorted him as he exited the lecture hall.
But that was it. No student was punished. No investigations followed. Academic life in Turkey has long included places like Mulkiye, where teenagers and 20-somethings learned to stand up in a crowded lecture hall and directly challenge one of the most powerful politicians in the country. A wall at Mulkiye. Enormous transformations in Turkey’s foreign policy right now may be related to the sidelining of some traditional voices, including ones from Mulkiye.Credit…Emin Ozmen/Magnum, for The New York Times
Around the early 2000s, Mulkiye professors began noticing unfamiliar and suspicious developments. Government apparatchiks at state agencies started rejecting applications for research projects that would have normally been accepted. For instance, in 2009, Uzgel applied for a grant to do research in Washington on the relationship between Turkey, the United States and northern Iraq. He applied to George Washington University and to Tubitak, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey. His application was accepted by George Washington but not by Tubitak, something that rarely happens in Turkish academic life. The attitude at these agencies, the professors said, was that because religious or conservative A.K.P. supporters had felt for decades that they had been shut out of elite academia, now it was their turn to have advantages in academia. They sometimes even said that directly to people, Uzgel heard from other academics. “It’s our turn.”
In 2012, Erkan Ibis became rector of Ankara University. Ibis projected a secular lifestyle, and the professors observed that his wife didn’t wear a head scarf. He didn’t seem like a sycophantic A.K.P. type. But by this point, Turks were beginning to grasp that to remain in powerful state positions, they would have to toe the line. Those who once drank alcohol, for example, might now make a point of drinking water. University rectors who once allowed protests on campus might make a point of banning them.
That fall, Ibis invited an unexpected luminary to speak at the school’s opening-day ceremony: Prime Minister Erdogan. While Erdogan often attended the opening-day ceremonies at universities close to his government, to do so at Ankara University was unusual. A group of professors within Mulkiye decided to conduct a separate opening-day ceremony for their faculty, at exactly the same time as Erdogan’s speech. They called their gathering “Freedom of Expression and the Universities” and invited speakers like Ismail Besikci, a writer and sociologist who had been imprisoned for 17 years on charges of advocating separatism. When the rector learned of the parallel ceremony, he asked a Mulkiye dean at the time, Yalcin Karatepe, to cancel it. Don’t do it on the same day, Ibis suggested; then: Don’t do it at the same hour. (Ibis disputes this claim.)
“But I refused to cancel,” Karatepe told me later. “This faculty has survived six sultans, 11 presidents, countless prime ministers. Erdogan was just another one, and this time will pass. This institution has a tradition of speaking out, and we who are here now must continue the tradition.” Mulkiye’s ceremony was held in the end.
The faculty’s relationship with Ankara University’s rector deteriorated, especially after the events of the following summer, in 2013. That’s when the Gezi Park protests, which began in Istanbul in reaction to the planned destruction of a park, quickly spread to Ankara and across the country, as a rejection of the A.K.P. government. It would be hard to overstate how terrifying the Gezi protests must have seemed for Erdogan. Gezi brought even the most apolitical students out into the streets. Middle-aged people joined them, too. “Normally those families would stop their kids, but they went out together; that was something quite new in Turkey,” Uzgel told me. Istanbul’s Gezi Park, where protesters were attacked and violently removed in 2013. Their opposition to an urban-development plan led to demonstrations throughout Turkey.Credit…Emin Ozmen/Magnum Photos
Eventually police officers cleared Gezi Park of the protesters. Erdogan was elected president for the first time a year later in 2014. “Erdogan began his ‘one-man-ification’ of the country after Gezi,” Gurer said. “And our rector began his ‘one-man-ification’ of the university as well.”
At the same time, the Gezi Park protests led to the popularity of a new political party, H.D.P., headed by the Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas, who was magnetic, funny and handsome. Demirtas strove to make his party open to all Turks and more independent than its predecessor parties, which had ties to the P.K.K. He urged peace with the Turkish state. His popularity soared. Erdogan seemed to feel threatened by the emergence of a politician more charismatic than he was. Soon after, he did what countless Turkish politicians before him did to win votes: He helped reignite a war in the southeast against the P.K.K., which for its part engaged enthusiastically. Antiwar protests erupted on Mulkiye’s campus throughout 2014 and 2015.
Such demonstrations were to be expected of Mulkiye students — but now Ibis, the new rector, took a very different attitude toward them. According to a report produced by Baris Unlu and Ozlem Albayrak, former Mulkiye professors, 626 Ankara University students in 2015, 758 in 2016 and 815 in 2017 “were given disciplinary action.” The rector opened two investigations into Yalcin Karatepe — the same dean who allowed the alternate opening-day ceremony — including one for leaving his post without permission. (According to Turkish law, a civil servant must notify an employer of travel plans, but this is rarely enforced.)
In an email, Ibis said: “If a crime is committed, you have to follow the essential legal process. Otherwise you would be taking part in a crime or working with the criminal.” He also said that during this period he believed that a “group of students had not been letting those who didn’t share the same background as themselves, or hold the same political views, enter campus and thus go to classes and tests, and that some of the academic staff had supported these activities.”
Pro-government media began signaling to state authorities which political actors in Turkish life should be investigated or condemned for various infractions — a sinister trend that extended to journalists, politicians, academics and students. The newspapers Yeni Akit, Habervaktim and Vahdet hounded Mulkiye, calling the people there “enemies of Islam,” “gay lovers” and “bastards.” When Mulkiye’s Human Rights Center screened Lars von Trier’s film “Nymphomaniac” in the name of freedom of expression — the film had been banned in Turkey — critics referred to both the department and the film as sapkin, or “perverted.” This kind of invective reached a fever pitch when it came time for Mulkiye’s Inek Bayrami, or Cow Festival, a longstanding Mulkiye spring tradition in which for two days students are encouraged to criticize their professors in a public forum. (It’s essentially a roast.) One of the Cow Festival rites is the selection of an “imam” to initiate the proceedings, which include a mock opening prayer. The festival was repeatedly attacked by pro-government trolls online, and the 2017 festival was canceled by the administration. The student who played the imam in 2016 was charged with insulting religion.
“Yeni Akit always said we protected L.G.B.T. students, pro-Kurdish or so-called terrorist students,” Aktoprak said. “But we only defended their rights. We were trying to protect our students from the attacks from security forces. We experienced early what everyone in Turkey is experiencing now — that even if you just support something, they label you a terrorist.”
And once you are labeled a terrorist in Turkey — where the antiterror laws are elastic — your life is more or less over. Mulkiye professors defined this entire period, the Erkan Ibis era, as “mobbing,” or an attempt to force people out of their workplace through intimidation. During Mulkiye’s Inek Bayrami, or Cow Festival, a student traditionally dressed up as an “imam.”Credit…From Archive of Faculty of Political Sciences
In early 2016, some academics circulated a petition supporting a peaceful resolution to the government’s war with the P.K.K. They called themselves Academics for Peace and titled their petition “We Will Not Be Party to This Crime!” In Turkish academia, such petitions were normal, even banal, and when the academics urged their colleagues to sign it, many did so reflexively, more than 2,000 in Turkey.
Professors from Mulkiye signed the petition not only out of solidarity but also because many of them were engaged in exposing the undemocratic lie at the heart of the Turkish republic — the fact that Turkey was founded as a nation of Turks only, when millions of its people were not Turks at all but Kurds.
The language of the petition would someday haunt its signers:
“As academics and researchers of this country, we will not be party to this crime! … This deliberate and planned massacre is in serious violation of Turkey’s own laws and international treaties to which Turkey is a party. … We demand the state to abandon its deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples in the region. … For this purpose we demand that independent national and international observers be given access to the region and that they be allowed to monitor and report on the incidents.”
Soon after it was released, Erdogan, himself a rhetorical master of sorts, homed in on the petition’s language, in part because it seemed to suggest that he was guilty of an international crime. He responded by declaring in a speech that the academics were guilty of a national one:
“The old Turkey, run by a handful of lumpen, who call themselves intellectuals and academics, doesn’t exist anymore. These lumpen circles have shown once again their true faces. With this declaration, they have shown the terror propaganda directly, which they have been conducting for years indirectly. … Do you favor the unity and solidarity of Turkey or not? If you favor the unity of the country, why do you speak in the jargon of the terror organization, which makes our citizens’ lives miserable and attacks our security forces? This is called terror propaganda.”
Across the country, academics were vilified, threatened and even arrested. According to Unlu and Albayrak’s report, Ankara University immediately opened an investigation into the academics who signed the petition. (Ibis said this was done at the request of YOK.) Around the same time, two professors, Unlu and Gokcen Alpkaya, came under attack for questions they included in their exams. Unlu had asked about Abdullah Ocalan; Alpkaya had asked about the Academics for Peace petition. A legal case brought against Unlu accused him of inciting terror. The mobbing had intensified.
Ilhan Uzgel found the atmosphere so stressful and worrisome that he took a sabbatical at SOAS, in London. Before he left, the rector was discussing with professors the option of withdrawing their signature from the petition. “I said, No, I cannot do it,” Uzgel said. Among other reasons: “My assistant signed that petition. I couldn’t do that to him.”
While Uzgel was away in London, there was another attempted military coup in Turkey. Near Istanbul’s Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge during clashes with military forces in 2016, following a coup attempt.Credit…Gurcan Ozturk/AFP/Getty Images
In response to the failed coup in 2016, Erdogan purged the state’s ministries, its police force, the military, the secondary schools, hospitals, unions, newspapers and nonprofit organizations — some 150,000 people in total. Many of the denounced were accused members of the Gulen movement, whom the government associated with the coup plot. But soon Erdogan turned on Kurds and leftists, including, of course, academics.
In September 2016, along with thousands of other Turks, 21 members of the teaching staff were fired from Ankara University, including some half dozen assistants from Mulkiye. The academics at Mulkiye, Aktoprak noted, were very agitated. “Everyone, including the lawyers, started telling us what we should do,” she said. “Like, who will be the contact person for your family if you are taken into custody? What’s in your messages? What’s at your house? We all started wondering what it could be.”
She looked at Gurer, sitting across from her. “Did you throw anything out?”
“Magazines,” he said. “I got rid of my computer, my phone. I erased all of my WhatsApp.”
The next month, in October, some of their colleagues were refused the right to leave the country.
“We realized some of these people who couldn’t go abroad didn’t have a case opened against them,” Aktoprak said. “For example, one of our university colleagues was going to go to Japan, and at the gate at the airport she learned she couldn’t go. We think that the rector had sent a list to the state security forces that said, These people could be connected to terror.” (Ibis denies giving this type of information to state security forces.)
Three months later, on Jan. 6, 2017, the purge struck Mulkiye again. The professors Faruk Alpkaya and Ozlem Albayrak were fired, along with professors from other faculties at the school.
The remaining professors checked Resmi Gazete, the government’s official online bulletin, every day. Will I be fired today? they wondered, or will I be fired tomorrow? For a month, it was all the petition signers talked about. They knew that those already purged had lost access to certain online university systems. They checked obsessively to see if they, too, had lost access, as if this would be the tell of their impending doom. “OSYM, the national testing center that organizes university entrance exams, blocked me on Twitter,” Gurer said. “This was one month before I was fired.”
“It was terrible,” Aktoprak said, laughing a little. “You would say to yourself, If a bird takes off, does it mean I’m being fired?”
For this reason, Aktoprak and Gurer were almost relieved when finally, on Feb. 7, 2017, they, along with 27 other academics, lost their jobs. It was one of the last big spates of firings, and again the campus erupted in protests. The police responded with tear gas. Soon after, fired professors who tried to enter Mulkiye were turned away. “I’m sorry, hocam,” the security guards would say. “You are one of the fired.”
Aktoprak found that experience so painful — to suddenly find yourself barred from a place you had found refuge every day for your entire adult life — that she never returned. Academics at Ankara University laid down their gowns during a protest in February 2017, in opposition to the mass dismissal of professors that followed a government decree.Credit…Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images
The Mulkiye that remained was no longer recognizable to those who once worked there. The walls, which had always been covered with leftist posters, are now sparsely adorned with Turkish flags. The Human Rights Center was closed. (The rector has since reopened it under his control.) Certain subjects are now rarely taught — Foucault, say, or queer theory. Master’s and doctoral courses have been canceled, leaving graduate students suddenly without an adviser. The film society, where students and professors used to drink wine and watch movies together, has been shut down, and the showing of films, according to academics who have been purged, has been banned entirely.
“Mulkiye always used to mean criticism,” Aktoprak said. “And it can’t mean that anymore.”
The academics left at Mulkiye were shouldering an unimaginable course load, slinging enormous sacks of papers and tests over their backs to grade at night. One of the people who remained was Kerem Altiparmak. He is currently part of a group of lawyers representing about 100 Turks at the European Court of Human Rights and Turkish criminal courts who were targeted by the post-coup purge. He was not fired from Mulkiye, but he resigned last year. He no longer felt that the conditions for conducting an academic life existed there. Altiparmak found himself investigated for holding academic discussions on Turkey’s post-coup state of emergency laws. “The university sent a letter to all academics and forced them to sign it, in which the rector warned not to cross lines in the curriculum,” Altiparmak said. “It said, We receive complaints from our students that teachers are discussing subjects irrelevant to the curriculum, and I am warning you not to do this.”
The universities had also empowered the more conservative students to submit complaints about their professors through something called the Communications Center of the Presidency, or Cimer. “They say things like, ‘You are now telling your Marxist opinions to us,’ ” Altiparmak said. “Some don’t want to hear other perspectives. This will affect all culture of Turkey because these are the people going into the state bureaucracy.”
Similar disruptions have occurred in the Foreign Ministry as well. Selim Sazak, a Turkish Ph.D. candidate at Brown University and writer on foreign affairs, has said that an A.K.P. apparatchik discouraged him from aspiring to a big career in the foreign service, saying, “The era of people like you” — non-A.K.P.-affiliated, prep-school-educated — “is over.” In fact, it’s not a stretch to suggest that the enormous transformations in Turkey’s foreign policy right now — its engagement in the wars in Syria and Iraq, its steep increases in military spending and its distancing from the West — can be connected to the sidelining of some traditional voices, including ones from Mulkiye.
“There was still an expectance of Mulkiye as a fundamental institution of the republic,” Timur Kuran of Duke University says. “Before, no one sought to eliminate it or remove the checks and balances in the political system that came from Mulkiye. In the present case, there is an effort to remove not only Mulkiye’s supervisory role but all checks and balances.”
“Mulkiye-trained people tended to be much more cautious in foreign policy,” Kuran says. “Keeping the country at peace was their fundamental goal. Right now, Erdogan is taking huge risks. All checks and balances in foreign policy are disappearing, and even to raise questions about the adventures that Turkey is now getting into is to risk persecution as a traitor.”
Not surprisingly, this atmosphere has prompted a brain drain — thousands of Turkish academics, in the social sciences as well as the sciences, have left the country. Even the government has acknowledged that the departures represent a full-blown crisis. Recently, the minister of industry and technology, Mustafa Varank, promised academics abroad a monthly salary of 24,000 lira (about $4,200) if they came to Turkey.
Many students told newspapers they would not return to a country where they felt academics were rewarded on ideological grounds or for connections rather than merit, or where they wouldn’t be able to work on any subjects that countered the official state line. As a former professor who has remained put it to me: “There is no point in carrying on as if nothing changed. If there’s no more university life, why should I be in the university anymore?”
Elcin Aktoprak and others did receive a grant from the European Union to do research and build pilot programs for online “human rights ateliers.” Many fired professors established alternative education centers in the wake of the purge, which were called “solidarity academies,” and where you could go to learn about politics in peace.
“The one silver lining to all this,” Aktoprak said, “was that maybe we can sustain an intellectual community on our own this way and return to public life in better days.”
For everyone, though, there is still the prospect of prison. According to Academics for Peace, more than 2,000 hearings have been held for the peace petitioners, and none have resulted in acquittals. In most cases decided so far, academics receive a 15-month suspended jail sentence, but some 30 of them have not been given suspension of judgment, and one professor, Fusun Ustel, is currently in jail. Another signatory, Tuna Altinel, is in prison on charges from a different case. Ilhan Uzgel at home. “The first thing these kinds of ideological movements target are people and institutions that produce knowledge,” he said.Credit…Emin Ozmen/Magnum, for The New York Times
Ilhan Uzgel spends most of his days working on his laptop at a Starbucks in an Ankara mall. After he was fired, he looked into jobs at private universities — which are not barred from hiring fired professors, technically — but they are all too scared to hire the purged. This was a common claim among purged professors. In at least one way, Uzgel was one of the lucky ones: He was old enough to retire and receive his pension.
The loss of people like Uzgel, and as a result the loss of their analytical expertise, is an enormous loss for Turkish society. The people best able to analyze for me what was happening in Turkey in 2019 — its political scientists — were the ones being erased by what was happening in 2019. With them goes not only history itself but also nuance and complexity and fairness.
As someone who has studied Turkey’s political history, Uzgel acknowledged that his fate was not entirely unusual. The tradition of purging preceded the founding of Turkey, and it continued throughout modern Turkish history. Purging was not an anomaly but rather integral to that history.
“The first thing these kinds of ideological movements target are people and institutions that produce knowledge,” Uzgel said. “They have to clear those areas in order to establish their own power. Because they represent the only dissenting forces in a society. The business class does not speak up against the government. Civil society is already weak in Turkey. Universities with strong traditions are critical because they recruit younger generations. You have to break institutions. Authoritarian regimes don’t necessarily send everyone to jail.”
But if the authoritarian regime lasts long enough, it can succeed in suppressing even relatively uncritical voices. Most of the Mulkiye professors did not believe that Erdogan wanted an Islamic state or a fascist one. What the A.K.P. seems to propose for Turkey’s future is a country without character — a country that can believe itself to be free as long as it does not adopt an identity that threatens the A.K.P. Institutions like Mulkiye had been one thing above all: independent in spirit and principle. Such institutions cannot exist in Erdogan’s Turkey for many, many reasons, one of which is simply that they are too distinct.
Individuals, too, can become less distinct. They become fuzzy. Their voices fade. They lose their place in society, so much so that when they discover themselves again, the sweetness of it takes them by surprise. One of the many professors I interviewed was Faruk Alpkaya. Alpkaya talked about Turkish history. He was an academic — that was his job. But after 20 years of being a professor, he, like Uzgel and thousands of others, has spent the last two and a half years as a nonentity in official Turkish life. Alpkaya spoke in bursts for 10 minutes at a time, then apologized as if he had surprised himself, using a verb tense in Turkish that can imply the discovery of something previously unknown.
“I’m sorry,” he would say. “I must miss speaking.”
Suzy Hansen is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of “Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World,” which was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. She has been living in Istanbul for over 10 years and previously wrote about the Turkish government’s crackdown on journalists, Kurds, leftists, dissidents, activists and academics.