Scholars Targeted in Turkey "War on Terror"

January 3, 2012

One particularly troubling aspect of Turkey’s own “War on Terror” is the way that it has targeted a wide range of individuals with no record of violence.  Virtually anyone critical of the government may be arrested.

A recent speech by Interior Minister, İdris Naim Şahin, made clear that terrorism includes “[writing] poems or short articles [which] demoralize the soldiers or police” and that terrorist cells can include “a university chair, an association, or a non-governmental organization” in “Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa, Germany, London, wherever…”

This rhetoric reflects an ugly reality: thousands of individuals have been arrested, with most held in lengthy pre-trial detentions.  Most are not accused of violence and none have the right to challenge evidence in advance of their trial.

Turkish scholars and students have been particularly hard hit.  The cases of world-renowned scholars like Büşra Ersanlı have garnered the most attention, but no university campus has been untouched.  Student Berna Yılmaz, for example, has been in custody for over twenty months for having opened up a placard in favor of free education during a campus visit by Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan.  Sadly, she is not alone.  It is estimated that five hundred or more university students are held in pre-trial detention in Turkey.

Internationally, professional associations and watchdog groups are sounding the alarm.  The Middle East Studies Association, for example, notes that these arrests are part of an “effort to silence scholars.”  Similar statements of concern have come from Nature, one of the premier journals in the life sciences, and PEN International.  In response to these events, scholars in France initiated the Groupe International de Travail to chronicle attacks on scholars and scholarship in Turkey.  Sister groups are developing worldwide, including a North American branch that was announced only this week, along with a new presence on facebook.

With all the attention being paid to Turkey’s newly assertive role in international politics, too little attention has been paid to its growing repression at home.  But the threat is real.  It will not go unchallenged.

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