The Criminalization of Critique in Erdogan’s Totalitarian Turkey

As Western leaders continue to yield to his hounding politics, Erdogan has become only more violent in his suppression of dissent within Turkey. In true totalitarian form, Ankara’s conception of dissent has also grown increasingly all encompassing. Given Erdogan’s steady march towards a Caliphate of his own and his insistent support of jihadist groups in Syria, it is now more certain than ever that Turkey will be one of the greatest threats to international peace of our time. Kurds and their leftist sympathizers alone will not be able to stop the emerging monster that continues to enjoy NATO’s unconditional backing.

Erdogan’s Turkey has seen a rapid proliferation of fear and subsequent silence across all levels of society, but in the country’s Kurdish region the stakes are especially high. When Mardin Artuklu University’s Islamist rector, Ahmet Ağırakça, assumed power in December 2014 following a coup against the previous rector masked as a corruption probe, the response of the majority of the faculty was silent submission. Months later, in June 2015, Ağırakça fired 13 foreign instructors, including myself, and the majority of the group requested silence from all those affected out of fear of reprisals. Even when Ağırakça took to Twitter in an attempt to publically undermine our professional reputations, only a minority of the group was prepared to release a statement defending ourselves.

Within the larger university community, our situation was met with silent indifference from all but a small group of progressive faculty, who stood resolutely in solidarity with us, and the many students that denounced our firing. Regardless of whether they speak up or not, intellectuals realize that the price for a safe life and job security in Erdogan’s Turkey is silence. This is especially the case in the face of the Turkish government’s renewed military campaign in the Kurdish region, which has been accompanied by extensive air raids, military curfews, mass arrests, and the deliberate destruction of the countryside.

Under such circumstances, I was hardly surprised when a peace petition I had signed along with hundreds of other academics became the subject of Erdogan’s wrath following the January 12 suicide bombing in the heart of Istanbul’s tourist district, for which the government blamed ISIS. The petition, also known as the Academics for Peace declaration, demands an end to the state’s military campaign in the Kurdish provinces and proposes international monitoring of the situation to ensure a sustainable peace process. It closes by stating, “We, as academics and researchers working on and/or in Turkey, declare that we will not be a party to this massacre by remaining silent and demand an immediate end to the violence perpetrated by the state. We will continue advocacy with political parties, the parliament, and international public opinion until our demands are met.”

In his speech following the suicide attack, instead of focusing on ISIS, Erdogan presented Kurdish opposition and the academics who signed the peace petition as the greatest threats facing Turkey. Referring to the petition signatories as a “gang calling themselves academics,” Erdogan warned, “We were face to face with the treason of this mentality a hundred years ago too. Then too there was a gang who called themselves intellectuals and believed that only foreigners could improve this country.” He went on to say, “Our nation concluded the War of Independence with victory and gave them the response they deserved.”

Lest we forget, one hundred years ago the first genocide of the twentieth century was being committed in what is now Turkey. On April 24, 1915, more than 200 Armenian intellectuals were rounded up in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) and driven to their deaths, marking the beginning of the Armenian genocide. Ankara’s long-standing refusal to acknowledge these crimes, not to mention the continued silence of the international community, has allowed genocidal campaigns and a general intolerance for the Other to become the norm in the Turkish Republic.

In the name of state security, Erdogan has ordered authorities to interrogate the signatories of the peace petition, and many of the academics have already faced persecution, death threats, and hate speech. Prominent figures and institutions ranging from Turkey’s Prime Minister to the Higher Education Council and state prosecutors have joined Erdogan in condemning the academics. Most disturbingly, in a speech on January 13, Sedat Peker – a crime boss, Erdogan supporter, and Turkish nationalist figure with over 1.43 million Facebook fans – threatened the Academicians for Peace: “We will spill your blood and we will [. . .] shower with your blood!!"

The message is clear: any individual or group who stands in the way of Erdogan’s mission to quietly wipe out Kurds must be punished. This tradition of wiping out non-Turkish and non-Muslim minorities in Turkey at will is a sacred one to the ruling elites, and they will seek to maintain it at whatever cost. Unless international powers take a clear stand against Erdogan’s regime, the world will soon find itself cowering before an Islamist Turkish empire reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. Speaking up may have a price, but the cost of silence is infinitely greater.