In Post-Coup Turkey, Academics Turn to Alternative Universities
Kocaeli, Turkey (dpa) - About 100 students cram into this room in the city of Kocaeli, some 100 kilometres east of Istanbul, to hear a social sciences lecture by Guven Bakirezer.
The venue belongs to Egitim-Sen - the left-wing Education and Science Workers' Union, which is critical of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP)-ruled government.
Bakirezer apologizes for the lack of space, noting that lectures are still being hastily arranged. The whole time, students balance notebooks on their knees and prepare to switch on their recording devices.
Because he is suspected, along with 18 fellow academics, of participation in the attempted July 15 coup, Bakirezer is banned from the premises of the local university. The locks have even been changed.
His crime is membership in the "Academics for Peace" network, which authored a petition in January calling for an end to military deployments in Turkey's Kurdish regions. More than 1,100 academics signed it. The problem, authorities say, is that the petition did not reference violence carried out by the banned PKK Kurdistan Workers' Party.
More than 40 of those signatories have now been sacked by their universities, a move made possible by the emergency powers given to the government after the attempted coup. They remain out of work, even though there is no clear link between the attempted coup and the petition.
In Kocaeli, they decided they had no time to sit around idly. Now they've got their alternative university, with 19 seminars on offer. Today's subject is freedom of speech, as defined by the 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill.
"According to Mill, the majority needs to ensure that precisely those whose voices are heard least in a society should, in fact, have a voice," Bakirezer says.
The response from the assembled students is immediate. What would Mill make of the way critical news media have been shut down in Turkey? Of censorship?
The lecturer has his response ready: "He would see it as wrong in principle."
Political opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan say that the ruling AKP party is seeking to control the universities.
"It wasn't this bad even after the 1980 military coup," says one academic, who declines to have his name published, as is the case with almost all the lecturers in Kocaeli.
"I still don't know what I'm being accused of," says Kuvvet Lordoglu, a signatory to the petition and professor of labour economics at the University of Kocaeli, where he lectured for 35 years. Now he draws no pay, but does not see himself as beaten.
"They can throw us out of the university, but they can't prevent us from continuing to serve society," Lordoglu says. "We aim to maintain our relationship with our students until we can return to our posts."
There is great enthusiasm for the initiative in the cramped lecture hall. Not all in attendance are students. A lawyer present notes that he once referenced Mill in a court case.
And what does Mill say about racism and discrimination? The Victorian philosopher believed people should be allowed to say terrible things, says Bakirezer, who is clearly enjoying the lively exchange.
The idea is to fight dangerous or unethical ideas with counterarguments, not laws, he says.
"That would really be something in Turkey," a member of the audience calls out to laughter.
"I find these seminars incredibly useful," a political science student says. "Here there is an exchange of ideas, discussion. This has now become impossible at our university."
Since the failed coup the authorities have tended to appoint academic staff backing the AKP. Some say this results in lectures that have become boring at best, and mere government propaganda at worst.
"We are so glad to have these seminars," a female student says. "I've come to offer support to our lecturers, but also because the lectures have become unbearable since they were sacked."
She adds that the "academic level has collapsed" and that the loss of 19 lecturers has meant that there are no optional subjects.
But, in order to accrue sufficient credits, she must attend the formal lectures, even if the professors there play strictly by the rules, stick to the material prescribed and mouth AKP views. Discussion and difference of opinion are now frowned upon, she says.
A fellow student adds: "Many of our friends would like to come to these solidarity seminars, but they lack the confidence," he says.
Lordoglu stands by his January decision to sign the petition. He had previously visited Cizre, a majority Kurdish town that has taken the brunt of some government military operations to subdue violence.
"I signed the petition because I saw the town after the military operation. I spoke to the people there, and what I experienced in Cizre shook me to the core," he says.
"It is important to resist. Anyone who does not offer resistance has given up without a fight," Lordoglu says.
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