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Turkey : intellectuals in twilight

Friday 8 February 2008, by Yavuz Baydar

Next Monday, Feb. 11, universities in Turkey will open for the year’s second term. Also next Monday, another session in the Dink trial will take place.
All the discussions and debates, as one might expect, focus on two main items in these days of uncertainty — the future of democracy and the limitations on freedom.

From tomorrow until the end of the week, Parliament will be busy in reaching a conclusion on constitutional amendments to liberate the headscarf for university students. Uncertainty about the content of the changes looms and, consequently, as the anxiety spreads, the level of severity in the debates escalates.

Academia has been divided into three camps. In one camp, there is a segment of “science fundamentalists”, who not only refuse to listen to other’s viewpoints but also threaten those not in agreement with them. In the second camp, there are thousands of liberal-minded scholars who support, seemingly unconditionally, a change whose content and “legal stand” are still ambiguous and thus open to broad interpretation. Both of these camps also display signs of political partisanship unbecoming to those in academia.

Then, there are those who desire change and full-scale democratization in Turkey and refuse to join their liberal colleagues. Among them are many well-known intellectuals, such as Professor Mehmet Altan, Professor Erol Katırcıoğlu, Ayşe Kadıoğlu, Soli Özel, Professor Binnaz Toprak and Professor Üstün Ergüder.

Mehmet Altan, known for his staunch and consistent stand for fundamental changes under the banner of social liberalism and also known for his close ties with the government, yesterday explained his concerns over the “declaration to free the headscarf.” He told the daily Sabah: “It does not seem right that those [academics] who initiated the signature campaign are people very close to the AKP [Justice and Development Party]. I am also worried that full-scale warfare over the dress code, initiated by a mentality which has turned the academicians into ’civil servants,’ within a totalitarian [academic] climate in Turkey will help conceal the set of deep flaws within Turkish universities. The main struggle should be about the real freedom of the universities. How to dress can only be derived from that struggle.”

Higher Education Law

To understand Altan’s point, let us have a look at the infamous Higher Education Law, a remnant of the military coup which should be changed as soon as possible. Article 4 mentions “targets” for the students of Turkish academia. Students must be raised, it states, “devoted to Atatürk nationalism, in accordance with Atatürk’s revolutionary reforms and principles.” Further, the same article suggests that students should be educated in order to feel the pride of Turkishness, bearing the national, moral, spiritual and cultural values of the Turkish nation, filled with love for family, country and nation. They should be educated, furthermore, “to be made aware of his/her duties and responsibilities to the state and to turn this awareness into action.”

Shocked ?

Do not be. Turkey’s brilliant scholars, who have had to live with this ridiculous, anti-scientific text for decades, have been fully expecting that the day of liberation would come to academia. It is also the reason why so many of them — social democrats, social liberals and simply democrats — voted for the AKP. They are for lifting of the ban on the headscarf but do not want to live with a law reminiscent of the Mussolini era.

Although some of the scholars who have not signed the “free headscarf petition” did so because they found the announced “headscarf tied under the chin” utterly useless and limiting, most of them did so because of the growing mistrust they feel of the AKP. Their vision is blurred by what they see as lack of a reform strategy. They say all they see is “unholy alliances” with anti-democratic politicians.

A professor who wanted to remain anonymous because he is also a vice rector at a university told me yesterday: “In the past two elections my wife and I voted, in great hope for a free Turkey, for the AKP. I am not sure anymore because I cannot ’read’ into what they want to do. They are very selective whenever they must handle the issues of freedom for all. When Professor Atilla Yayla was sentenced, nobody from the government felt any urge to speak out for him. Will they deliver? I doubt it. EU issues are only paid lip service. Article 301 is out there and they do not care. I sincerely hope they will prove me wrong. But my hopes are really very, very faint.”

Let’s wait and see what will happen in the days following Feb. 11.

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Source : Today’s Zaman, 06.02.2008

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