note: democracy on trial in Turkey

Having explored censorship in Turkey – in terms of freedom of expression and access to information – sadly, it is no surprise to read:

The Christian Science Monitor has asked, “is model Turkey sliding into totalitarianism?” The answers do not make encouraging reading. As Dutch journalist Wladimir van Wilgenburg highlighted, ‘[s]ince 9/11, Turkey has convicted nearly 13,000 people of terrorism offenses, more than any of 66 countries – including China’.

It is a crackdown on legal political activity, and it makes research a risky business. Apart from its direct harm to those specifically targeted, this persecution inhibits academic research into politically-sensitive subjects; thus, it prevents education that would foster a peaceful, respectful society.

In my review of censorship in Turkey, I noted that investigative journalist Ahmet Şık helped to expose the (secularist) ultranationalist terrorist network, Ergenekon. Then, he tried to expose infiltration of the Turkish police, by Islamist allies of the government; and he was arrested as an ally of Ergenekon. His wife Yonca commented, ‘[i]f people are satisfied with this democracy, then I wish them luck and happiness,… but it is not my definition of democracy’.

Büşra Ersanlı

Büşra Ersanlı has been an advisor to the Turkish minister of culture, and is now a professor of politics and history at Marmara University. In Ersanlı’s research, she has explored the relationship between historical understanding and political power, and critically examined the official history of Turkey.

She is also a member of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP (1)), an autonomist, socialist party, which is invariably described as “pro-Kurdish”; and is sometimes called ‘Kurdish nationalist‘.

Ersanlı gave a workshop at a BDP Politics Academy for young members; and because of alleged statements at that workshop, she was arrested as a member of an illegal organisation, the paramilitary Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK (2)). Turkish Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin beautifully (if unintentionally) demonstrated the government’s grasp of democracy, justice, and the popular outcry: ‘I am having a hard time understanding those saying a professor should not be arrested while thousands of other people are being arrested in Turkey’.

Academic protest

At least 700 academics have signed a petition for Ersanlı’s freedom. (There is an urgent general appeal to stop arbitrary detention in Turkey.) At least 300 academics have offered to teach at the Politics Academy.

Some intellectuals have submitted a “bill of exception” against the detention of 46 academics (including Ersanlı). Neatly, when they gathered outside court, they held placards displaying the front cover of her book, Political Power and History: the ‘Official History’ Thesis in Turkey (1929-1937) (3).  But even if they succeed in this case, there is little cause for optimism.

What lessons can academics learn from this?

  1. Live and work in a true democracy; or,
  2. Make sure your book cover’s eye-catching.

1: Barış ve Demkorasi Partisi (BDP).

2: Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK).

3: İktidar ve Tarih: Türkiye’de ‘Resmi Tarih’ Tezinin Oluşumu (1929-1937).


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