Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a “blessing” to all those who are opposed to Turkish autocratic rule and massive violations of human rights. Not a day passes without the Turkish government’s behaving brutally against scholars, human rights activists, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and political opponents. Erdogan has done more harm to Turkey’s image around the world than anyone else since the Ottoman Turks’ implementation of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.
One of the latest manifestations of Turkish intolerance toward free speech and academic freedom was displayed when the University of Michigan’s Workshop for Armenian Turkish Scholarship (WATS) decided to hold a conference at the European Academy in Berlin, Sept. 15-18. The conference was co-organized by the University of Michigan, USC Dornsife Institute of Armenian Studies, and Lepsiushaus Potsdam, under the auspices of Minister for Science, Research and Culture of the State of Brandenburg (in Germany) Dr. Martina Münch.
Prominent multinational scholars, including Turkish academics, were invited to participate in this important conference. However, the Turkish Council of Higher Education prevented the travel of distinguished professors from Turkey to attend the conference on “Past in the Present: European Approaches to the Armenian Genocide.”
Professor Beth Baron, president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), sent a highly critical letter to President Erdogan and Prime Minister Yildirim in September on behalf of its 3,000 members worldwide, describing Turkish efforts against the conference as “an assault on the academic freedom of scholars in Turkey” and a “disturbing new instance of a broader trend of stifling scholarship on topics” deemed taboo the Turkish government.
“The events surrounding the WATS conference in Berlin represent another depressing instance of your government’s failure to respect basic human rights’ protections under Turkish law despite Turkey’s clear international obligations,” part of the letter read.
Radical Turkish politician Dogu Perincek announced that the conference would “serve imperialism and the interests of Kurdistan” and called the Turkish participants “traitors.” Other right-wing nationalists and pro-government media in Turkey also denounced the conference.
MESA’s President sent copies of her critical letter to the President of the Turkish Parliament; the Justice Minister of Turkey; the President of the Turkish Higher Education Council; the Chair and Vice Chair of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights; the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; the Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations; the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights; the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament; the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education; Turkey’s Ambassador to the United States; and the United States Ambassador to Turkey.
Not surprisingly, several weeks later, neither President Erdogan nor the Turkish Prime Minister had responded to the letter.
In addition, a statement was issued by the WATS Organizing Committee on Sept. 18 terming Ankara’s refusal to allow Turkish scholars to attend the Berlin conference “an attack on free speech and academic freedom, indeed, to extend such intellectual repression beyond the borders of Turkey. We share the concern of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) of North America that such actions seriously and scandalously damage scholarship and the free exchange of knowledge.”
WATS stated that the conference came “under sustained attack by Turkish ultra-nationalist political circles in Turkey and Germany. Long-time deniers of the Armenian Genocide in the international arena declared that the conference will ‘serve imperialism and the interests of Kurdistan’ and framed the Kurdish issue as forming ‘the second Israel,’ clearly an anti-Semitic slur.”
WATS also declared, “Turkey has been hurt by the current atmosphere of intimidation and threats as evidenced in the treatment of the scholars who wished to attend the WATS conference in Berlin…. We…call on the Turkish government to restore the academic freedoms that have been and are being violated in Turkey. We demand as well that the Turkish state desist from interfering in intellectual exchange and expression outside of Turkey…. Such interference infringes on the democratic order in Turkey and in hosting countries. The events surrounding the WATS conference in Berlin demonstrate one more instance of the Turkish state’s refusal to respect basic human rights’ protections both under Turkish law and Turkey’s clear international obligations.”
Finally, Dr. Fatma Muge Gocek, Professor at University of Michigan (originally from Turkey) and co-organizer of the Berlin conference, wrote a commentary in the Washington-based Ahval News Turkish website on Nov. 10, titled “Harassment of Turkish academics in the West should be stopped.”
Dr. Gocek wrote: “I have been constantly harassed by the Turkish state because of my work. This harassment has taken the form of online slander campaigns, anonymous threats traced back to Turkey, and people at my talks planted by the Turkish state who try to challenge and demean me. I have encountered this harassment both in the United States and in Europe, despite the fact I have only given lectures at universities. Once, the FBI had to be called in to investigate a personal threat I received. This situation, which was already bad and completely antithetical to the freedom of expression and opinion, has become worse this year.”
Gocek further stated that the Turkish protesters who came to the Berlin conference “not only heckled and filmed participants, but also tried to break into our meeting. Finally, Turkish newspapers reported our activities as a bizarre conspiracy to attempt to control Turkey and create a second Israel there.”
Gocek concluded her critical commentary by calling on Western countries to take action against Turkey: “What is most disturbing for me is not only the persistence of Turkish state violence in Turkey, but its extension outside the country, as I have experienced in Europe and the United States. It is time for the West to take an effective stand against this escalating harassment on its own soil. I believe that such harassment differs from terrorist violence only by degree as both intend to challenge, undermine and destabilize Western norms and values. Only by taking an effective stand against foreign state harassment would the West be able to contain the lack of accountability for violence that exists within such authoritarian countries like Turkey.”