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  • Awareness of and Support for Human Rights Among Turkish University Students*
  • Arif Payaslyoglu (bio) and Ahmet Içduygu (bio)

I. Introduction

Human rights have a high place on the agenda of the world today. In the eyes of their defenders they are a sine qua non for the peace and the welfare of mankind and for democratic ideals. On the other hand the human rights records of many countries are still very poor and in some cases even scandalous. Thus the promotion and the reinforcement of human rights, their propagation, cultivation, and protection everywhere, depend upon the ceaseless efforts of all those concerned, including both official authorities and civil societies alike. As part of these efforts, studies on the attitudes of strategic social groups such as youth, women, and minorities with regard to human rights may provide some useful information and clues for both theoretical understanding and practical, preventive, and corrective purposes. 1 In view of this, the present study attempts to uncover certain facts concerning the awareness of and the support for human rights in one such strategic group in Turkey: university students. 2 [End Page 513]

Turkey, after a bold jump from a single-party authoritarian system to a multiparty democratic regime in 1945, has faced serious political, economic, and social problems. 3 Up until now these problems included three coups d’Etat, two new constitutions, leftist terrorism, a fourteen-year-old Kurdish separatist movement, the rise of political and radical Islam, troubled relations and conflicts with almost all her neighbors, and serious violations of human rights. 4 Since the current Constitution went into effect in 1982, the armed Kurdish separatist movement in the southeastern and eastern regions of the country and the rise of the political-radical Islam have become first-rank public issues, with repercussions both in and outside Turkey. 5 The consequences of radical Islam versus secularism is one of the main concerns of this study and will be discussed in some detail. 6 In fact, throughout this study there will be relatively less emphasis on the Kurdish issue, and more on the Islamist-secularist debate. This is mainly because of the authors’ perception of the increasing importance of the latter issue and need for a study of this kind. As to the Kurdish movement we may say that it has been one of the most prominent sources of complaints of human rights violations in Turkey. 7 The Turkish governments have seen this movement as a clear rejection of the non-amenable constitutional principle that states that “[t]he Turkish State, with its territory and nation, is an indivisible entity.” 8 They view the movement as one engaging in terrorist-criminal acts, punishable in terms of the Criminal Code by the death penalty and necessitating a forceful response by the government.

In some of these socio-political events, sizeable groups of university students played a significant role as actors and instigators as well as the [End Page 514] victims and the persecuted. For instance, in the turmoil leading to the three coups d’Etat, students participated in leftist (gauchist?) and racist (chauvinist?) terrorism, in Kurdish movements, as subjects and propagators of fundamentalist religious propaganda, and have been objects of police brutality. 9 In recent years the majority of university students seem to be pacified politically, which had been one of the aims of the makers of the 1980 coup and of the then-current Constitution—a constitution that barred university students and teaching staff from being members of political parties until its 1995 abrogation. 10

Besides general events and the political, social, and economic atmosphere in the country, certain developments in the student sphere have particularly affected students in higher education. These have been rapid expansion of both the state and private universities in number and location, considerable increase in student enrollment, centralized administration of all state universities by a constitutionally backed Higher Education Council, and, most of all, a nationwide competitive entrance examination for access to all state and even private universities. 11 These examinations relate closely to most of the other developments in higher education, including the tremendous proliferation of private pre-exam preparatory courses, which is currently a very profitable business. The...

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pp. 513-534
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