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  • Turkey's Final Exam on Freedom:Boğaziçi University Fights the Authoritarian Regime
  • Berna Turam (bio)


In September 2010, several years before serving as the prime minister of Turkey (2014–16), Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Boston. At that time, he was Turkey's minister of foreign affairs and a member of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP). Upon his arrival, he invited a small group of professors from major universities in the city to a formal breakfast discussion. While we, the invitees, were all citizens of Turkey, the group represented a range of academic disciplines, ethnicities, genders, ages, and religious orientations. When he asked each of us to introduce ourselves, he realized that I was the only person in the room specializing in political Islam. His first and last words to me during the breakfast were, "So, you are objectifying us." Davutoğlu was a professor of political science, with an MA and a PhD from Boğaziçi University (BU), a top-ranked Turkish university. Aiming for academic connections, he asked for ideas and suggestions for future research collaborations between Boston and Istanbul. One of the guests, a globally renowned scholar of his field, snapped:

My advice to you and the government is to leave us alone. Science demands freedom, and academics need autonomy. [End Page 587] In fact, most of us live and work here because of how the government in Turkey fails to respect the independence of academic inquiry.

The professor's comments were right to the point. The following decade witnessed an increasingly taxing and repressive political rule that bluntly targeted the intelligentsia, the academics and journalists, of the country. Indications of this dark period were already apparent in Davutoglu's keynote address at Harvard University, as he emphasized the importance of "a balance between security and freedom" as one of Turkey's goals (Harvard Gazette 2010). A few years later, Turkey's rapid erosion of freedoms was justified by the excuse of maintaining order and security.


The use of security by authoritarian populists as a weapon to curtail democratic liberties and undermine the rule of law has become the global zeitgeist (Norris and Inglehart 2019, 7), and is therefore not unique to Turkey. The annual report on political rights and civil liberties by Freedom House1 declared that democracy is under attack and in decay, and announced the year 2017 as the twelfth consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Importantly, however, the analysis also included Turkey among the most alarming cases: the country had moved "from Partly Free to Not Free" as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan broadened and intensified the crackdown on his perceived opponents after the failed coup attempt in 2016 (see By this categorization, Turkey joined the 25 percent of countries of the world characterized as least free, including Syria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Sudan, and Libya.

By the time the AKP won its third national election in 2011, the crisis of democracy had already taken a toll. But after the failed coup attempt in 2016, emergency measures, including decree laws, became the new normal, justifying illiberal repressive rule. A declaration [End Page 588] of emergency preceding the government's so-called war on terror, which aimed to quash the opposition that had allegedly launched the coup, upset the "fragile balance between security and public order, on the one hand, and civil and political rights, on the other" (Dezalay 2020, S3; see also Abel 2018). In fact, Erdoğan admitted that the coup attempt benefitted him and advanced his political agenda. It enabled him to undertake further securitization with decree laws he often passed overnight. Although the crackdown was on all opposition, it vilified perceived enemies and targeted the press, journalists, and academics in particular. Many academics and intellectuals were convicted, imprisoned, laid off, and banned from employment, and left in difficult situations because of their political thoughts and opposition. Among them, the signatories of "Academics for Peace," a statement calling for peace with Kurdish minority forces,2 were criminalized for treason and terrorism, and banned from international travel. Beginning long before the...