For almost a month, Boğaziçi University students and professors have been demonstrating against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s appointment of Melih Bulu, an Islamist politician and businessman who studied there, as rector. The university is widely considered a Western-styled entity, which explains the fears of the protesters, who are pushing back against the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) extending its control over Boğaziçi.
Turkey is currently witnessing the most contentious political gesture since the Gezi Park protests. But cultural and political reasons can hardly lead to protests on a similar scale. Hakan Yavuz, a political science professor at the University of Utah, considers Boğaziçi as an “elitist institution” that enjoys “very limited sympathy among the public”, adding that some Turks still see it as a “continuation of American domination since it used to be a missionary college”. For Yavuz, this is not to deny that Erdogan’s policies have “destroyed the relatively successful Turkish educational system. He sees education not as a means to develop critical minds, but rather to brainwash the young. Erdogan wants youths to be obedient Islamists who can fulfill his desires.”
Ahmet Kuru, professor of political science at San Diego State University, had similar ideas about the protests at a university that lies on the European side of the Bosphorus. Kuru believes that, by appointing Bulu as rector, Erdogan wants to deliver a message to his “conservative constituency” that he is “conquering another place on their behalf. The Bosphorus University was originally an extension of the Robert College, an elite high school established by Americans. Therefore, ‘conquering’ this university has many symbolic meanings for Erdogan’s conservative constituency.”
Erdogan’s fundamentalist beliefs are clearly in conflict with Boğaziçi’s liberal culture. Erdogan described the protesters as “terrorists’’. His government claims they are linked to the extreme-leftist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party.
The university makes room for feminist and LGBT groups on campus. Even female students who wear headscarves did not face any exclusion inside Boğaziçi, a long time before the veil ban was removed. Many of the university’s students, moreover, join protests against Erdogan’s policies. For example, 14 students went to jail in 2018 for protesting the Turkish invasion of a Kurdish province in northwestern Syria.
Lenore Martin, professor of political science at Emmanuel College, noted that the student protests have grown to include LGBT rights, with the interior minister calling LGBT students “perverts” and Erdogan saying there was “no such thing as LGBT in a ‘moral’ country”. “Erdogan is interested in mobilising his base on these cultural issues not only to address the Boğaziçi issue but to concentrate their attention on cultural issues rather than the issues of the economy, including high unemployment, and Covid-19 infections,” Martin explained.
At this stage, political developments in Turkey cannot be disregarded, for it explains a great deal of the public anger in anti-Erdogan circles. Erdogan believes “the time has come for Turkey to debate a new constitution”. Ironically, he is calling for a “civilian” constitution, although his party and he were responsible for the amendments that took place in 2018 by virtue of which Turkey shifted from a parliamentary to a presidential system, allowing Erdogan to continue to lead the country as president after the end of his premiership terms.
Since the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016, who described it as a “gift from God” to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army”, the crackdown has been huge. About 292,000 people were detained, 96,000 of them imprisoned, and more than 130,000 people have lost their jobs in the public sector. The coup was also a golden opportunity for Erdogan to get rid of the supporters of Fethullah Gulen, his former ally, a cleric and powerful businessman who helped Erdogan win several electoral races.
Kadir Yildrim, a fellow at Rice University’s Centre for the Middle East, said that the current protests will “have a harder time to gain traction” as the government now has greater control over the press and the public is not well-informed about the developments and their implications. “Compared to 2013, government suppression of dissent has significantly increased. Turkish citizens are more wary of expressing their criticism of government policies in public,” Yildrim said.
Erdogan has also given considerable attention to domestic rivals who are capable of challenging his party in elections, including Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Demirtas took third place during the 2018 presidential elections, despite campaigning from jail, and the HDP won 13 per cent of the seats in the 2015 parliamentary race.
This electoral outcome then temporarily prevented Erdogan from gaining enough votes to change the constitution. Demirtas was arrested in 2016 for “spreading terrorist propaganda”, and his indictment was recently denounced by the European Court of Human Rights which called for his release.
According to Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and ex-member of the Turkish parliament, freedom of expression and public assembly in Turkey has declined significantly since the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which brought over three million demonstrators to the streets in over 70 provinces.
“These days, the Turkish authorities suppress any expression of dissent brutally, beating and detaining protestors. So, this time round, dissent is often expressed through online platforms, including Twitter, WhatsApp groups, and Clubhouse. “This is one of the reasons why the Erdogan government has intensified its crackdown against what it branded ‘cyber-terrorism’, as Turkey became the first country in the world to detain Clubhouse moderators for hosting a discussion on student protests,” Erdemir said.
“It is interesting to note,” he added, “that despite widespread poverty, corruption, and state brutality, what prompted activists to take to the streets both with the 2013 Gezi Park protests and this year’s Boğaziçi University protests was the Erdogan government’s assault on intimate and symbolic spaces.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly