On March 19, 2018, a group of students from the Society for Islamic Research (BISAK) at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University opened a stand at the campus to distribute sweets (lokum/Turkish delight) to commemorate Turkish soldiers killed in Turkey’s capture of the northern Syrian town of Afrin. In response, a group of anti-war students staged a peaceful demonstration, carrying banners that read “No Delight for Invasion and Massacre”, and “The Palace Wants War, the People Demand Peace”. A short-lived tension erupted between the groups.
The next day, the youth branch of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) organized a protest in front of the campus and read aloud a press statement that described the pro-war students as “patriots” and the anti-war students as “terrorists”. In follow-up statements, both the Presidency of Boğaziçi University and the Presidency of Higher Education Council (YÖK) criticized the anti-war students for reacting in “unacceptable and disrespectful” ways.
On March 22, police raided students’ houses and dormitories and detained six students. The next day, hundreds of students gathered on campus to protest the detention of their friends. When students started chanting slogans, the police detained five more of them by dragging them along the ground. As a result, one student had their nose broken. According to one of the detained students who was released, students were assaulted in the police car as well.
On March 23 and 24, President Erdoğan called the anti-war students “communist, terrorist youth” and the pro-war students “pious, national, local youth.” He added that they had launched an investigation into the “terrorist youth” as “universities are not supposed to raise terrorists”, and that these students will not be given “the right to continue their education at this university.” He also threatened the faculty by cautioning them to be careful about their relations with such students. Following Erdogan’s speech, on March 25, there was another police raid on campus and three more students were detained from houses and dormitories. As of writing (April 3) the public prosecutor demanded the arrest of 16 students who have been in detention at the Police Headquarters in Istanbul, and 9 students were sent to jail later during the day on charges of terrorist propaganda.
The arrest of Boğaziçi University students is the latest manifestation of an alarming pattern. By the end of 2016, the total number of students in jail was 69,301. Of these, only 35,647 continue their education while the remaining 33,364 are registered at an institution of education but can not actively continue their education. A state of emergency decree that was legislated in November 2016 (decree #677) forbids students jailed on terrorism charges from taking exams.
In today’s Turkey, all institutions that are supposedly the guarantee of critical thought and free speech are under siege. Between the coup attempt in July 2016 and March 2018, 4,463 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed; 189 media outlets have been shut down; 319 journalists have been arrested. By 17 February 2017, 1583 associations had been shut down. Only 182 of these were later re-opened. By the end of 2017, 5,822 academics had been dismissed from 118 public universities.
On 27 October 2017, Osman Kavala, who is one of the highly prominent and influential figures of civil society in Turkey, was arrested on charges of trying to overthrow the government and constitutional order. Since then, he has been incarcerated and is still waiting for an indictment.
On 21 March 2018, the sale of Dogan Medya, Turkey’s largest media group, to the Demiroren group, one of the pro-government conglomerates, was announced. This sale jeopardizes the distribution of opposition papers and the jobs of many journalists. It also means increased government control over mainstream media as 73% of Turkish newspapers is now owned by pro-government conglomerates.
With the shrinking of the judiciary, media, non-governmental associations, and universities, the possibility of critical thinking and freedom of speech, the two pillars of a democratic society, increasingly diminishes. This is why the latest arrest of the students should not be underestimated. Standing beside these jailed students at this critical moment is vital. It means protecting the right to peaceful demonstration, the right to disagree with domestic and foreign policy choices, the right to free speech, and last, but not least, the right to education. It means protecting whatever is left of the spaces that guarantee plural, equal, and inclusionary citizenship.
*: This article initially appeared on Jadaliyya, an independent magazine produced by the Arab Studies Institute