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Turkish Scholars in the US Face a Difficult Decision on Speaking Out

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

Henri J. Barkey, a Turkish professor of international relations at Lehigh University, will no longer board a flight that passes over the country where he was born, let alone land there, out of fear that he’ll be arrested. He doesn’t speak to anyone in Turkey because he’s worried they’ll face repercussions for associating with him.

Mr. Barkey, who is also director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has taken those precautions since he was accused of helping to plot an attempted coup last July that failed to overturn the government of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Though he may never return to Turkey, Mr. Barkey, who is also an American citizen, has decided to continue to voice his criticism of the government there. He has written op-eds about Turkish politics and the accusations against him in The Washington Post and The New York Times and has remained active on Twitter.

Mr. Barkey’s case is extreme. But Turkish academics throughout the United States have found themselves in a precarious position since the Turkish government’s sweeping response to the attempt to overthrow President Erdogan a year ago. On the one hand, they feel a sense of obligation to speak candidly about what they see as the suppression of academic freedom in their home country. On the other, they have to weigh that sense of obligation against concerns that Mr. Erdogan’s government might retaliate against them, their family, and their friends.

In the past year, the Turkish government has imposed a state of emergency and won a referendum to expand executive powers, giving the president the ability to jail or dismiss thousands of civil servants for suspected links to the organizers of the attempted coup. Thousands of academics in Turkey have lost their jobs and 15 universities have been closed as the government attempts to crack down on supporters of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, who has been accused of organizing the July coup.

"Some people who used to be politically critical of Erdogan have completely shut down," said Mr. Barkey. "Only the people who have decided to live here permanently and know they can’t go back can open their mouth."

Mr. Barkey was on an island near Istanbul, hosting a conference on Iran’s relationship with its neighbors, on the night of the coup, he said. He previously worked for the U.S. State Department and was accused in the Turkish press of secretly orchestrating the coup along with the Central Intelligence Agency. In April, a Turkish prosecutor opened an investigation into Mr. Barkey and 16 others, including U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney in Manhattan who was fired by President Trump in March.

"I’ve always said whatever I felt about this government and the previous government," Mr. Barkey said. He denies involvement in the coup attempt.

"Academics for Peace"

The crackdown has extended beyond people associated with the Gülenist movement, academics and human-rights organizations say. Calling themselves "Academics for Peace," more than 1,000 academics in Turkey and elsewhere signed a petition in January 2016 condemning the "violence inflicted against civilians" in a military crackdown in Kurdish regions. Some of the professors were jailed, while others have lost their jobs, according to Human Rights Watch. Prosecutors in Istanbul are investigating academics who signed the petition, The Guardian reported.

Since January 2016, Scholars at Risk, an organization that helps persecuted academics find positions abroad, has seen more than 500 applications from Turkish academics seeking help to leave the country, according to Daniel P. Munier, a program organizer. Before then, the group had received only 24 applications from Turkish scholars since it was founded in 2000.

"The situation since January 2016 has been unprecedented," Mr. Munier said. "We haven’t seen such a concerted campaign against higher education."

Scholars at Risk is hearing not only from scholars in Turkey who are trying to leave, he said, but also from Turkish scholars abroad who are concerned that what they say will affect their ability to travel to Turkey to carry out academic work.

For Fatma Müge Göçek, a Turkish sociology professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the decision to speak out against the Turkish government was made in 2007, when a friend of hers, a prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist named Hrant Dink, was shot and killed outside his newspaper’s Istanbul office. The teenage shooter was imprisoned, but Mr. Dink’s supporters contend that government officials played a role in the killing by failing to protect him, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. (At the time, Mr. Erdogan decried Mr. Dink’s murder.)

"That’s when I realized this is more than me," said Ms. Göçek. She was already at the University of Michigan at the time, working on a book about the Armenian genocide, a campaign of massacres and deportations that killed as many as 1.5 million Armenians in the former Ottoman Empire during World War I. (Turkey acknowledges that Armenians died during the war, but denies that it was genocide and has made it a crime to talk about what happened to the Armenians.)

After Mr. Dink’s killing, Ms. Göçek said, "I had to stand for what I believed in all the way. They assassinated him to stop us. So no, I was going to talk more publicly about this."

Ms. Göçek said that for years, officials from Turkish consulates attended talks she gave in the United States and in Europe on the Armenian genocide. During the Q&A portions of the talks, they would challenge her, telling her she shouldn’t talk about the issue, she said.

Ms. Göçek signed the peace petition in 2016. Her dean and the legal department at the University of Michigan have told her they are behind her, she said.

"I’ve given up all hope of going back there," she said. "I figure I owe it to my colleagues to support them morally as much as I can."

Another vocal critic of Mr. Erdogan’s government is Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and political science at Duke University.

"I’m spending twice as much time on Twitter writing messages than I normally would because I feel that I have an obligation to do this as someone who is free," he said. The scholars in Turkey who have gone quiet are watching what he’s saying on Twitter, Mr. Kuran said.

"It gives them a sense that someone in the world is paying attention and informing the rest of the world about the tragedies that are unfolding," he said. Mr. Kuran won’t bring up politics when speaking to people in Turkey and prefers to use encrypted-messaging applications like WhatsApp, rather than email or phone calls, to communicate.

"These are the types of precautions that Eastern Europeans and their relatives and co-nationals living in the West [during the Soviet era] are familiar with," he said.

A "Chilling Effect"

Some faculty members who are Turkish have been careful not to speak out, even if they live in the United States, because they worry their family members could face retaliation. They also still have hope that they’ll be able to return to their home country.

A Turkish professor of economics who works at an American liberal-arts college said he considers how his words could be interpreted by Turkish officials when he speaks publicly or publishes his writing. He asked not to be named so he could speak freely.

"You think twice," he said. "There is a chilling effect."

He’s been advising younger Turkish scholars on how to find and apply for jobs in the United States and Europe. He said many signatories of the peace petition are now working in temporary positions at universities in Germany.

Another faculty member at a university in the United States, who asked not to be named because he has friends and family in Turkey, said he used to think he might move back home some day. Since the crackdown, he has resolved to stay in the United States, where getting tenure would mean not only a secure job, but freedom to speak more publicly.

"For personal reasons, I don’t want to live in a dictatorship," he said. "But also, professionally, how can I be an academic in a place where there’s no academic freedom?"

Nell Gluckman writes about faculty issues and other topics in higher education. You can follow her on Twitter @nellgluckman, or email her at

*This article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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