When Mine Gencel Bek and I had met – out of coincidence – in Boston in the autumn of 2014, we had no idea we would find ourselves as outcasts, although then we were concerned enough about what sorts of rocky shore the ship called Turkey was about to crash into.
I was a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, she was a Visiting Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We were both in the same area; I, a journalist; she, a respected teacher of journalism at University of Ankara, to which she returned in 2015.
We had not been in touch since those days, until I spoke to her over the phone the other day. I had known that she in a fury had resigned from her post, after an ‘enough is enough’ moment.
As much as I knew her, no surprise. Prof Mine Gencel Bek is not a meek intellectual, she could no longer bear the barbaric political oppression sweeping through Turkish academia; the hypocrisy and submission that have taken many of her colleagues into its grip.
She handed her resignation January 30. A week later, the latest government decree ‘butchered’ 330 academicians, half of whom had been signatories of the petition for a return to peace table with the Kurds – called ‘Academicians For Peace’.
The most severely hit were her university and the top institution which was the main source of diplomats and administrators, the Faculty of Political Sciences (SBF). The purge was a pure political liquidation, harbinger of worse to come in larger sweeps ahead.
When Mine saw her name amongst the ‘fired’ by the decree, she had to laugh. Fired, after resigning! In a holy fury, she swiftly packed her stuff, got her family together, and moved to Siegen University last weekend.
Act of bravery? Perhaps something that had to be done; in the name of a life in dignity.
Like many scholars, who left Germany in 1930’s, among other lands, to Turkey…
When we talked on the phone, she was laughing at herself, to how impulsive the move has been. Her relief is the sense of being welcome in Germany, with many other colleagues nearby, who share the same fate these days.
More than the primitive political oppression, it was the hypocrisy of her colleagues and intellectuals that she at the end find repulsive, she told me. I knew what she meant: I had read an extensive, brave interview she had given to a tiny, independent-leftist daily, Evrensel, where she told in detail of the climate of venom and deceit in her school.
‘The anger, it’s exactly me’ she told Evrensel.
‘I had spent my 31 years in that university, and a faculty which has a claim to be critical, they never stood behind us who gave voices for peace.’
More than thousand petitioners had since January last year been subjected to legal inquiry. After the coup attempt, she asked to meet the president of the university. The reason for meeting him was to demand a response on where the university stands on the legal harassment. She was told there was a way out: to sign a paper that says how much she regrets to call the state ‘oppressor’, and beg for forgiveness. She refused, many others did. But she started to have serious health issues when one after another her colleagues began to be fired, since September.
‘The rooms in our corridor were evacuated one by one. The nameplates of my friends were pulled off the same day. Their names and publications disappeared from the website, as if they never worked there. I felt a suffocation, more and more. It was sheer treachery. So I went away.’
‘But it was not only the president or the dean who left us alone, but also many ‘friends’ who claimed same political leaning and those who should defend the principles. There were those who did not even say they were sorry, to their fired colleagues. By the time I resigned, I got used to all this. The day after I left, I didn’t feel sad to those who claimed they were leftists, passing by me, turning their heads away, running into their rooms, closing their doors when they saw me carrying away my boxes through the corridor. Some of them had not agreed with the wording of our petition. We had said ‘it’s fine to disagree, but please issue a text defending our right to express our opinion. Because you claim this school to be ‘Frankfurt School’, do it for your reputation.’ First they seemed to agree, then stood back.’
Mine resisted a while more, she says, for her PhD students. And she received huge support from all of them when she resigned. While many of her leftist and secularist colleagues kept silent, something else happened. Praise for their resistance, however limited, came from the other oppressed segment of academia: those accused of belonging to Gülenist networks – called ‘FETÖ’.
‘This was a wake-up call for me’ Mine added:
‘In our political camp, many of my colleagues use the argument ‘oh no, they don’t belong to FETÖ, we know they don’t. There is something fundamentally wrong with this. ‘Ours’ can not be putschists, but the others served the coup? What is it to ‘belong to FETÖ’? We don’t know anything really, do we?’
She is bitter now.
Many names were deleted from her phone list, and as she adds, ‘from my life’.
Then comes a reflection which I believe is a snapshot of a Turkey in early 2017 by a disillusioned Turkish intellectual, to stay with us for a long time:
‘If we had gotten together when he (Erdoğan) first started to shout, we would not get to this point’ she told Evrensel daily.
‘But it did not happen because of inherent nationalism, fear or whatever else… Media situation is, well, obvious. At the moment the best journalist is the one who doesn’t ask questions. The same with the academia…’
What she describes, in essence, is the rot – a key element that makes the social ground fertile for fascism.
To understand how deeply rotten Turkey’s elite is, let’s look at an account by another Turkish scholar, Prof Umut Özkırımlı, who in a fierce article recently came out with ‘J’accuse’ against Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the secular-Kemalist main opposition party, CHP.
It was about an academician, Prof İştar Gözaydın, kept jailed since late December. One of those who Mine had mentioned, accused as ‘belonging’ to FETÖ. What caused the rage of Ozkırımlı was the fact that Gözaydın was so respected internationally as a sociologist, with top credentials and expertise on religion, that she was about to be nominated by CHP in the last elections.
Besides, he revealed, Kılıçdaroğlu had asked for help and she had gotten her together with many scholar at her home over a series of dinners. On his insistence, Gözaydın also refused an invitation by Oxford University and had even resigned from the Turkish university as the law required. And as an act of pure shame, Özkırımlı wrote, Kılıçdaroğlu ‘believed’ some in his party that she is a Gülenist, and watched by in silence when she was jailed in Kafkaesque circumstances. He does not even respond the calls by her husband, who was in despair before what he sees as an Orwellian act.
On and on, and down, it goes, in Turkey.
Land of tragedy, hypocrisy, and rot.
What else can be said when a full-page interview with Orhan Pamuk was fully censored last Monday by the newspaper, Hürriyet, a ‘flagship’ of Doğan Group, whose editor not long ago was awarded by Press Freedom Prize of Deutsche Welle?
Censoring a Nobel Literature Laureate, who in the interview explains why he will vote ‘no’ in the upcoming referendum?
As the Turkish saying goes, ‘Fish rots from the head down.’