Thursday, July 19, 2012

Turkish government versus academics

by Salman Hameed

There are a lot of things that are overall going well in Turkey. The economy is overall good (see this earlier post: Pew Survey - Turkey's positive economic outlook) and scientific publications in Turkey have been steadily increasing (see this post here about 2011 numbers). But then there are also a lot of worrying trends. In particular, there is a deep concern about the abuse of power by the current government - especially after getting a strong mandate in the last election. There is also a struggle going on between Turkish scientists and government officials. Sometimes, this has resulted in skirmishes over evolution issues and sometimes over the equivalent of Turkish Academy of Sciences. Things are, of course, complicated and too often analysts paint these issues in "Islamists versus secularists" categories - which is not only simplistic, but also often wrong (see this earlier post on a sloppy article in Nature: Is "Islamic Fundamentalism" on the Rise in Turkey).

At the same time, the arrests of journalists, students and scientists are real and a source of serious concern. Nature has an article about the launching of an international network to support Turkish scientists whose academic rights have been violated. I don't know much about the network, but the article avoids the pitfalls of a completely simplistic narrative. The breadth of reasons for arrests shows a general lack of tolerance by the government for any kind of dissent. It is quite shameful and the lack of academic freedom will stymie Turkey's own promising intellectual growth. From Nature:
Turkey is upping the pressure on scientists and students who question its policies, and international human-rights advocates are taking notice. 
In the past few years, the government has clamped down on the independence of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey and the Turkish Academy of Sciences (see Nature 477, 131; 2011). It has also harassed and jailed individual academics and students. Now, an international network is launching a campaign to support Turkish scientists whose academic rights it considers to have been violated. The network has issued a report and this week carried out its first concerted street action, when more than 100 of its supporters joined a large protest at the opening of the trial of Büşra Ersanlı, a political scientist at Marmara University in Istanbul. 
Ersanlı was arrested last October, under Turkey’s 2006 anti-terrorist laws. A member of the legal Peace and Democracy Party, which promotes the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, she denies charges of supporting an outlawed separatist terrorist organization, the Kurdish Workers’ Party. 
Authorities have tried to prevent other scientists from speaking out against industrial interests, says Nesrin Uçarlar, a political scientist who has worked with Ersanlı at Marmara University. One targeted researcher is Onur Hamzaoğlu, an epidemiologist at Kocaeli University in İzmit, who revealed that the region’s industrial basin has high pollution levels and increased cancer rates. Hamzaoğlu is now being investigated for unethical behaviour leading to public alarm, and faces a jail sentence. 
Ersanlı will be tried alongside 204 others charged with illegally promoting Kurdish rights. Her arrest prompted colleagues in France to launch the International Workgroup on Academic Liberty and Freedom of Research in Turkey (GIT) on 21 November. The group is also drawing attention to the more than 770 students who are in prison in Turkey, most arrested for protesting against government policies, including the introduction of university fees.
But academics have been the target before as well:
Erol Gelenbe, a computer scientist at Imperial College London who was educated in Turkey, points out that although the erosion of academic freedom in the country has accelerated in the past two years, “there has always been little tolerance for independent thinking”. He says that at different times over the past few decades, “academics have been expelled from universities either because they were to the right or because they were to the left of the particular government”. 
Uçarlar agrees that the political situation is “complicated”, with right-wingers, left-wingers and staunch secularists all under attack. “I never agreed with the policies of Kemal Gürüz,” she says, referring to a former president of the Turkish higher-education council who enforced a ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf in Turkish universities. “But I’m appalled he was arrested on 25 June without credible charges.”
Read the full article here (you may need subscription).

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