Many governments can be criticised for courting dangerous nationalism these days, but few crush their citizens’ spirits like Turkey. The land of dazzling cultural conflicts, soul-stirring ballads and wonderful food has turned into the land of authoritarianism, hate-filled polarisation and burgeoning depression and suicide. The mood could darken further after a fateful referendum on presidential powers in April.
After the horrific coup attempt in July 2016, a brief breeze of optimism blew through Turkey. Citizens across the ideological spectrum stood up against the putschists, and felt united in their devotion to parliamentary democracy. Intellectuals and the mass of the people agreed that Turkey did not want another military takeover, and that the plotters should be brought to justice. The climate of unity did not last long. The ruling AKP party started a massive purge and they never stopped. Soon it became painfully obvious that unbridled government power under the state of emergency was being used to target every form of dissent. Civilians who had nothing to do with any violence were lumped together with plotting army officers. Many innocent citizens were detained, arrested and imprisoned. Nurses, teachers and officials have been sacked. Kemal Kılıçdarog˘lu, the head of the main opposition party, estimated that a million people were directly affected by the purge. The crackdown on journalists and scholars was especially severe.
In February, a young academic committed suicide. Mehmet Tras of Çukurova University was a signatory to a major peace petition, signed by over 1,000 academics in January 2016. It denounced the government’s autocratic policies vis-à-vis the Kurdish population, asserting: “We are not going to be a party to this crime.” President Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an’s response was full of angry accusations. In a televised speech he decried “so-called intellectuals,” suggesting they were apologists for treason.
The word “traitor” is used copiously. Anyone who speaks or writes critically can be accused of stabbing the nation in the back. As his friends have testified, Tras loved teaching. He loved his students. But his contract was abruptly terminated. He looked for other university jobs, but kept getting rejected at the last minute. There seems little doubt he had been blacklisted.
Nearly 5,000 academics have been discharged from universities across Turkey in recent months. Their careers may never get back on track. In prisons and…