On the 1st of January Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current president of Turkey, appointed Melih Bulu as the rector of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. “Why?” you might ask. No, he was not one of the academic staff of the university and no, he was not chosen by the academic staff either. He is actually a businessman and former politician known for his ties to Erdoğan himself. He was one of the candidates of Erdoğan’s party in the Turkish general election in 2015. Bulu’s academic career is as dreadful as his political affiliations. Right after his appointment as a rector, it was discovered that Bulu even plagiarized his own PhD thesis. Moreover, his appointment itself was a nondemocratic and top down decision. It is simply based on the one-sided, so-called, political rules of the state of emergency declared by the Turkish government, i.e. Erdoğan, after the coup attempt in 2016. Witnessing this non-democratic, invasive appointment of an incompetent rector, hundreds of students and faculty members of Boğaziçi University protested this decision, both within and outside the university campus together with people who also wish to keep the institution free from oppressive governance. They have been standing in the rain and in the snow, protesting legally and peacefully for academic freedom and autonomy. The response from the government was brutal and violent, but despite this the protests have been spreading all over Turkey in recent days.
The 1st of February marked a turningpoint in the development of events, as two Boğaziçi students were detained with the accusation of making LGBT-themed artwork that is deemed offensive to the religious values of the Turkish society. The law enforcement of Erdoğan’s islamo-nationalist government also detained 161 students and harassed whoever they encountered along the way relentlessly, including opposition MEPs and journalists. Members of Erdoğan’s party, including Erdoğan himself and the interior minister, as well as the nationalist movement party, have hatefully targeted students by calling them terrorists, barbarians, and vandals. The statements of Devlet Bahçeli, the president of an ally part to Erdoğan’s party, are an explicit example of this violent rhetoric.
Bahçeli has called students “poisonous snakes whose heads should be crushed”.
Although the protests have been echoed across all of Turkey, the majority of people either remain silent or accuse students of being traitors, simply for asking for a rector who is not undemocratically appointed. This is largely due to the extent to which Erdoğan’s discourse has an influence on islamist groups within Turkey, while also revealing that he is constantly using nationalism and Islamism to criminalize every quest for democracy. This dreadful oppression in the public sphere is also evident from gatherings of radical islamist groups against the protesting students of Boğaziçi University as well as the mass of social media posts filled with hate speech against the protests.
The LGBTQ+ community of Boğaziçi university has been specifically targeted, and even deemed as terrorists by state officials. In fact, police forces have arrested students with rainbow flags, treating harmless students as enemies of the state. “In the beginning, everyone was in unison despite their identities and their ideologies, however, afterwards pressure was put on LGBTQ+ people [...]. All the hate is channeled to the LGBTQ+ community” said an undergraduate student in Boğaziçi University. The high members of Erdoğan’s party, including the interior minister, called LGBTQ+ people “perverted”. Erdoğan went as far as denying their existence and even stated “Nevermind the lesbians and what they say”. The justification for such police brutality and hate crime was an anonymous artwork depicting the Kaaba, one of the most sacred sites in Islam, in the exhibition organised by students with contributions that were not restricted to the students of the university. As a result, an imaginary terrorist tag was attached to the LGBTQ+ community to render it as a public enemy.
On the one side, there is a minority who attempts to keep their public space free from fascism, discrimination and homophobia. On the other side, there is a majority who attempt, at the first opportunity, to invade and violate the public spaces of people living in peace. Nevertheless, Turkish students all over the country and around the world are fighting agaisnt Erdoğan’s reach and we, the students living in Belgium, declare solidarity with our fellow students and the faculty of Boğaziçi University in their struggle for academic freedom and autonomy. Moreover, in defiance students responded to the police and everybody with the hashtag “#wewillneverlookdown!” after a student was warned and attacked by a police officer who commanded him to look down while walking while he was on his way to participate in the protests taking place in Istanbul.
Today, all protests are still going on with the support of students all around the world. A solidarity protest also took place recently in Brussels, on the 6th of February.
Edit: due to concerns of the authors over recent arrests in Turkey of people who have expressed their opinions publicly in support of the student protests or have posted photos of police brutality, all names were removed from this article (09/02/2021).
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