Despotism silencing intellectuals and scholars

Developing Just Leadership

Catherine Shakdam

Rabi' al-Thani 22, 1437 2016-02-01


by Catherine Shakdam (Opinion, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 12, Rabi' al-Thani, 1437)

If 2015 was marked by extreme violence and rise of the Black Flag Army, Da‘ish, 2016 is set to be the year of the autocrats when despotism and violence become not covert weapons of war, but overt state policies. While Turkey has been on a slippery slope toward authoritarianism for some time now, January 2016 marked a dramatic shift toward acute intolerance.

Uncompromising, Turkish President Recep Erdogan came to clash with the influential scholar, Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology over a petition the latter championed. Angered by Chomsky’s rebuke of his policies against the Kurds, Erdogan responded with autocratic vitriol and threats against truth telling and peace calling.

At the core of Erdogan’s ire is a petition calling for an end to ethnic-based violence against Turkey’s Kurdish population. A minority, the Kurds have suffered many injustices at the hands of Ankara. They have forever been yearning for independence and calling for their right to political self-determination to be acknowledged. As a neocon, Erdogan has rationalized his campaign against the Kurds under the label of counter-terrorism advancing national security issues as a pretext to hit the Kurdish opposition. Such manipulation, however, did not pass muster and many intellectuals spoke out against this campaign.

Academics both in Turkey and abroad decided to circulate a petition titled, “Academicians for Peace.” This was their attempt to reclaim reason by restraining bigotry and genocidal politicking. Erdogan’s response to such efforts came by way of a very public confrontation with Professor Chomsky.

The opening statement of the petition reads as follow: “We ask the state to put an end to violence inflicted against citizens right now, we as academics and researchers of this country declare that we won’t be a party to this crime and promise that we will sustain our stance in the presence of political parties, parliament and international public.” Before such a clear exercise of academic conscience, Erdogan offered what he knows best: oppression, intimidation and threats of judicial repercussions against all signatories.

A great deal can be said and written about a political system that preys on intellectuals, teachers, and thinkers; more importantly against those who wish to speak the truth, and offer an alternative to the tyranny they witness. Devoid of direction and academic input, exactly how long can a nation stand before it is swallowed up completely by the abyss of ignorance and falsehood, the ugly stepsister of fascism?

A large number of academics — 1,128 from 89 universities in Turkey, and over 355 academics and researchers from abroad including prominent figures such as Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Etienne Balibar, David Harvey and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek — added their names, support, and prestige to the petition. Those are the men and women Erdogan publicly defamed by associating them with terrorism.

“Unfortunately these so-called academics claim that the state is carrying out a massacre. You, those so-called intellectuals! You are dark people. You are not intellectuals,” Erdogan cried in a vitriolic tirade against the group. Needless to say Erdogan’s crude attempt to silence the “opposition,” and one might say the world’s conscience, only served to expose Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism, opening a window onto the political coercion Turks have had to live under for more than a decade with Erdogan at the helm.

Belaboring the point, Erdogan then invited Professor Chomsky to visit Turkey so that he could see for himself what realities Ankara had to wrestle with. A live translation by al-Jazeera quoted Erdogan as saying, “I have a message for those academics. Just putting your signature on a dry piece of paper means nothing. Come to Turkey.” Erdogan’s invitation prompted Chomsky to respond in the following manner in an email he sent to the British daily, The Guardian, “If I decide to go to Turkey, it will not be on his invitation, but as frequently before at the invitation of the many courageous dissidents, including Kurds who have been under severe attack for many years.”

In further comments to the press, Chomsky offered additional insight into his opinion of Erdogan, Ankara’s role vis-à-vis terror, and the Kurds. He said, “Turkey blamed ISIS, which Erdoğan has been aiding in many ways, while also supporting the al-Nusra Front, which is hardly different. He then launched a tirade against those who condemn his crimes against Kurds — who happen to be the main ground force opposing ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. Is there any need for further comment?” It was such scathing criticism of his rule that prompted Erdogan to unleash the power of his office against the petitioners, which in turn led to protests in both Turkey and abroad.

“The detention and harassment of these academics is an ominous marker of the precarious state of human rights in Turkey. They have as much right as anyone else to exercise their right to freedom of expression, without being branded as terrorists and menaced with arrest,” said Andrew Gardner of Amnesty International. Turkey today is no more than an empty democratic shell, an autocracy hiding under the veneer of popular legitimacy. Turkey’s close alliance with the West, as a member of NATO, has allowed its oligarchs to be shielded from criticism. When even academics are not allowed to offer counsel to the political class, it is evident that there cannot be much freedom in such a society.

Turkey has become a democratic cautionary tale, an example of how quickly states can slip into despotism when silence is so ruthlessly enforced.

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