Es­cap­ing from Ankara

Ex­iled Turk­ish schol­ars fear regime’s reach

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - David.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Mehmet is a Turk­ish aca­demic who rarely looks di­rectly at you; in­stead, he turns away and smiles in a pained way. Un­like al­most all of the other del­e­gates at a con­fer­ence for refugee aca­demics be­ing held in Leipzig, he is not wear­ing a name lan­yard that would iden­tify him.

His real name is not Mehmet – he asked Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion to keep his iden­tity se­cret, fear­ing that his rel­a­tives back in Turkey would have their homes raided if the state found out that he was talk­ing to jour­nal­ists in Ger­many, hav­ing fled there and ap­plied for asy­lum.

Even now, he and other Turk­ish aca­demics who have es­caped in­creas­ing re­pres­sion at home do not feel en­tirely com­fort­able. They feel that they are be­ing watched by sup­port­ers of Turkey’s pres­i­dent, Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan, many of whom live in Ger­many.

In Turkey, Mehmet was for­merly a pro­fes­sor at a uni­ver­sity founded by sup­port­ers of a move­ment led by the cleric Fethul­lah Gülen, a longterm ex­ile in Penn­syl­va­nia, who fell out with Mr Er­doğan around 2012. The move­ment is seen by sup­port­ers as a rel­a­tively lib­eral Is­lamic creed fo­cused on ed­u­ca­tion, but de­trac­tors see it as a shad­owy force at­tempt­ing to build a se­cret net­work in­side the Turk­ish state. Mehmet said that he gave part of his salary to sup­port the move­ment, although could not de­cide whether he was a “mem­ber” or merely a “sym­pa­thiser”.

Then in July last year, a coup at­tempt was launched that left more than 260 peo­ple dead. Fighter planes bombed Turkey’s par­lia­ment build­ing and there was a shoot-out as rebels at­tempted to cap­ture Mr Er­doğan. But it failed after the presi- dent’s sup­port­ers took to the streets in de­fi­ance.

It is prob­a­bly fair to say that Western jour­nal­ists are still not com­pletely cer­tain who or­ches­trated the coup. But Mr Er­doğan blamed the Gülen net­work, shut­ting down 15 univer­si­ties, in­clud­ing Mehmet’s, as well as ban­ning schol­ars from leav­ing the coun­try and over the com­ing months dis­miss­ing thou­sands of aca­demics on sus­pi­cion of be­ing in­volved in the Gülen move­ment and the coup, ac­cord­ing to the Schol­ars at Risk net­work. These aca­demics were banned from seek­ing other aca­demic po­si­tions, while their pass­ports and those of their spouses were can­celled.

Mehmet man­aged to leave be­fore be­ing caught in this net. After the coup at­tempt, with news mount­ing of the jail­ing and tor­ture of Gülen sup­port­ers, “I just de­cided to leave the coun­try as fast as pos­si­ble,” he said.

Via stays with friends in Bos­nia and Iraq, and Nigeria, where he could stay with no visa, Mehmet even­tu­ally made it to Ger­many (he said he had to avoid us­ing Turk­ish Air­lines for fear of be­ing snatched). Now he is wait­ing on an asy­lum de­ci­sion, hav­ing ap­plied a fort­night ago.

But even in Ger­many, his un­ease per­sists. About 4 mil­lion peo­ple of Turk­ish de­scent live in Ger­many, orig­i­nally brought in as “guest workers” dur­ing the West Ger­man eco­nomic boom of the 1960s, and cleav­ages in Turk­ish so­ci­ety have spread to the di­as­pora. Many Ger­man com­men­ta­tors were shocked when a ma­jor­ity of Turk­ish vot­ers in Ger­many cast their bal­lots in a ref­er­en­dum ear­lier this year in favour of even fur­ther au­to­cratic pow­ers for Mr Er­doğan. Re­cent diplo­matic spats be­tween the two coun­tries have made ten­sions even higher.

“I feel safe, but when­ever I get in touch with Turk­ish peo­ple here... I feel a bit, not com­fort­able,” said Mehmet. They will ask whether he had a prob­lem with the govern­ment, he ex­plained.

For ex­am­ple, Mehmet re­cently met an eBay seller, a Turk­ish man who had lived in Ger­many for 27 years, to buy a bi­cy­cle. One of the first ques­tions he asked Mehmet was: “are you close to the guy in Amer­ica?” – mean­ing Gülen. When it be­came clear that Mehmet was a Gülen sym­pa­thiser, the bike seller be­came hos­tile. Although Mehmet said that he man­aged to soften his opin­ions some­what dur­ing the lengthy con­ver­sa­tion that fol­lowed, he was told never to tell any­one that they had spo­ken.

An­other Gülen move­ment sup­porter, who helps those who have fled, in­clud­ing aca­demics, told THE that since the coup at­tempt, hos­til­ity from some Turks in Ger­many had grown sig­nif­i­cantly. Friends of 20 years stand­ing now be­lieve that he is a ter­ror­ist, he said (Turkey has des­ig­nated the Gülen move­ment as a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion).

He said that many Gülenists have had to stop go­ing to Ditib mosques, a net­work that serves those with a Turk­ish back­ground in Ger­many. The Ger­man govern­ment has ac­cused Ditib mosques of be­ing un­der Ankara’s in­flu­ence, and in

Fe­bru­ary, Ger­man po­lice raided the apart­ments of four Ditib imams ac­cused of spy­ing on Gülen sup­port­ers in Ger­many. This Gülen sup­porter said he has been forced to find an­other mosque.

The long arm of Turk­ish in­flu­ence can reach refugee aca­demics in Ger­many in other ways too. Ekrem Düzen, who left Turkey for Ger­many last sum­mer, said that he be­lieves his and many of his fel­low aca­demics’ so­cial me­dia ac­counts are be­ing watched. They have re­ceived di­rect and in­di­rect mes­sages and com­ments point­ing out that their aca­demic friends in Turkey had been fired, threat­ened, ha­rassed and even de­tained, he said – the clear im­pli­ca­tion is that they should keep a low pro­file.

Dr Düzen was fired at the be­gin­ning of 2016 in the first wave of dis­missals of aca­demics who had signed a let­ter urg­ing the Turk­ish govern­ment to cease mil­i­tary oper­a­tions against Kur­dish towns and neigh­bour­hoods. These “aca­demics for peace” were mainly lib­er­als, so­cial democrats and left­ists, he said, who have for years been try­ing to make clear the di­vid­ing line be­tween them and the Gülenists, whom he calls “an­tidemo­cratic”. But after the coup, the govern­ment made the “po­lit­i­cal play” of mix­ing up these two groups in lists of tar­geted aca­demics.

Now a re­searcher on con­flict and vi­o­lence at Biele­feld Uni­ver­sity in north­west­ern Ger­many, Dr Düzen said that although he has not re­ceived any di­rect threats, the po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion in Turkey has spread to Ger­many, and govern­ment sym­pa­this­ers both in Turkey and abroad be­lieve that peo­ple like him are en­e­mies of the Turk­ish state.

“The Turk­ish govern­ment mo­bilises peo­ple here,” Dr Düzen said. You “never know” if you are safe, even in Ger­many, he con­tin­ued. “We know that we are telling the truth and we con­tinue to do so.”

Po­larised last year’s failed coup against Turkey’s pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­dog˘an resu

lted in a crack­down on schol­ars and univer­si­ties, and has di­vided the na­tion’s di­as­pora

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