For Boğaziçi and freedom: a report from Turkey’s new student opposition
February 25, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from LeftEast — This year the Turkish government’s campaign to stamp out dissent has broken new ground, but a new spirit of resistance is there to meet it, particularly at one of the country’s landmark public universities. In what follows, two participants in the oppositional student movement at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul tell us about their struggle against the imposition of a new rector aiming to put the university securely under the command of the ruling party.
Until recently, rectors at Turkish state universities were elected by their own faculty members. In two stages, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has put an end to that system. First the Higher Education Council (YÖK) decided that faculty members would submit a list of three candidates to the president of the republic, who would choose from among them; later, it decided that the president could choose anyone, without any input from faculty. In the first few days of the year, President Erdoğan appointed new rectors for five universities. In the case of Boğaziçi, the appointee was not even a member of the faculty until his appointment. Melih Bulu’s appointment is unmistakably a move to subjugate the university. Other moves have also been planned, such as the opening of two new faculties to be staffed by academics of the government’s choosing.
Yet the ruling party takeover of Boğaziçi is but one link on a chain of usurpation that did not begin in academia. Erdoğan’s passion for removing elected leaders and imposing appointees in their place got going in the eastern part of the country with the collapse of the “peace process” of the early 2010’s, when the government removed elected leaders of local governments one after the other, charging them and their Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) with “terrorist” activity and links to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). In the heightened crackdown on dissent and state occupation of oppositional spaces since the unsuccessful coup attempt of July 15, 2016, elected leaders in other parts of the country have been next in line, including parliamentarians of the centrist Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) as well as the HDP. In cities that lost their elected mayors, the dreaded kayyum (in theory “caretaker,” in reality usurper) has stepped in to assert ruling party control. As lawyers, doctors and architects refuse to tow the AKP line, the same is now planned for professional associations; It may be time to coin a Turkish word for Gleichschaltung.
Into this battleground steps a large group of students, faculty, workers and alumni who do not want to see their university become another playground for this repressive government. Faculty have been standing with their backs to the rector’s building every day since January 1. The panoply of student protest activities has been broad and various, even at a time when, as in the last five weeks, the university has been on semester break. As the face-off continues, the government has played its customary cards: talking of “terrorism” and stoking cultural resentments. A high point of the latter occurred when two students were arrested in connection with the display, at an open-air art exhibition on campus, of an artwork picturing the Ka’bah sanctuary with a female figure from folk mythology superimposed on the central shrine and small rainbow flags affixed to the corners. The government almost immediately closed the LGBT+ organization on campus (BÜLGBT+), and media attention to the Boğaziçi resistance came to focus on a putative conflict between sexual minorities and religion.
However hard the government and its supporters work to paint them as “marginal” enemies of the people, the student activists who have corresponded with us indicate that their resistance will not be so easy to put down. What is more, their plans go beyond resistance, and into opposition: they do not merely want to protect their campus from further encroachment, but to build something new in cooperation with oppressed groups and progressive forces elsewhere in society.
LE: What is one thing that the rest of the world needs to know about the Boğaziçi resistance?
Students join hands to sing a folk song (Türkü) outside the gate of Boğaziçi’s South Campus: Toplumsal.com.tr.
Boğaziçi student activists Beha and Elçin: The Boğaziçi resistance tells you something about the state of the opposition in Turkish society today. To outside observers, Erdoğan looks like a very powerful and fascistic leader who can easily repress social opposition. Yet it looks that way only because the Turkish opposition is focused exclusively on the 2023 elections and is afraid of taking to the streets. Until the Boğaziçi resistance got started, we were not seeing such organized collective opposition to Erdoğan’s arbitrary, anti-democratic decrees. The fact that such a rebellion has taken place even at a university like Boğaziçi, where left-wing organizations are not particularly well entrenched by comparison to some other Turkish universities, proves that social opposition has a potential that Erdoğan alone cannot stop.
What is blocking that potential right now is not the ruling party but rather an opposition entirely focused on elections. According to a poll by Metropoll Research, 73% of the people think rectors should be chosen by the university’s own faculty. That a public mood favorable to the Boğaziçi resistance has coalesced after 51 people have been detained by police shows that in the eyes of the people we are right and our struggle legitimate, and our only need is a mainstream opposition willing to carry the people’s demands and objections in the street. The fact that the Boğaziçi resistance appears as a new hope for social opposition in Turkey can even be traced to the paucity of a mainstream opposition at present. Perhaps our message to the world should be this: much of the time politicians try to push you back to positions far behind what you want but even without them you can, and in spite of your own considerable differences, you can still carry on your common struggles, arm in arm.
LE: In your open letter to the president, you note that Boğaziçi’s struggle is not the sole or central struggle confronting the people (& peoples) of Turkey at present and make connections to many of the crimes of the state under AKP rule. How does your resistance to the imposition of a new rector relate to broader struggles for justice and freedom in Turkey?
B & E: Let’s put it this way: there are many different people at Boğaziçi fighting against the appointed rectors–people from all over Turkey, from many different backgrounds and identities, students, academics, and workers. Even before the usurper was imposed on Boğaziçi, there were groups demanding justice and freedom for many different reasons. For example: the LGBT+, women, Kurds, workers, signatories to the peace petition…and others. Of course, by comparison with social struggles that have been going on for years, our resistance to the state’s imposition of a new rector at Boğaziçi looks like a minor detail. Yet as the open letter to the president indicated, we are standing up for what others have experienced in these other social struggles in our own struggle here on campus.
We are the children of workers and public servants; we are women and LGBT+ people proclaiming their struggles in the streets; some of us have relatives or friends who have died in the massacres you mention. We are witnesses to these experiences and we carry their memory. Carrying the memory, the conscience of this time in Turkish society unfortunately also means enduring the many attempts to silence this memory and conscience. The period we lived under the state of emergency was an especially long period of such enforced silence. That after that period, different groups of people can still find common ground to meet and articulate their needs and desires together, speak for themselves and for others, openly oppose certain things and in doing so stand up for past struggles and uphold collective memory, can be a light of hope for those groups still condemned to silence.
LE: What changes (tactical, strategic, ideological or otherwise) have taken place since the resistance began at the beginning of the year?
B & E: I’m not sure there have been any serious changes to speak of but there has been a wide variety of internal debates. At the very beginning some students wanted to limit the lines of struggle strategically to the school itself. Though our actions on campus have been of great importance from the first day onwards, one group of students thought it more crucial to win support from outside by demonstrating at the Etiler gate and at other places around Istanbul. No question, the current climate of fear in Turkey played a significant role in these debates. Some Boğaziçi students thought that though oppositional voices are being suppressed in Turkey in general, within the walls of South Campus our activities did not represent any kind of problem.
It is to be expected that such discussions would return when you consider that there were people involved in the resistance who had never confronted the police before. But on February 1 they confined us en masse–illegally–to the South Campus and it was decided that we should continue our demonstration there. But when a very large police contingent then moved into the South Campus quad to break up our completely democratic gathering and take our friends into detention under torture, the direction of our debates shifted dramatically. Many people who thought that campus was safer and that we should continue our demonstrations there for that reason came face to face with the reality that in Turkey today the AKP regime can easily attack anywhere, and thus began to look much more favorably on actions taken off campus. In this way the whole “on campus / off campus” debate came to an end. But by the same token, the police coming down to the South Campus quad and taking 51 students violently into detention raised the political significance of the campus considerably and as a result a new set of debates broke out.
The debates about activity on or off campus do not concern only some spatial distinction. Seeing whose voices we have stood up for in our written statements is enough to know whether our struggle will unfold solely within the boundaries of the university or also outside of them. In the first written statement we made against the usurper there was a debate about whether or not we should refer to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Those who opposed referring to it were not only hostile to Kurds but also argued that reference to the party would harm our own cause strategically. Yet in the end the point on which we agreed was that we were not the first, last and only group in Turkey to suffer injustice. I think we can say that since then, the great support we have received from public opinion and the fact that various groups have stood up for us has more or less extinguished these debates about whose name should appear where.
LE: Can you describe the daily life of a student resistor as it has unfolded over the last five weeks?
Faculty turn their backs on the rector’s building: Günboyu Gazetesi.
B & E: It depends. Of course every day we have to get through a heavy police blockade to get to campus. In general our activities start at noon with the professors standing with their backs to the rector’s building, and after that, depending on the day’s schedule, we move on to outdoor class sessions, workshops and forums to discuss “what we can do,” culminating in a public statement for the day at about 5 or 6 in the evening. By this time we have also organized actions to take place off campus. As we have always said, this issue is not only a matter for Boğaziçi and we can see from all the action off campus that many segments of society support us. Frequently the police intervene in these off-campus gatherings using the Covid plague as an excuse and then we have to deal with police detentions. Visits to the courthouse to stand up for our comrades in detention have also become a part of our everyday life, something we must often add to our schedule on a given day. Even if we are back at home under curfew after 9:00 in the evening–another one of the ruling party’s arbitrary prohibitions–we spend those evening hours carrying on our resistance either through social media campaigns or online meetings, planning further resistance activities for the coming days.
Faculty members continue their protest in the mid-February snow: Can Candan / Yeşil Gazete.
LE: What kinds of confrontations have you had with the police?
B & E: Since January 4 our university has been under a police blockade. Police have set up barricades on the sidewalk of every block of the Hisarüstü neighborhood, and they patrol them heavily armed. For about 40 days we have had to show the cops two ID’s (student ID and Turkish national ID) every time we enter campus. On campus there are plainclothes cops, whenever any kind of demonstration takes place, they take pictures. Police entered the club room of the LGBT+ organization, which has been closed. Thus the police occupation of the South Campus on February 1 was not our first encounter with the police. We are trying to make our statement while at the same time dealing with the harassment of the police as they try to prevent us from acting. The police presence is all about threatening our constitutionally protected right to peacefully gather, demonstrate and march, and serves the ruling party as an organ of repression. For example, one day when we were trying to hold a press conference as students, faculty, and alumni, the police expelled us from campus and physically prevented us from gathering. In addition, the systematic harassment we face whenever we pass through the police corridor on the way to and from campus is designed to disturb and scare us. One time they threatened a woman among us saying, “do you know what we will do to you in there?” During this period we have experienced first hand just how sexist and bullying the state is.
A photograph from Deutsche Welle, showing protestors gathered outside the gate to the South Campus.
On February 1, after arresting Doğu and Selahattin on charges of “provoking the people to hatred and enmity or demeaning them,” we aimed to hold a press conference at the South Campus gate, in spite of the police blockade. This was at the same time a battle for territory for us. On the pretext of the pandemic, the Istanbul Governor had prohibited gatherings and demonstrations in the municipalities of Beşiktaş and Sarıyer. But we stood up for our constitutionally recognized freedom of speech and movement, which would have to be protected in a democratic country, and argued that our press conference could not be prevented. A large number of people who were trying to meet outside the South Campus gate for the press conference, where we were going to make our call to the political and civil society organizations with which we are in dialogue, were detained by the police off campus, in Etiler. Meanwhile at Boğaziçi, police locked the South Campus gate, preventing students there from leaving for the press conference–completely arbitrarily, without even claiming any legal justification. Because we too could not leave we waited instead to talk to “caretaker” Melih Bulu about this arbitrary detention and demand our rights. Even after the gates were unlocked, we decided to wait on the South Campus until he agreed to speak with us, in spite of the 9:00 curfew. We sang folk songs and other songs. Some announcements were broadcast live. Finally the police entered campus, supposedly to enforce the curfew, and took 51 of our friends into detention.
The iconic photo of the South Campus gate handcuffed by police: Independent Türkçe.
LE: Recently the Mayor of Istanbul, one of the leading figures in the mainstream opposition in Turkey, has expressed support for your demonstrations but also said he thinks they should remain within the walls of the campus. What do make of this statement, given that parallel protests have been taking place elsewhere in Istanbul and even in other cities?
B & E: İmamoğlu is trying to speak for himself, from within his own electoral framework, treating every social element as a potential source of votes, including the Boğaziçi milieu. This stance does not in any way mean that he supports us. The political opposition is afraid of any kind of street activity and wants to nip it in the bud. While we try to work together with other universities, saying that these “caretakers” are not just our problem and we must speak out against them together, Imamoğlu saying that we should limit ourselves to on-campus activity shows that he does not respect our speech or our needs and, what is most important, does not show solidarity with us. Although he says, “WE HEAR YOU… no to losing such hopes and remaining in darkness! Turkey’s children cannot just hold their tongues and give up on Turkey. We will succeed, we will go to the moon and to Mars. I trust in this country’s youth, whose thought is free and whose conscience is clear,” the stance that he is taking toward us as an important figure in the main opposition party shows clearly that he is not listening to us and does not support us. However much the main opposition party’s agenda focuses on 2023, we cannot wait till then. While half of Turkey’s people has to try to make do on a minimum wage of 2825 TL per month, while starving parents commit suicide because they cannot afford clothes for their children, while anyone trying to speak politically is being detained arbitrarily by the police and runs the risk of arrest, we do not have the luxury of waiting until 2023.
Demonstrators in Istanbul’s Kadıköy neighborhood: Sözcü newspaper.
LE: Recently a lot of attention has fallen on the LGBT+ component of the student resistance, as the government took advantage of a controversial art project to label protesting students and faculty blasphemous “perverts.” How does the struggle for LGBT+ emancipation intersect with the struggle for the autonomy of the university? Does either struggle have anything to gain (or lose) from the way they have become linked in this case?
B & E: It is crystal clear that the AKP government can no longer govern Turkey. From what we have heard on the street and even from their own past supporters, there is a widespread belief that they will be swept out of office in the 2023 elections, and the leadership itself is without a doubt aware of this. In order to cover up for their inability to govern, they are trying to take advantage of polarization among the people, quite obviously. The mainstream media has never asked Muslim Boğaziçi students themselves for their thoughts on the demonstrations or even on the artwork; the police attacked a rightful democratic demonstration, and when the school’s LGBT+ organization was shuttered on account of the controversy, the person announcing the closure was not a university official, but the Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun (see note 1–Ed.). All of this shows what kind of situation we are dealing with here: dictation taken from above.
In the Turkish conjuncture we have become pretty used to such actions. During the period of the pandemic the government has consigned the people to poverty and we have seen how, instead of taking any action or considering any self-criticism on that score, it has used the sermons at Friday prayer sessions to blame the pandemic on LGBT+ people with their “perversions” (see note 2–Ed.). Now, whenever the government openly targets sexual minorities some say that it is just doing that to change the subject, to distract from its own failings. Though what I’ve said before may seem to confirm this claim, what I am really talking about is this: the government has a very serious and chronic LGBT+ phobia which it uses relentlessly to cover up what is going on the country, “inciting hatred and enmity” (See note 3–Ed.), but that is not to say that this is just a ploy to change the subject, as the subject, the agenda is among other things this extreme homophobia. At the same time, the way that Erdoğan goes out of his way to attack lesbians in particular, when they discuss these matters, is an overt expression of the government’s misogynist agenda.
As for our school in particular, we have been aware from the first day of our resistance onward that accepting the newly appointed rector would be harmful to different groups in very specific ways. It was quite clear that one of the groups most adversely affected by Melih Bulu, who constantly reminds everyone that he has the ruling party behind him, would be LGBT+ people on our campus, and this fear was confirmed when his first action was to close their organization, BÜLGBT+. It was actually that which compelled us to accept from the first day that we would not be able to rescue ourselves alone, but that it was “either all of us together or none of us,” all for one and one for all.
Boğaziçi demonstrators carry the rainbow flag. Photo: Murat Bay / Sendika.org.
There is a democratic environment at Boğaziçi that makes our tyrants lose sleep at night. Just as being Muslim and being LGBT+ are not two opposite poles on a spectrum, Muslims and LGBT+ people have been struggling shoulder to shoulder against the usurper, speaking and speaking out together. I think the dictators have started to worry that one day such an alliance will form against them. However different the backgrounds and ways of life are from which people at Boğaziçi come, Boğaziçi is a place where such different people and groups learn to live together. This is a place where being who you are is everyone’s greatest right, and people look down on those who judge others for being who they are. That LGBT+ flags have appeared since the first day of the resistance demonstrates that LGBT+ people’s speech matters and that they too are here to take part in the struggle. In other words, those flags do not signify “the paid puppets of the West” or a “licentious minority” but rather our speech and our existence. For that reason we don’t give a damn about being called “terrorists,” or hearing our LGBT+ friends called “perverts” or our Muslim friends smeared as supporters of Fethullah Gülen. Our legitimacy lies in our being right!
Erdoğan’s discourse: right-wing youth (a mix of students and football fans) in the city of Kırklareli denounce “terrorists” on campuses. Photo: HaberTurk.
LE: Some have said that your movement aims not just to preserve a university culture that already exists, but to transform it in an emancipatory direction. A nationwide organization of political scientists has even declared that “the university is to be rebuilt from the ground up.” Do you agree, and if so, how do you see this happening?
B & E: If we’re going to talk about Boğaziçi in particular, it has been a topic of debate among students whether or not there is Boğaziçi campus culture worth protecting. However much the university occupies the heights of academic and social achievement, within the campus there have always been questions about whether people can really speak freely or comprehensively enough. Accordingly there are people who think even Boğaziçi is not really “liberated territory.” However strongly we aim to liberate our university and academia in general, such a big ideal as that of rebuilding the university from the ground up is not and should not be one we can accomplish with our labor alone. For that reason we as Boğaziçi students are concerned not only with our own demands but also want everyone to organize and mark out a battleground in whatever time and space they occupy as subjects. We think that only when these different movements work together in coordinated solidarity can the ideal of a reconstructed university come to fruition. For the moment we have four basic demands:
- We demand that Melih Bulu and all other “caretaker” rectors resign, and rectors henceforth be elected by all elements of the university community,
- That all police blockades of universities be lifted,
- That all those whom police have arrested, confined to house arrest, subjected to special surveillance or prevented from leaving the country, immediately gain their freedom, and
- An end to all campaigns to stigmatize LGBT+ people and other targeted groups.
Our resistance will continue until all of these demands are met. The universities cannot be rebuilt by Boğaziçi students alone, or even by university students alone. This idea can be realized only by the organized resistance of all segments of society. Everyone will have to be involved in this work to rebuild the university anew, but especially the oppressed.
Beha and Elçin are two Boğaziçi University undergraduates active in the oppositional movement of students, faculty, workers and alumni. They prefer to be known by their first names only.
Oxford academics show solidarity with the Boğaziçi resistance: Bianet.
1). This person acts as chief censor in Turkey, policing the press and social media in the president’s name. There was no such office until Erdoğan created it, upon changing the constitution to establish a strong executive presidency in 2017. In addition to his oversight of the written and spoken word, Mr. Altun excels at suing people for infringing on his privacy and insulting him and so forth, that being a lucrative source of extra income for certain grandees in the current government.
2). The state has a monopoly on the public performance of Sunni Muslim ritual in Turkey. The Directorate of Religious Affairs trains, appoints and compensates imams, and a standard sermon is prepared each week to be read at all the country’s mosques after the Friday prayer service.
3). This expression alludes to a Turkish law against “provoking hatred and enmity toward a portion of the population.” Not surprisingly, the state uses this law primarily to police speech deemed offensive to conservative religious values or other causes that it favors.
Translated from the Turkish by LeftEast.