As student protests in Turkey enter their second month, Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University alumni and supporters in Istanbul continue to organize daily demonstrations to voice disagreement with the appointing of their newest rector. Due to recent changes in legislation, Erdogan has become the sole authority to appoint political affiliate Melih Bulu, who was part of AKP when he participated in politics, as rector without election. The decision which has been heavily criticized as undemocratic by an institution which denotes democracy as one of their primary values. As was the case in the Gezi Park protests, the university’s outcry appears to have triggered Turkey’s youth into political action. The opposition has been met with a heavy police response, with multiple raids being conducted on the houses of suspected dissidents and reports of torture and beatings dealt to the protesters, at least 250 of whom were detained (and then some released with a travel ban) as of the writing of this article. This issue runs alongside heated opposition to a decision taken in Greece to give power to the police regarding plagiarism and other issues normally restricted to academic authorities. Protests have been occurring sporadically across Greece with some heated demonstrations in Thessaloniki and Athens yesterday to which riot police were deployed. Videos have surfaced online of heavy handed attempts at police control directed at the both institutions, which are famous for student activism.
After a controversial election for the university’s previous rector, Boğaziçi alumni have put their foot down on the issue with Melih Bulu, for whom no election took place at all. Historically liberal and democratic, Boğaziçi University hasn’t had a rector from outside their community since before the military coup in the 1980’s and are unwilling to change the fact. Police attempts to quell demonstrations with raids and beatings dealt to protesters in the past month have been heavily criticized, particularly since the victims tend to pertain to the LGBTI+ community whom Erdoğan and his government have criticized of “poisoning” youth and undermining national values. The protesters in general are referred to as “terrorists” by the government officials who claim they support and have links to the Kurdistan Workers Party.
I spoke to Boğaziçi University graduate Hande, who spent 6 years studying Turkish language and literature and had witnessed the Gezi Park protests. With Erdoğan placing the blame on leftists, Hande stressed the point that there are “We have dozens of students that come from various ethnic and religious backgrounds and we have been living in peace. We are not polarised by any kind of differences including our varying ideologic tendencies”. The rector issue is therefore about democracy, not about particular ideologies that disagree with Bulu’s right-wing foray into politics years ago. The university contains not just left and liberal leaning alumni for whom the institution is more widely known, but also politically and religiously conservative students. Despite this fact, the blame has been put on the LGBTI+ community by Erdoğan, with Boğaziçi’s LGBTI+ club being closed off and its social media presence being restricted as a result. In addition, the home of People’s Democratic Party member Sultan Aksu was raided under the pretext of the police having received a tip that a “terrorist student” was residing there. Aksu is the demarch of Rasimpasa on the Asian side of Istanbul which is known for being a second major home to the strikes of Boğaziçi alumni. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that police decided to raid Aksu’s house, brandishing guns with children in the house.
The police response also escalated earlier this week when multiple snipers were placed throughout the university, despite protestors being peaceful and unarmed. Outside of the university, Hande and her peers have been reaching out to the art sector with mixed results; she suggests that independent and self-funded artists are more likely to help than the large number of struggling artists who have received government funding to help them survive the pandemic. Most likely, presenting themselves as members of the opposition will result in their funding being cut.
The protests organized inside the university are not anarchic nor violent displays of resistance, but are in fact rigorously planned marches, silent protests, and even cultural workshops which end in the early evening with a press statement. However, according to Hande, the police have generally shown a negative attitude towards the students saying that aside from the beatings and raids “they walk freely in the campus and do whatever they want to because their presence in the campus is approved by the rector himself” and “they use plastic bullets against students inside of the south campus”. Hande claims that these Bulu-approved police wear civilian clothing to mask their presence and have been stopping students within the campus grounds to conduct “various controls that aren’t legitimate and aren’t a part of their tasks. For instance police can now stop a person inside the campus and ask them ‘what are you doing here?’ because they have the excuse of coronavirus and protests, so they have reasons to put pressure on students”. The same excuse has been used in the Greek protests, with authorities citing the large gatherings as a public health concern.
The police and the state aren’t the only sources of the pressure being put on Boğaziçi students opposing Bulu since support for Erdogan and the state is far from non-existent. Hande and a number of her peers from the university have been bullied and harassed online by supporters of the state; “I received a call from a Dutch number who was a Turkish person who found my number on LinkedIn. He called me very early in the morning on my personal number. He made a long speech about his opinion towards the protests.” Hande continued to receive aggravated messages asking why she blocked the caller and why she hung up. Another victim of harassment is a Muslim student of Boğaziçi, whose religious rights were violated during the protests. She was not allowed to put her fallen scarf back on her head while she was being forcibly subdued by police.
There is a lot of support for Erdoğan from Turkish expats. A relatively small country, the Netherlands, contains a significant diaspora of close to half a million Turks. In early 2017, The Netherlands saw violent demonstrations at the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam following Erdoğan’s criticism of the Dutch government whom he referred to as “remnants of Nazism”. This was because Turkish officials were sent away from The Netherlands while others were refused entry because they were seen to be spreading propaganda. According to Maarten van Leeuwenhoek, a Rotterdam University graduate who studied the Turkish diaspora in The Netherlands, this increase in attempts to strengthen Turkey’s soft power abroad through promoting its culture and values has been a recent change in Turkey’s approach to their expats. The lack of this attempt to increase soft power in previous decades could explain why so many Turks chose to settle in countries like Germany and The Netherlands when they migrated to western Europe in the 60’s to aid in post-war redevelopment. Now, however, loyalty to the state seems to have increased in expats. They have been transformed into active citizens who take part in local politics and promote multiculturalism in their host country so that they can lobby in support Turkish interests abroad. In addition to the Dutch government, people like Hande who do not support the current Turkish state disagree with this because it results in stronger support for a government whose policies they aren’t experiencing first hand by living in Turkey. Hande claims, “this is one of the things we oppose because we think they shouldn’t have a right to vote if they don’t live here because they can’t assign our future as outsiders.”
Despite the support for Erdoğan coming from Turkish expats, international support for Boğaziçi students has been significant. Universities and individuals all over the world have expressed solidarity and the United Nations have openly condemned the Turkish state in the context of LGBTI+ rights. Evidently, the spirit of the Gezi Park protests is still present. The difference lies in the fact that the Bulu issue is more of an international concern due to the alumni of Boğaziçi University being very multinational. Hande says that this has been a major benefit to the cause, as they have received support from countries like Sweden, Romania, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States. The digital activism regarding the protests has therefore been a great success. In addition, while Greek universities face their own state invasion, students there have also demonstrated solidarity with Boğaziçi University.
If you would like to show your support, sign this petition for the European Commission and use the hashtag #KabulEtmiyoruzVazgeçmiyoruz in social media posts.