Academics say Erdogan is polarising Turkey's students
Academics worry the government's statements on religion will have an impact on the classroom and their academic freedom.
By Hannah Bowman for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 14/03/12
Declarations by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stating the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) intention to "raise a religious and conservative" youth in Turkey has once again sparked concern over secularism.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he wanted the AKP to help raise a religious and conservative youth at the party’s Parliamentary Group Meeting in February. [Reuters]
His comments have inspired one of the most cohesive and organised reactions from the academic community since the party came to power. Within days of Erdogan's address, a group of university lecturers had drawn up a petition of over 3,000 names from "young academics", stating that these types of speeches by the prime minister "only serve to divide people on the basis of religious affiliation, and targets atheism, to which hundreds of thousands of Turkish nationals adhere".
The petition was also posted in video format on You Tube, where it received 10,000 views during the first 12 hours and became the sixth most watched film for that week in the category of "non-profits and activism".
According to the organisers of this group of academics, they are not a "social movement," but simply a collection of individuals who feel they can "no longer stand aside and do nothing", citing the re-election of the AKP for the third time last June as a "critical turning point" in the implementation of religious nationalism by the government.
The discourse of the ruling party has become "more and more aggressive," said Nevzat Evrim Onal, assistant professor of economics at the Beykoz Vocational College for Logistics. According to Onal, the state is creating a category of "wanted and unwanted citizens" and this is affecting dynamics within the classroom.
"What I have seen in the past few weeks within my students is that they are distanced more from each other as supporters and opposition of the ruling party," he told SES Türkiye.
Mustafa Akbulut, a 22-year-old engineering student, said he no longer feels confident expressing his opinion about politics with people he doesn't know, and does not have many friends who support the AKP.
"Three years ago, they [the AKP] would not have just come out and said something like this," he said in reference to Erdogan's comments. "Six years ago, you would never imagine them saying such a thing. But, over the years, they have infiltrated every part of the country; they have control over the media, they have control over the army, they have control over the judicial system. They can do whatever they want in these times."
Damla Evrim, 22, who is also a student, takes a more laid back interpretation of the situation but agreed that the current political climate is making peer relations more complex. "In lots of ways, people who support the government and people who do not want the same things," he said.
But, as the government becomes "more outspoken" in its principles, it is having an effect on the way she feels she can relate to those who support the system. "I can no longer even talk about art with these kind of people."
There is an overall "climate of anxiousness" across the country, according to Baki Tezcan, a member of GIT, a transnational work group on academic research and freedom of research in Turkey, and professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of California.
Only since moving to the United States has he felt in a position to really speak out about what he sees as the state playing an increasingly intrusive and oppressive role within the education system, without worrying he will jeopardise his professional position by doing so.
But Dengir Mir Firat, former deputy leader of the AKP, denies there is a problem. A conservative party "will by nature value religious and moral principles", he said, adding that accusations the prime minister's statements polarise the people are "not realistic". "There are no such divisions in society, let alone a conflict," he told SES Türkiye.
"Unfortunately, since the 1950s, a group of academics has been claiming the regime will be overtaken by the ruling power and transformed into one based on religious principles. Yet the regime hasn't turned religious, and instead has become more democratic over the past 60 years."