Courage, rage and joy at Turkey’s student protests

  • February 22, 2021

Education & Emancipation

The undemocratic appointment of a party loyalist as rector at a prominent university in Turkey is fiercely resisted by its student body and faculty.

Students protesting in Istanbul against the appointment of Melih Bulu as rector of Boğaziçi University. Istanbul, Turkey – January 6, 2021. Gokce Atik /

For several weeks, the students and faculty of Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University have been protesting against the imposition of a party loyalist, Professor Melih Bulu, as the new university rector by the AKP-led government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Unelected and evidently unqualified, Bulu is an outsider to Boğaziçi’s academic community, which has long developed its own distinctive mechanisms of decentralized self-governance coordinated by a complex web of administrative committees. These mechanisms not only are essential to the university’s internationally acclaimed academic success, but also distinguish it as a working model for “multi-centric” and “horizontal” governance that is rare in its geography.

With the top-down rector appointment, soon followed by the unannounced, also top-down, opening of two new faculties at the university, the government intends to expand its control over the production and dissemination of knowledge by bringing critical voices in academia into line — if not into court.

Not an isolated event, the appointment is the latest step in the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) longstanding assault on academic independence as part of a wider crackdown on the country’s few remaining autonomous civic spaces, including the media, the bar association and civil society organizations. Known in Turkish as “kayyum,” government-appointed trustees manage vast areas of political and civic life in today’s Turkey, from municipalities and universities to NGOs and corporations. Kayyumization, so to speak, began with the removal of elected mayors of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) during the state of emergency declared after the 2016 failed coup attempt and regained its momentum in the aftermath of the 2019 mayoral elections.

Districts are now run by kayyum mayors. Cultural, professional, religious associations are now directed by kayyum chairs. Universities, like Boğaziçi, are now ruled by kayyum rectors.

The norm rather than the exception, trusteeship exemplifies AKP’s rule by decree to implement a mythologized “popular will” — a term President Erdoğan so often invokes in order to use his government’s electoral mandate as a license to be wholly unrestrained when carrying out what the people supposedly want. Though, it is becoming less and less significant for Erdoğan’s AKP to have its rule appear democratically legitimate. The AKP-forced rerun of Istanbul’s 2019 mayoral election — during which the defeat of the AKP candidate came as an unpleasant shock to the party’s self-confidence at the polls — disclosed the party’s diminishing efforts to adhere even to the minimum standards of “electoral democracy.”

The name we give to the Turkish regime depends on where we draw the lines between what scholars of democratic decline call “competitive authoritarianism” and plain authoritarianism.

Let’s be clear about the process operative here: Turkish politics devolved into authoritarianism because it was, or could become, competitive. With the co-chairs of the HDP — the second biggest opposition party — imprisoned for more than four years on trumped-up charges, can we even speak of competition?

If we are shying away from calling Erdoğan’s rule authoritarianism without adjectives, it is not because it falls short of the ideal category, but because we do not know what word to use after the regime’s breach of the next democratic norm.

​Holding the world together

Since the protests against the “kayyum rector” started in early January, the AKP government has resorted to violence and intimidation, detaining hundreds of students at the university, at early-morning house raids, at bus stops, and in buses and metros on the way to campus. It has also accelerated its defamatory efforts, portraying protesters, students and faculty alike, as “terrorists” engaging in criminal activities.

Criminality, of course, is contextual.

In Turkey, dissident academics, students, journalists, lawyers, architects, civil society organizers, politicians, in one way or another, are all persecuted by the AKP for spreading terrorist propaganda: targets in Turkey’s own “war on terror,” that is, a “war on dissent.”

The marginalization and criminalization of political dissent, after all, are all-too-familiar strategies we remember from the AKP’s response to the Gezi uprising back in 2013.

Despite violence, intimidation and defamation, students at Boğaziçi and elsewhere continue to resist with determination and creativity. Countless videos circulating on social media show students singing, dancing, chanting with courage, rage, joy and love.

That courage, rage, joy and love, too, we remember from Gezi.

“The world is held together,” James Baldwin once said in an interview, “by the love and passion of a very few people.”

Boğaziçi students, with much love and passion, are holding together a world to which I owe more than I can put in words. I owe Boğaziçi my thinking, my desires, my political commitments.

​A site of plurality and engagement

Boğaziçi embodies pluralism. Not only because its student body is diverse, but because that student body speaks (up) in its diverse voices. More than a mere presence of different identities, separate and appositional, Boğaziçi represents a togetherness, an engaged community, a means of relating across differences.

Because it is a site of plurality, Boğaziçi is, and has indeed always been, a site of protest. Rather than extra-institutional, protest is the “institutional” culture of Boğaziçi. On any given Tuesday during my time there, I would pass by groups demonstrating against rising costs at campus cafeterias; the private enclosure of public spaces on campus; the next war in the Middle East; the Turkish army’s recent attacks on civilian Kurdish populations; prevalent sexual violence; state violence; state-sanctioned sexual violence — the list goes on.

These campus protests would spill over into seminar discussions; seminar discussions would take place in campus protests. My professors, long demonized by the AKP regime and loyalist media, would stop the business-as-usual to devote their class time to what then was urgent, ethically and politically. Democratic theory — which I study and teach — has never been separate from democratic experience at Boğaziçi.

On the day of the Roboski airstrike in 2011, when 34 Kurdish civilians were massacred by the Turkish air force, 34 Boğaziçi students were lying on the campus’ central plaza. Their bodies were framed by white chalk lines, about to leave behind a “crime scene” after the protest-performance was over.

The ugly civil war, unnamed and unspoken, is ongoing to produce Turkey’s native — borrowing Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s words — “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”

Every year on the anniversary of the 1997 “post-modern coup” (that precipitated the resignation of a former prime minister of a party that we might call the proto-AKP in its Islamist conservatism) Boğaziçi students would perform a “funeral prayer” to say a prayer for “democracy.”

A public institution which was among the few to stand against the infamous “headscarf ban” of the pre-AKP secularist state establishment, Boğaziçi continues to resist any assault on its free, inclusive and egalitarian environment. Today it resists the government’s demonization of its LGBTQ+ community.

Protest — Boğaziçi’s “institutional” culture — has always been essential to creating spaces for conversation, where students with different political opinions were able to contest and hold one another accountable, where they would listen and learn from, challenge and collaborate with one another.

​Today’s new coalitions

Since 2017, a large number of professors from various universities of Turkey have been prosecuted for signing the 2016 “Peace Petition” that condemned the government’s security operations in the country’s Kurdish regions, which had disastrous impacts on the population. While defending themselves against the charges of spreading terrorist propaganda, academics in Turkey have raised urgent questions about non-violence, justice, freedom of speech, democratic culture and political authority.

Today I use the trial speeches of the “Academics for Peace” — as they have since started calling themselves — in courses I teach in democratic theory. My former professors, now friends and colleagues, continue to inform my thinking, my politics, my teaching.

What is “radical,” says Barbara Smith, “is trying to make coalitions with people who are different from you.”

I got my radicalization training from Boğaziçi. We have made coalitions, dissolved coalitions, formed anew, broke again, tried again and failed again, in the words of Samuel Beckett, to fail better.

New coalitions are made today. Broader. Louder. Stronger.

On January 4, the AKP government sent its police to “handcuff” the campus and clear the protesters. The image of a handcuffed campus gate — an unmitigated visualization of AKP-brand fascism — worked only to fuel the resistance.

Living in a country where record numbers of academics, students and activists are in prison, jail or forced into exile, Boğaziçi faculty and students, with their allies at other universities of Turkey, struggle to restore academic autonomy and self-governance.

Their struggle manifests yet again an extraordinary commitment to democratic values under rampant authoritarianization.

Not a few, but many around the world stand in solidarity with Boğaziçi students and faculty, all with love and passion.

They hold the world together.

Support their commitment.





Nazlı Konya

Nazlı Konya is a PhD Candidate in Government at Cornell University. Her interests are in democratic politics and theory, protest movements and authoritarianism.


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