Has democracy failed in Turkey? One scholar, activist shares his story

Halil Yenigun is a visiting postdoctoral scholar at Stanford’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, who left Turkey in 2016 amidst a government crackdown on dissenting academics. In the below interview, Yenigun shares his story of advocating for democracy, human rights, and peace in Turkey, and calls for “global democratic solidarity” across borders to keep invasive governments in check.

Can you tell us about your background and where you are from?

I was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey. I came to the U.S. for graduate school in 2001 and finished my Ph.D. at the University of Virginia’s political theory program in 2013. I was already back in Turkey by that time, working at Istanbul Commerce University. There was a massive boom in the higher education sector with a lot of new public and private universities in the 2000s and the country seemed to be on the right track to a consolidated democracy with expanded rights and liberties. That was one of the reasons why I went back: to contribute to the intellectual and scientific life in Turkey, to be a part of the betterment of the society and especially the youth. I also co-founded a think-tank called Istanbul Think-House to institutionalize a research and education center that would represent the underprivileged and the unrepresented in the knowledge structures, and liberate knowledge from established interests and power structures. I also worked on the board of a human rights organization to improve rights and liberties in Turkey, and I taught seminars on political theory in a number of different institutions.

You lost your job in Istanbul in 2016. What happened?

In January 2016, I signed a petition that was organized by a group of my friends and colleagues named “Academics for Peace.” The petition called for an end to the horrifying massacres of civilians occurring in the Kurdish urban areas at the time and proposed a return to a peace process — stating that we would volunteer as mediators.

The ordeals that resulted from this petition were preceded by a gradual suppression of civil society that had been long underway since the Gezi Protests of 2013. The dissenting intellectuals, journalists, and academics were under tremendous pressure from the government to either obey or be silenced. I was part of several efforts to keep the peace process alive, and I could foresee the risks with the ever-shrinking space of freedom in the country.

On January 11, 2016, the petition was released to the public with the names and affiliations of the 1,128 signatories. After a few hours, President Erdogan appeared on TV, verbally attacked the signatories with quite abusive language, and threatened that we would pay for our treason. I hoped to be wrong, but the moment I saw that, I predicted that the purge of academia had started.

Not even an hour had passed when I received a call from the secretary general of my university, who invited me to the university president’s office. There, the legal advisor questioned me about my motives for signing the petition and whether I had signed it knowingly and willingly. He was quite sure the petition was prepared by some outside forces to bring Erdogan down, and he came up with bizarre conspiracy theories about imperialist forces’ designs for the Middle East. I told him that I was the only professor entrusted with teaching Middle East politics, and the least they could do is allow me to have my own opinion on the subject. I tried to clarify my own position, but of course, it was a hopeless situation.

A few days later I received a letter from the university stating that I was suspended. In the meantime, the chair of the university’s board of trustees openly attacked me in a mainstream newspaper, calling me a “colonial academic,” and adding that the Turkish nation would never forgive me. I stayed away from school for 40 days, suspended and pending disciplinary investigation. By that time there were dozens of dismissals of my colleagues, home raids by the police, and threats from local mobs. I participated in TV interviews, panels, and press conferences to defend the cause. One weekend, a major newspaper columnist famous for attacking public figures wrote about me in two consecutive pieces. I was sacked the next day and was denied my legally required severance package.

What did you do next, and how did you find your way to Stanford?

As somebody who had already lived abroad in two different countries for nine years, I thought it was best to go abroad again after being blacklisted and targeted. In April 2016, I was invited to a lecture at the University of North Carolina, and I left without even taking a final look at my room, not knowing I would not be back. After I came to the U.S., I was invited to some other lectures and conferences, where I presented my experience and the democratic decay in Turkey.

When the coup attempt happened in July of 2016, I was in Charlottesville, packing for Istanbul. By that time, I had received a postdoc position in Germany at the Transregional Studies Forum in Berlin. Immediately after the coup, when the state of emergency was declared along with massive purges, the first targets were the officially declared perpetrators of the coup attempt — Gülenists. It was the “and they came for us” moment. Many dissidents thought the purges would eventually be extended to all other segments of the society because the coup seemed to be just an excuse — if not enabled by Erdogan himself — that would indiscriminately target everybody who could not prove their loyalty to Erdogan. It indeed did happen so.

So I decided not to go back because travel bans were being issued to academics and passports were being revoked. But I also could not stay in the U.S. because my status would expire on July 27. I had a Schengen visa that was valid for a few more weeks, so I decided to take my chances and left the U.S. on the very last day of my legal stay. I flew to Germany without really having the chance to plan anything, even my hotel stay that night. Those couple of weeks in limbo will remain quite memorable for the rest of my life.

Germany is still close to Turkey and you can feel the heat of Turkish politics there. While I was there, I witnessed the never-ending exodus of friends, colleagues, and activists, who had a lot of dramatic stories. After we reached a substantial number in Germany, the Academics for Peace group decided to organize as a formal association. Our European colleagues have been really supportive and have tried to show their solidarity as much as possible. For instance, I was invited to Paris to be a visiting scholar at Paris VIII University for a month. Now, we even have an “Academics for Peace, Germany” group.

After a great year in Germany, surrounded by great friends and scholars, I was fortunate to receive a two-year, postdoctoral fellowship offer from Stanford’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies. I was worried that my passport would be canceled, as happened to many other colleagues since the Turkish regime has been giving false lost notices to Interpol. Fortunately, I arrived here safe and sound.

How has this experience shaped your thinking and current work — what are your current research interests?

I was trained in political theory, comparative political theory, and focused on Muslim political thought, to be exact. Over the years my interests have branched out to new subfields. For instance, in Turkey, I wrote and spoke a lot on Islamism and specifically Turkish Islamism. Also, after the Arab Spring, I joined a research project at Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Center, named Project on the Middle East and Arab Spring. But the real change took place after what happened in the post-petition process. For the last two years, I have spoken much more on Turkish democracy’s breakdown, the Kurdish issue, and peace activism, but I took the opportunity here at Stanford to get back to my primary research interests. I hope to teach and research more on comparative political theory.

You recently spoke at an event here at Stanford about the “tragedy of democracy” in Turkey. Why do you think democracy has failed there? And do you think democracy can still prevail?

Why democracy has failed in Turkey is a quite complex conundrum. I think there are both contingent and structural factors. A lot of scholars and policy circles on Turkey failed to see this coming. Some were skeptical of Erdogan and his party from the very beginning, accusing him of having a hidden Islamist agenda, which finally came out when he no longer needed the European Union (EU) nor liberals for the civilianization of the Turkish state. I still do not see this as an ideological transformation per se. Of course, everybody has an ideology, and philosophy of life, so does Erdogan, though in a much more crude way. But this is, at heart, a traditional political problem of the concentration of power and establishment of a one-man regime. Going back to this first interpretation, once he got rid of the old Kemalist state elite with the EU and U.S. support outside and Gülenist support inside, Erdogan could show his true face, given that there was effectively no power to check him.

Others see the 2010 referendum as the turning point that effectively handed the judiciary over to Gülen supporters, abolishing the separation of powers. As the last vestiges of the Kemalist regime were thus expunged, it was just a matter of time before Gülenists and Erdogan would clash to share the spoils of victory against the Kemalists. The resentment that had built-up against the old Kemalist state elites among the conservative masses, especially the suppressive secularism that did not even let women wear the hijab in the public sphere, did not help matters much. Erdogan has really been living on and feeding those deep-rooted fears among the conservative masses of a Kemalist comeback.

There have been a lot of talks at Stanford recently about the Iranian revolution; why and how it happened. We still try to make sense of that historic event, and I think we will also continue to talk for a long time about Erdogan’s gradual process of taking hold of Turkey. I still think, for better or worse, Turkey was at a crossroads during the 2010 referendum and it could still have gone in a more democratic direction if the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) elite — Abdullah Gül, Bülent Arınç, and Ahmet Davutoğlu — had a strong will for democracy and the courage to stop Erdogan from eliminating the others in the party.

From the very beginning, a lot of scholars and observers were suspicious that he was not a real democrat, but as long as he was doing and saying all the right things, this did not look so important for most of us. After all, “democracy without democrats” was what political scientists argued to be possible. Liberals and Democrats really did not think institutions were this fragile in Turkey after 150 years of experience with constitutionalism. When Erdogan said something, most liberals close to him offered reassurances that he did not really mean it or it was not so important, given all the right reforms he was doing. But the Turkish people have, with painful experience, realized that all those words do indeed matter when politicians utter them, and nobody should ever downplay them or count only on the institutions to save democracy.

Resistance still matters, it changes the game, and that is why the ongoing resistance in Turkey is still keeping the last hopes for democracy alive. Many would agree that if the April 2017 referendum were not rigged, Erdogan could not have won the referendum and effectively established a one-man regime. Any meaningful party politics and the parliament’s power are long gone in Turkey. They do not have the capacity or ability to be the locus of democratic struggle. The real opposition is on the ground, on the streets with the unrelenting struggle of dedicated activists. They do not give up no matter what, and this is what still gives me hope.

What have been some of the challenges and opportunities of working in the U.S.?

It is nothing new for me, as I had spent one-fourth of my life here before I went back to Turkey. Of course, being at Stanford is a tremendously enriching experience, and I feel very fortunate for that. As a student of political science and political theory, I have to keep a critical distance to all governments, holding a lot of strong normative positions on good government. Despite all its drawbacks and failings, issues of racism and inequality, the still functioning institutions of democracy here and the freedoms we all enjoy are very important to cherish and protect. What we have experienced in Turkey is ironically going global. With global transformations in the balance of power, I think the normative defense of democracy has become much more critical. There should be a global democratic solidarity across borders among citizens of different countries, who would struggle together and keep the invasive governments in check.

I am still in a quite precarious situation here, as you can imagine, and I do not even know where I will be living in two years. I cannot even rest assured that the U.S. government or the EU member states will not turn the Turkish dissidents into Turkish government in order to keep the country in their own axis rather than Russia’s, as Erdogan is very shrewdly using this leverage as his bargaining chip. It is very disappointing to see that Turkey’s hostage diplomacy and its use of trade deals to get away with its human rights abuses is still working in many ways. It is a shame that even the U.S. government cannot protect its own citizens who have been held as hostages in Turkey.

So, challenges abound for us. For instance, Turkey has engaged in a quite unprovoked invasion of the Kurdish town of Afrin in Syria in late January. So far, at least 175 civilians have been killed. Nobody has asked for real evidence about whether any attack against Turkey from Afrin took place, nor have any foreign governments or major advocacy groups shown significant solidarity with the anti-war movement in Turkey. I also lost a few of my friends and Peace Academics to prisons after they expressed their dissent of Erdogan’s war policies through social media. Personally, it is difficult for me to get away from these constant sources of frustration and deep worries, and to fully focus on my abstract political theory work. I cannot help but have mixed feelings about my position here, as I feel like it would be turning my back to my colleagues who did exactly the same thing I did — sign a petition — and who also lost their jobs.

Anything else you’d like to add?

After my experience in Germany, I feel that the U.S. academic community is unfortunately under-engaged with what is going on in Turkey and the pro-democratic academic community there. Europe was quite supportive with a lot more initiatives to either create solutions for the dismissed academics or take a stand against the perpetrators of these persecutions. Of course, being thousands of miles away with a whole set of other big issues is a grave challenge here, and I would not expect the same level of solidarity as in Europe, but I feel like the window is closing soon, and we will then regret not having done enough when we could have. That is why I would like to invite more conversation, more brainstorming on how to side with the persecuted academics in Turkey. We, Academics for Peace, already have a number of active initiatives for those who want to show their solidarity. I am also always open to having conversations about this issue.

View more interviews with Stanford Global Studies faculty, students, and visitors via the Global Perspectives blog.