Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is once again targeting university students over their political dissent, which he considers to be “support for terrorism.”
A pro-government group distributed “Turkish delights” on the campus of Turkey’s top institute of higher education, Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, to celebrate the invasion of Afrin on March 18 by Turkish military forces and Turkish-backed jihadists. Anti-war university students protested by unfolding a banner on the campus that read: “Invasions and massacres are not [to be celebrated] with delights.”
Following the protests, Erdogan targeted the students at a public meeting:
These communist, treacherous, terrorist youths scattered the tables [of those who celebrated the invasion]. We are carrying out all kinds of activities regarding these terrorist youths. We will not give these youths the right to study at university.
Now we are going after them more and more. We will find those terrorist students and do what is required. The professors at our universities should also be very careful. The moment we determine these students have connections with some professors, we will do what is required to them too. It is my highest duty to put in place those who treat differently others who distribute Turkish delights.
This is not the first time Erdogan has targeted university students.
In February 2014, Erdogan, then prime minister, referred to the students of another prestigious Turkish university, the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara, as “atheists” and “terrorists.” The students had protested the construction of “1071 Malazgirt Boulevard” on property that belongs to the university. Police responded with gas bombs, pressurized water and rubber bullets.
“On Monday, we opened the boulevard built by our metropolitan municipality of Ankara,” said Erdogan. “Despite whom? Despite those leftists! Despite those atheists! They are atheists! They are terrorists!”
1071 is the year in which Turkic Muslims from central Asia arrived in Malazgirt (Manzikert), a town in the Armenian highlands in what was then the Greek Byzantine Empire (today’s eastern Turkey) and began their invasion and conquest of the region.
Erdogan bashed the university students in his own unique way: “What is the name of the boulevard? Malazgirt 1071. One of them was wearing Byzantine clothes. Alp Arslan [the Turkic leader] fought against Byzantium. So he [the student] put himself in the position of Byzantium. Shame on you!”
The Turkish government’s attacks on free speech at universities have been systematic and widespread. In January 2016, a group of academics and researchers from Turkey and abroad called “Academics for Peace” signed and issued a declaration entitled, “We Will Not Be a Party to This Crime.” In it, they criticized the Turkish government for its curfews and killings in Kurdish-majority districts in southeast Turkey and demanded a return to peace talks.
The signatories have been persecuted ever since for “insulting the Turkish nation” and “making propaganda for a terrorist organization.” They have been targeted by pro-government media outlets and threatened by diverse elements — in some cases by students and university presidents.
Some of them have been detained by police, banned from going abroad, and exposed to administrative investigations. Many have been fired or suspended from their jobs — for advocating peace between the Turkish government and Kurdish groups.
In Turkey, an ostensible NATO ally and a perpetual candidate for EU membership, only people who celebrate or remain silent in the face of murders and invasions can live safely and freely. The moment a handful of brave citizens dare oppose violent government policies, pressures from various sources — including the president, the judiciary and the state-run media — are ready to crush their voices.
Uzay Bulut is a journalist and political analyst from Turkey and a fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center.