The Turkish government has been waging a war of repression on its political opponents since a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 failed to dislodge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to a tally of official figures from the opposition website Turkey Purge, 7,316 academics have been dismissed in purges at Turkish universities.
Some of those arrested are accused of belonging to the movement led by Fethullah Gulen, the US-based Muslim cleric who President Erdogan claims was behind the coup attempt. Other academics were dismissed — or even thrown behind bars — for having signed a petition that called for peace with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a banned militant group that has been fighting Turkish forces in the southeast of the country for decades. Many of these “academics for peace” have fled the country after being accused of links to terrorism.
But a few professors, like our Observer, have decided to stay and fight Erdogan's authoritarianism. Their options are limited. Protests are banned under the state of emergency that was declared following July’s coup attempt.
One solution is to give lectures in cafés and public parks. By doing so, these professors hope to rekindle the rebellious, progressive spirit that sparked protests in 2013. That year, thousands of people took to Gezi Park in the heart of Istanbul to oppose Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule.
'We are the university'
"I'm one of the “academics for peace”. Because I wanted the war to end, I was accused of associating with terrorists. Ankara University transferred me to another institution in April 2016. I ended up resigning because I didn't feel safe. I'm currently the subject of five investigations, all of them for supposedly “insulting the president”—all because of an article in which I drew an analogy between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a dragon.
The first “street academies” session, which was hosted by our Observer and his colleague Mehmet Mutlu, focused on “Hegemony and counter-hegemony”. Photo taken December 4, 2016 in Ankara's Kuğulu park and published on Facebook.
Today, my friends and I organise the “street academies” twice per month. At first, some of the other “academics for peace” told us: “It's impossible, you'll be arrested at the first class you try to give.” But now we're preparing our 8th class.
The fifth lecture, on February 12, 2017. Photo published on Facebook.
‘We want to speak to the working classes’
We watched the Iranian film "Blackboards", [a 2000 film about itinerant Kurdish teachers who carry their blackboards into small villages to find students] and right away decided to buy a giant blackboard and organise the first session on December 4, 2016, in Kuğulu Park. We told ourselves: “We are the university. We're going to do the same thing everywhere.” We gave lectures all over Ankara, from the city centre to the working-class districts on the outskirts.
We always change locations because we want to reach out to the working classes. People from each neighbourhood come to see us, we chat, and we always end up getting along. Before that they thought we were terrorists, since the Turkish media always gives the government's point of view.
For us, sharing knowledge in public parks is very important. In Turkey, people associate parks with the Gezi protests. In 2013, people in every neighbourhood gathered in their local parks to swap ideas on how to change the world. But nothing has happened since then, so these “street academies” seem to be good for people.
‘The police leave us alone’
Our Observer's biggest success to date was lecturing at the amphitheatre of Seğmenler Park, in Ankara, on February 12, 2017. Photo published on Facebook.
On February 12, just after a wave of arrests and firings, more than 300 people turned up to listen to a lecture given by Sevilay Çelenk. The theme was “resist with stories”. At the moment, classes can only last about 15 minutes because of the cold weather in Ankara. But when it starts getting warmer, we’ll spend more time outside.
Snow blankets Ankara's Ahmet Arif park during a lecture given on January 15, 2017. Photo published on Facebook.
The police came the first time but they never came back. They told us that protests were banned, but we responded by telling them that we weren't protesting. Since then, they've left us alone. But we still feel scared. And the general feeling of oppression and dread that the country's rulers are spreading hasn’t gone away either.
Looking ahead, our goal is to take the project to towns across Turkey. We have to show people that the kind of society that Erdogan is presenting us isn't right for Turkey. Our culture is secular, progressive and tolerant.
‘We must keep up the fight’
Almost 100 people came to hear my lecture in Ethem Sarısülük Park. It wasn’t like what I was used to, because it wasn’t only students in the audience. There were construction workers, retirees and officials. I was surprised and impressed! Especially since I was speaking about using class struggle as a way of understanding the world.
I'm scared by political repression, just like everyone else. It's human. But I'm convinced that we can’t give in, that we must keep up the fight. If not, we’ve already lost.