Where Are the Academic Boycotts of Turkey?

Flags at a pro-Erdogan rally in Istanbul, July 19, 2016. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)
The Western academy doesn’t hesitate to boycott Israel — but outright suppression of academic freedom in Turkey draws silence.

In an attempt to consolidate power after last week’s coup attempt, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched a massive purge of Turkish institutions. As Noah Daponte-Smith notes, among those fired or detained are 1,577 university deans and professors, along with tens of thousands of teachers. In conjunction, the government has “issued a blanket travel ban on all academics.” The purges are a signal that Erdogan is finished dealing with the irksome byproducts of a free academy.

Academics have been critical of Erdogan throughout his autocratic reign, with some sympathetic to Pennsylvania-based opposition leader Fethullah Gulen. Now, however, not only has the Turkish state built a rejection of academic freedom into its regime, but Turkish universities must also cheerlead for that regime. The Turkish academy is going to be nothing more than a megaphone for Erdogan as the suppression of dissenting scholars reverberates throughout its institutions.

Or, put another way, the actual situation in Turkey is therefore a lot like the imaginary situation in Israel, as imagined by academic associations that support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). These institutions claim that, first, Israel’s state activities violate international law, and second, that Israel’s academy as a collective is complicit in the perpetuation of these state activities. The president of the American Studies Association said about their Israel boycott that it “is the best way to protect and expand academic freedom and access to education,” adding that “as an association of scholars and educators, the ASA has an ethical responsibility to act.” Turkey’s actions since the aborted coup have been grotesque and illegal. The government has destroyed the freedom of individual scholars and lower-level educators. So should we expect the ASA — and the handful of academic associations like it that have also declared boycotts of Israel — to exercise its “ethical responsibility to act” in the case of Turkey?

No. The response of Western academia has thus far been limited to expressions of grave concern for the fate of individual academics who have been subject to the purge. No organized boycott effort has surfaced on any level. Mere proclamations of solidarity are supposed to suffice in the case of Turkey, while the same organizations agitate for nothing short of a blanket institutional boycott in the case of Israel. Mind you, academic conditions in Israel are far superior to those in Turkey. Even attempts to portray Israel as hostile to academic freedom are evidence for this: Compare the plight of Neve Gordon, who “nearly lost his job as a politics professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev after writing an op-ed arguing that Israel has become an apartheid state,” with the of thousands of Turkish scholars who did lose their jobs as professors after merely being suspected of dissent from the Erdogan regime’s policies. Despite attempts by the Left to paint Israel as institutionally hostile to academics critical of the government, the fact remains that these academics exist and are in most cases protected. Meanwhile in Turkey . . .

And it is not as if Western academia is just now finding out about Turkey’s dreadful treatment of individual academics or its crusade to make the academy its megaphone. Months ago the regime brought four professors to trial for signing a petition critical of the state’s belligerence toward the Kurds. Wouldn’t this be sufficient for a boycott? Let’s look at the faction of American anthropologists who sought — and failed — to pass an Israel-boycott resolution in their association. That faction issued a statement, all right: It “expressed its solidarity.” Powerful stuff.

#related#Groups in Western academia justify boycotts of Israel on the grounds that Israel violates international law and its academy is complicit. But Turkey is right now committing far grosser violations of international law and ensuring its academy’s complicity. These groups further assert that Israel is hostile to dissenting academics and that therefore their boycotts will promote academic freedom. But Turkey is right now firing and detaining any academics even suspected of dissent, and thus snuffing out any flicker of academic freedom that may have persisted. And yet the best these groups can do is offer solidarity.

Academic boycotts of Israel are hypocritical because they are inconsistently applied. And they are inconsistently applied because the boycotters have a nakedly pathological resentment for the Jewish state. Until they apply the reasoning behind Israel boycotts consistently — or, preferably, decide to stop using academic boycotts as a tool for political expression — academic boycotters of Israel have no defense for the charge of anti-Semitism.

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