When I started Conflict Antiquities, I occasionally went “off-topic” and discussed Turkish state restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information, or deep state ultra-nationalist propaganda (including the pollution of the public domain with false information in order to trick other authorities into blocking visas for international work). Now, there is public evidence for secret anti-academic and un-academic action against research and teaching.
Turkey has the most journalists in prison in the world, and at least the second-most scholars in prison (equal with Russia and China, just behind Iran – but, actually, probably ahead). Now, it has emerged that ‘[g]rad[uate] students working on #Armenian issues [are] being monitored in #Turkey; [and] can be refused funding if [they are] working on [the Armenian] genocide’. So they literally can’t get themselves arrested, because they can’t do the work in the first place.
In Turkey, both politics and the economy are riddled with corruption, from nepotism to bribery, to control and administration by blackmail and extortion. That corruption is frequently ideologically-driven; and it is both a product and a producer of pervasive undemocratic, religiously-intolerant, culturally-intolerant sentiments in society.
It is a genuine public concern, but the current scandal, where police are racing to arrest politicians, their families and “their” businessmen (and they are men) for improper conduct, and politicians are racing to dismiss police for improper conduct, is actually a clash between two groups within the Islamist faction. This ‘civilian coup‘ is only one part of Turkey’s total crisis, and is indeed only the second ‘civil coup‘ of the year (after the government, police and army joined forces against civil society).
The government had already held a ‘scientific coup‘ in 2011, when it ‘reinforced and institutionalized’ control over the governance of scholarship, to the extent that it could ‘no longer be considered an [independent, critical, democratic] academy at all’. That (even more) corrupt academy facilitated plausibly deniable blacklisting by refusal of research licences or work permits. This clandestine programme reveals how the state and its allies used their power over work to systematically suppress cultural heritage workers’ struggles for truth, reconciliation, peace and democracy.
Secret monitoring and blacklisting of researchers into the Armenian Genocide
State monitoring of social science
The Turkish Higher Education Board (Yüksek Öğretim Kurumu (YÖK)) maintains a national database of the personal details and educational activity of postgraduate students who look at the ‘Armenian issue’, in order to ‘mak[e its data] available to the [ultranationalist] Turkish Historical Society [Türk Tarih Kurumu (TTK)]’. Their personal details presumably include their until-recently secret ancestry codes, with which the state has tracked its minorities for (and across) the last century: Greeks (1), Armenians (2), Jews (3), Syriacs (4) and other non-Muslims (5).
Less than reassuringly, a TTK representative insisted that it actually wanted ‘details of all students who worked [anywhere] in social sciences [sosyal bilimlerde çalışan bütün öğrencilerin bilgilerini]’. It is not “merely” an invasion of privacy that leaves its subjects vulnerable to hackers. It is one of the cornerstones of the surveillance state’s thought police.
Historians ‘already knew’ that YÖK was ‘profiling‘ scholars who researched ‘the Armenian issue’ (and probably other “red line” issues). One historian told Hürriyet Daily News that ‘many young Turkish historians had been conducting research on the Armenian issue’. Yet, according to YÖK’s records, only four Master’s dissertations or doctoral theses have “researched” the issue, and all of those have repeated the established state narrative of genocide denial.
As the historian concluded (and as I will explain), those ‘many’ young historians ‘had concerns about their future career in Turkey because of their chosen research topic’. Inexplicably (or entirely explicably), Hürriyet Daily News left out the central evidence of its source work, Agos‘s original (Turkish-language) article.
On our asking the representative about which criteria were taken into account when bursaries were given, for example, bursaries that were given or not given to students who defined the experiences of 1915 as genocide, the representative explained that, ‘as a foundation, we do not officially recognise [the Armenian Genocide], so the bursary may not be given. They can submit an application, but there may not be a positive outcome.’
[Burs verilirken hangi kriterlerin göz önüne alındığını, örneğin 1915’te yaşananları soykırım olarak tanımlayan öğrencilere burs verilip verilmediğini sormamız üzerine yetkili, “Kurum olarak (Ermeni Soykırımı’nı) resmen kabul etmiş değiliz, onun için burs verilmeyebilir. Başvuru yapabilirler ama olumlu sonuç çıkmayabilir” açıklamasında bulundu.]
When the Turkish Historical Society says that it does not officially recognise the Armenian Genocide, it means that it denies the Armenian Genocide, and that it manipulates historical evidence and historical research and is complicit in the destruction of archaeological evidence in order to do so. If a student who recognises the genocide applies for funding, there will not be a positive outcome, the bursary will not be given.
One of Boğaziçi University’s former rectors, Üstün Ergüder, revealed to Taraf that YÖK had been petitioning the university for years, to ‘ensure that theses that support Turkish unity are written [Türk birliğini savunan tezler yazdırılsın]’.(fn1) Another former rector, Ayşe Soysal, confirmed that YÖK’s interference was ‘routine [rutindir]’.
Two kinds of letter [would] come from YÖK. The first kind that [would] come [was] in the form, ‘support the conduct of research that supports the state’s official view on subject X or Y’. Or the complete opposite [would] come. [YÖK’ten iki türlü yazı gelebilir. Birincisi ‘X ya da Y konusunda devletin resmi görüşünü destekleyen araştırmaların yapılmasını destekleyin’ şeklinde gelebilir. Ya da tam tersi gelebilir.]
Emigrate, endanger or acquiesce
So, those many young scholars have three basic options: (1) secure a visa, secure some funding, leave the country and conduct research (relatively) freely (though still limited by the state’s control over resources in Turkey, and at risk of prosecution or violence on their return to Turkey); (2) study secretly within the country (which is obviously risky, but also a reality, which I have witnessed myself); or (3) keep quiet and have a chance of supporting themselves and their families.
So, they have no meaningful choice. That is why and how a corrupt state/para-state perpetuates cultural heritage workers’ precarity and exploits their vulnerability to perpetuate disadvantage and conflict.
fn1: It’s a peculiar grammatical form, which can range from a polite wish (for example, “let your hands be healthy [ellerinize sağlık olsun]”) to an unsubtle threat or incitement (for example, “let their hands be broken [onların elleri kırılsın]”).