Turkey: Could student protests signal a new youth movement?

January 23, 2021
Students hold a cross-campus protest against the AKP-installed rector at Istanbul's Boğaziçi’ (Bosphorus) University. Photo: @Boğaziçi Dayanışması/Twitter

Since the rise of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the early 2000s, its conservative "soft Islamist" presentation of the Millî Görüş politico-religious tradition has put it at odds with the liberal-left norms of student life in Turkey.

Students, with their greater interest in radical politics and their more progressive social values, have tended to view the AKP government with suspicion, at best. This includes the periods when Erdoğan's chosen image as a conservative democratiser was more widespread, even among some somewhat liberal sections of the left, and more recently, particularly after the 2013 Gezi Uprising, where at least half the country have begun to view him as a paranoid dictator.

That young students would not be too warm to any conservative leader is highly unsurprising. That Turkish students and faculty are organising against their own school officials as an "arm" of the regime invites more comment and is newsworthy.

Earlier this month, the AKP government intervened in Boğaziçi (Bosphorus) University’s internal affairs, replacing, by edict, the previous rector Mehmed Özkan with AKP loyalist Melih Bulu, who has an open political history with the party.

This "caretaker" rector appointment reflects the AKP’s policy to replace, by edict, elected officials in local government — generally members of the pro-Kurdish, left-wing People's Democratic Party (HDP) — with their own, as well as a general project of trying to control the university system as a means of social engineering the youth.

The AKP is at the same time attempting to enforce conservative gender dynamics on a broader scale than before, by pushing gender-segregated universities. New "women's universities" are being proposed, ostensibly to "protect" women, but in reality to impose a separate and strictly gendered model of education opposed by leftist and feminist groups (under the campaign #KadınÜniversitesiİstemiyoruz).

Bulu is but one example of attempts at AKP meddling in the university’s autonomy and the values of education and knowledge that both students and faculty aspire to. In an overt example of AKP corruption, “Dr” Bulu’s PhD was found to be plagiarised to the point that his doctorate could easily be revoked and his job title stripped, were he not being backed by the dictatorial AKP government.

Thus, Boğaziçi’s faculty and students were presented with a particularly easy target in this new and unwelcome government watchdog, and have been able to mobilise international support from students and academics, and spread the word of their growing dissent, with hashtags such as: #KayyumRektorİstemiyoruz (We don’t want the rector), #KabulEtmiyoruzVazgeçmiyoruz (We don’t accept, we won’t give up) and #BoğaziçiDireniyor (Boğaziçi resists).

Because Boğaziçi’s student body has, in recent years, become particularly politicised and organised, shades of the previous energy of the Gezi Resistance were found in the growing popularity of their protests. Support for the actions went beyond the boundaries of the most well-informed students to the campus at large, with students spreading the word and infusing the protests with a spirit of popular humour, life and community.

The resisters brought their own particular grievances with the AKP and Turkish reactionary politics to the fore. Trans and LGBTI flags were displayed prominently, and the new rector's pastime of listening to the band Metallica was mocked by students who sang Metallica songs with modified lyrics at him during protests.

Terror card

The AKP's response, from local politicians to Erdoğan to the police, which he controls by edict, was to accuse the protests of being a "terrorist provocation".

Refusing to answer the faculty and students' shared and indisputable grievance that the rector had not been elected by faculty and could not represent the school's educational and social life in any way (due to his fraudulent academic credentials), the entire protest movement was accused of being the work of the illegal Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP).

The MLKP is a clandestine party affiliated to various Maoist and Hoxhaist groups (referring to Albanian communist Enver Hoxha) around the world and is best known internationally for its active participation in the defence of the Rojava Revolution.

Clearly, the AKP hoped to scare students and the general public away from protesting by using the ever-present spectre of terrorism: separatist pro-Kurdish terrorists are behind this resistance, therefore anyone who resists is against the whole Turkish nation, therefore, go home, or you are also a terrorist.

This strategy was accompanied by a string of night time and dawn raids, mostly directed at the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP), known to have many sympathisers at Boğaziçi. One of the ESP’s cadre, a young Kurdish trans woman named Havîn, was threatened with sexual assault during a strip search in police custody in the aftermath of the protests.

Havîn, who has been active in women's and LGBTI organisation at the university for some time, received an outpouring of support from students, women's, and LGBTI groups. But she was not alone, as at the time of writing, a string of ESP members, who are not Boğaziçi students, have been taken into custody. While at least five of them have been set "free" (under observation and with their right to leave the country stripped), at least five more have been officially arrested and charged.

AKP officials have been clear in their desire to associate this protest movement (which is ongoing as of the time of writing) with illegal organisations viewed as "terrorist" by the Turkish state. Even Republican People’s Party (CHP) İstanbul Province President Canan Kaftancıoğlu has been variously accused of membership of the MLKP and (by Erdoğan) of being a militant of the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C).

Turkish courts are under no pressure to prove or even make logical sense of these nakedly political charges. Inconsistencies often find their way into the courtroom, where defendants can be charged with membership of a new "hybrid" organisation, made up on the spot.

The "terror card" has been the consistent and desperate "go to" for the Turkish regime for decades, and fashions and trends regarding which group to blame come and go. But since the 1980s, "Kurdish separatism" and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been the ultimate test: most of the Turkish public still fear the PKK and the very concept of Kurdish self-determination more than they fear the fascist government, which every day tramples on their rights and deprives them of any economic or social future, while lining the pockets of whichever corrupt clique is in power.

The youth always have a chance at a new beginning, and the fact that Boğaziçi is a relatively "safe space" for pro-Kurdish sentiment in Istanbul (the reason why the AKP wants to keep the campus under its watchful eye) likely means that accusing every protestor of being a "separatist" might not stick.


But the question is, how far can this protest movement progress? So far, the resistant Boğaziçi campus has received solidarity from Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) students (another generally "far left" campus by Turkish standards), and Istanbul protesters off campus flooded the area around the Kadıköy quay. But these are already areas dominated by at least the centre left and are relatively "safe" for the radical left.

For this reason, the AKP is recklessly and blatantly targeting the ESP in several cities and areas not necessarily related to the university protest movement. ESP members who are professional lawyers and labour organisers are likely seen by the regime as conduits, helping connect the movement for social rights and intellectual freedoms with the issues of rising unemployment, campaigns against political repression and stagnant wages, amid rising demands for a living wage and more open and serious treatment of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

All of these students, "organised" or not, will soon face exactly the same problems as workers in unions like LİMTER-İŞ (which covers shipyard workers): even highly-educated professionals are desperately competing in a high stress job market for lifestyles increasingly buoyed by credit.

The COVID-19 crisis affects all of Turkish society regardless of social class, but it is the minority of business owners, exclusively, who are interested in allowing it to run its course, regardless of the cost in human life and wellbeing.

There is common cause between the "isolated" social problems on the university campus and the "broad" social problems of society at large. They are overseen by one ruling class, and the ruled must unite if they are to find any lasting solution.

[Muhsin Yorulmaz is a writer and translator with Abstrakt, a Marxist internet magazine.]

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