How a Campus Protest Galvanized the Turkish Opposition

How a Campus Protest Galvanized the Turkish Opposition

The Turkish government’s crackdown on protests at Boğaziçi University earlier this year has brought together the broadest coalition of AKP opponents since the 2013 Gezi Park protests.

Gorillaz-inspired rendering of four arrested art exhibit-goers. (Courtesy of the BOUNSERGİ art collective)

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As the sun set over Istanbul on the last Friday in January 2021, it was easy to forget that Boğaziçi University was surrounded by a police barricade. Students gathered on the South Campus, as they had before the pandemic. An exhibition of artworks protesting the government sprawled across the roundabout in front of the rector’s office. Bands and DJs played music while students laughed and danced, reveling in a few hours of normalcy at the end of a month that had been anything but.

Students and faculty had been protesting since the first week of January, when the Turkish president named Melih Bulu, a ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) operative, trustee rector of Boğaziçi, the top public university in Istanbul and an enclave for dissent. Though these kinds of encroachments on academic freedom aren’t new in Turkey, for many, Bulu’s appointment was a step too far. And when government officials began attacking students for their identities, calling them “LGBT perverts” and “terrorists,” the protests became a symbol of the government’s assaults on not only academic freedom but on progressive culture as a whole.

The exhibition was organized by a student art collective that wanted to give people the chance to express their grievances with the government in a creative way. For a week, they displayed paintings, photography, and sculptures around the quad. The collective received so many submissions that they had to lay some pieces on the ground. That Friday evening, the students felt they had pulled off a successful show.

But as the hilltop campus began to darken, whispers made their way through the crowd. A campaign against the exhibition had started circulating on Twitter. In response to one of the pieces, which replaced the Kaaba, a building in Mecca and the holiest site in Islam, with the Turkish folklore figure Şahmaran alongside the LGBTQ+ rainbow flag and the trans pride flag, Ali Erbaş, the president of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, condemned the “boundless attack against our holy place, the Kaaba, and our Islamic values.” Other government officials soon followed suit. The students had grown up under the AKP, and they knew what catching the ire of the government meant. They stopped the music, packed up the exhibition, and made their way to the exit, hoping to avoid trouble.

In a speech to the gathered students, Hazar Kolancalı, a member of the art collective, said she and the other members of the collective were likely going to be arrested, but that the exhibition had been “beautiful.”

At the campus gates, police officers waited in riot gear. Later the students would learn that two other students, Doğu Demirtaş and Selahattin Can Uğuzeş, had already been arrested when they tried to report to the police that they were being followed. When Kolancalı reached the gates, officers called out her name and rushed to arrest her and Sena Nur Baş, another member of the collective. Handcuffs were tightened around their wrists. Demirtaş and Uğuzeş were imprisoned, while Nur Baş and Kolancalı were put under house arrest. At midnight, Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu tweeted, “We’ve arrested the four LGBT perverts who disrespected the Great Kaaba!”

 

When the curfew lifted the following Monday, February 1, students and alumni marched toward the Boğaziçi campus. Police had erected a barricade at the South Campus gates; only some students were allowed past the entrance, while others were not allowed to leave. Regardless of police presence, hundreds poured down the hill to Bulu’s office, where they sat for the rest of the day.

Over the weekend, government officials began to shift public discourse to the students’ identities. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, echoing Soylu, called the arrested students perverts. “We respect every opinion and every idea,” he said, “as long as they do not get involved in terrorism, immorality, perversion, and violence.” The charges levied against them were raised from insult of religion to “publicly degrading the religious values of a section of the public . . . where the act is capable of disturbing public peace,” and the chief public prosecutor’s office demanded that the students face up to three years in prison.

The same night as the exhibition, the police also raided a campus LGBTQ+ club office, in which they allegedly found evidence of “terrorism”: a book about the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdish movement. When a group of faculty and students arrived at the office on Monday, they discovered that the rainbow stickers that had covered the door had been scraped off and the locks had been changed. Professor Can Candan, the faculty adviser for the club, asked security to open the office, but they were told that Bulu had ordered the club’s closure. Later that evening, Erdoğan’s communications director tweeted that the club had been closed to crack down on those that “try to trample our sacred values.”

“It was a top-down decision, just like the appointment of Melih Bulu,” Candan said. “But by just changing the lock and scratching off the stickers, you can’t really close a student club. The students are still there.”

As a 9 p.m. curfew neared and students still surrounded his office, Bulu did something that hadn’t been done since the 1980 military coup: he called the police onto Boğaziçi to escort him off the campus. Videos show protesters being violently deterred with riot shields and batons. Dozens were marched out of the campus gates, in a line, while police told them to “look down” (inspiring a viral hashtag, #aşağıyabakmayacağız—“we will not look down”—and support campaign for the students). One student, who asked to remain anonymous due to ongoing legal proceedings, recalled four officers pinning him to the ground and cuffing his hands behind his back before placing him on a bus with dozens of others. Over the course of that day, over 159 students were arrested on the Boğaziçi campus—108 during the day and fifty-one more during the night.

The police violence on campus only spurred larger protests. On Tuesday, February 2, hundreds of demonstrators, this time a broader coalition of students, leftists, sympathizers, and those who generally oppose the AKP government, gathered in the Kadıköy neighborhood on the city’s Asian side. According to protesters and videos shot on the scene, police used rubber bullets and sprayed tear gas to control the crowd. That night, twenty-three people were formally arrested. Two were held in prison; others were under house arrest until they faced trial in March, and are now on conditional release until their trial continues in June. The two students first arrested after the exhibition, Demirtaş and Uğuzeş, were kept in prison until March 17, when they were released on parole until their next court date in July. Nur Baş and Kolancalı were kept under house arrest for forty-three days.

Nearly six months later the protests are still ongoing. Every day at noon, professors meet on campus (or, during a recent COVID-19 lockdown, in panels on Zoom, broadcast on social media) to peacefully protest Bulu’s appointment. Trade unions, such as the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey, the Confederation of Public Employees Unions, the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, and the Turkish Medical Association, have voiced their support for the protests and for the principle of academic autonomy. People outside of the university and the country—including international academic organizations like the Middle East Studies Association—have also held events to discuss the ongoing protests.

Since early March, according to Professor Bülent Küçük of Boğaziçi’s sociology department, Bulu has overseen the university from a satellite Boğaziçi campus in Kandilli, on the Asian side of Istanbul, away from the protests. When asked for comment by Turkish news organization Medyascope, the office of the rector said Bulu was using both campuses to work. A new security fence, complete with surveillance cameras, has been erected at the entrance to the Boğaziçi campus, and only students and faculty are allowed to enter. Students and professors continue to call on Bulu to resign.

 

Campus unrest is not a new phenomenon in Turkey, nor is the kind of government encroachment on academia that sparked these protests. For decades, university campuses have been the battlegrounds upon which conflicts over freedom of speech, academic freedom, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and more have been fought.

On February 16, 1969, tens of thousands of students, leftists and anti-government demonstrators gathered in Istanbul’s Beyazit Square to protest the arrival of the American Sixth Fleet on the Bosphorus. Right-wing students, neo-fascists, and counter-protesters attacked the demonstrators, killing two and injuring hundreds. This incident ushered in widespread leftist unrest, particularly on campuses.

In 1971—the same year Boğaziçi University (previously known as Robert College) was handed over to the Turkish government by its American founders—a “coup by memorandum” ushered in a new militaristic era of rule. State efforts to crack down on leftists and anti-government sentiment led to a decade of unrest.

Cemal Kafadar, Professor of History and Turkish Studies at Harvard University, described the line between the students, the unions, and leftist parties at the time as porous. Unions could call strikes in support of student protests, which increased their political clout, but the movement was limited by its ideological rigidity and factionalism. “If I thought you were an opportunist, or a careerist, or a Gauchiste, I would go off and form my own faction and fight against your faction,” Kafadar recalled.

In 1977, at a rally for International Workers’ Day, dozens of people were killed in what became known as the Taksim Square Massacre. But this wasn’t the only lethal event of the 1970s. Political scientist Ersin Kalaycıoğlu recalled seeing his peers killed at protests throughout the decade on the campus of Istanbul University. “I have had my peers in undergraduate years being shot in front of me and killed in pools of blood,” he said at a recent panel on the protests at Boğaziçi. “Today, looking back roughly fifty years, I believe that they died in vain.”

In the aftermath of the Taksim Square Massacre, protests intensified at universities across the country. Boğaziçi, like other universities, canceled classes, but the campus avoided the worst of the violence. “The university was able to handle the student unrest with its very open, transparent, and democratic environment,” according to Üstün Ergüder, who taught political science and was later named rector of Boğaziçi. “One of my students described the university at that time as Switzerland in the middle of the Second World War.”

The year after the 1980 coup, a new law established the Council of Higher Education, or YÖK, and in 1982 a new constitution gave it control over all higher educational institutions, their faculties, and activities. Just as Erdoğan’s AKP-led government purged universities and replaced leadership of academic institutions in the aftermath of the attempted coup of 2016, General Kenan Evren’s military junta government in the 1980s dismissed academics from their posts and installed administrators and academics amenable to the state, including at Boğaziçi.

Ergüder, who was elected rector in the university’s next free election, in 1992, recalled the subversive tactics the faculty used to maintain the university’s academic integrity through the 1980s. “I was supposed to teach introduction to public administration instead of political science,” he said. But “we kept on doing what we always did. I told my students that I was going to teach political science, not public administration.”

The curtailment of academic freedom at Boğaziçi and other universities was part of a broader campaign against leftist movements in response to the rise of Abdullah Öcalan’s PKK and the resurgence of Cold War politics. The military junta government arrested, tortured, and in some cases executed activists and students allegedly affiliated with the left. In the face of systematic repression, Kafadar said, the opposition was forced to mutate to survive. Leftist factions were quieted, and identity-based groups, including the women’s and the LGBTQ+ movements, became more prominent. By espousing resistance in the name of rights, rather than socialist revolution, activists were able to avoid the worst harassment from the state.

By the time Ergüder was named rector of Boğaziçi in 1992, the identity-based groups had solidified into fully formed movements. During the 1990s women’s and gender studies departments were founded at many prominent universities in Turkey, and in 1995 political parties were, for the first time since the 1980 coup, allowed to form women’s branches. In June 2003, a year after the AKP came to power and just three months after Erdoğan was elected prime minister, Istanbul saw its first legal pride parade.

 

As the AKP-led government has become increasingly authoritarian, dissent has once again grown in Turkey, particularly among young people. In Gezi Park in 2013, in response to state-sponsored plans to turn a green space at the center of Istanbul’s Taksim Square into a shopping mall, demonstrators from across the left came together in unified opposition to the government. LGBTQ+ activists protested alongside Marxists and anarchists; feminists camped alongside supporters of the Kurdish movement. It was the AKP’s worst nightmare: disparate groups with passionate supporters uniting to oppose its rule. Millions of people reportedly participated in protests throughout the country and around the world.

The government cracked down violently. Over the summer that protesters occupied Gezi Park, the Turkish Bars Association says that fifteen people were killed and over 5,000 arrested. Police barricaded the square, using tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, and shields to deter protesters. For years, involvement in the protests was used by the government as an excuse to target prominent activists such as Osman Kavala, who was arrested in 2017 and remains detained. A mosque now sits in Taksim Square, next to where demonstrators camped. President Erdoğan formally opened it exactly eight years after the protests in Gezi Park began. The violent tactics police used to control protesters in 2013 are being used against students at Boğaziçi today.

Despite the crackdowns, the coalitions formed in Gezi Park survived beyond 2013. In parliamentary elections in June 2015, the left-wing, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), received over 13 percent of the vote, reaching the threshold to enter parliament for the first time. It ran on a platform that reflected the coalitions and alliances formed at the protests—LGBTQ+ groups and women’s rights groups, leftist organizations, Kurdish interests, unions, environmentalists, and student groups. Under the leadership of Selahattin Demirtaş, who is now jailed, the HDP’s electoral success briefly brought hope for these groups long silenced in Turkey. Their presence in parliament deprived the ruling AKP of a parliamentary majority, and Erdoğan of the votes to secure an executive presidency. In August 2015, however, Erdoğan and the AKP called for new elections; that November, in an election that was criticized by European observers for its suppression of the media and of voters, the AKP secured a majority.

The following July, Turkey was rocked by a failed coup attempt that the AKP insists was led by the exiled religious leader Fethullah Gülen (Gülen denies any involvement in the putsch). The AKP and the Turkish government only intensified its crackdown on civil society and academia in the state of emergency years that followed. News outlets were shut down, and over 50,000 alleged dissidents were jailed pending trial. An emergency decree gave Erdoğan the power to dismiss academics (over 100,000 academics and public officials were let go) and to directly appoint the rectors of universities. In November 2016 Boğaziçi named their elected rector, Gülay Barbarosoğlu, for a second term, but YÖK rejected her and appointed Mehmed Özkan, a Boğaziçi biomedical engineering professor whose sister was an AKP party representative.

Mine Eder, a professor of political science at Boğaziçi who has been involved in the protests, said that Özkan promised to protect the faculty despite his own political leanings. Unlike at other Turkish universities, where purges took place, many of the teaching staff are willing to criticize the government and conservative ideology. The university was also able to maintain both a faculty and a student body diverse in both ideology and origin, said Eder. Even as the country became increasingly polarized under—and at the urging of—the AKP, Boğaziçi remained an island of debate, compromise, and mediation.

Bulu’s appointment has meant the end of this protection. “We all feel that our house is being invaded by strangers,” Eder said. But the actions taken by the Erdoğan administration against the university have backfired. It attempted to change the conversation from one about academic freedom to one focused on LGBTQ+ issues. The move not only failed to stop the protests against Belu but, according to research by the polling firm Konda, failed to polarize the AKP base; by March 2021, 67 percent of Turkish people across the political spectrum supported the students and faculty’s right to protest against an appointed rector.

Erdoğan and the AKP attempted to suppress the protests in January because they conjured the specter of Gezi, but the spring of unrest that crackdown has created has established the exact political conditions they wished to avoid. By cracking down on Boğaziçi so publicly, by making an enemy of the alumni network of the most prestigious public school in Turkey, and by stoking the flames with homophobic and anti-terror rhetoric, the AKP has allowed the protests at Boğaziçi to build in opposition against the government.

 

On the night students flooded Boğaziçi’s campus to protest the arrests of the art exhibition organizers, Furkan Dabaniyasti was sitting at his computer, watching the violence unfold on social media. Dabanıyastı graduated from Boğaziçi in 2018, but like many alumni, he still feels a deep connection to the university. When police arrived to escort Bulu home and protesters began to be arrested, he was left trying to interpret a chaotic stream of tweets and posts. With no reliable news outlet to turn to (much of the media in Turkey is censored), Dabaniyasti and a few of his friends decided to open a channel on Clubhouse, an audio-only social media platform designed for discussion, to monitor the protests and combat disinformation.

“As a group of students and alumni we wanted to transmit the right information from the source,” Dabaniyasti said. “We wanted to create a space where anyone could join in.”

Within an hour, the channel had 5,000 participants, the limit for a Clubhouse room. When they reached capacity, Dabaniyasti and his friends opened a second channel. Students reported from the campus while alumni and supporters listened in from around the world. Lawyers provided legal advice for those arrested, while observers called for blankets and food for the students being held by police. “We weren’t able to get onto campus because of the coronavirus restrictions, but thanks to Clubhouse we were able to take action and organize with each other,” Dabaniyasti said.

In the days that followed, the discussions on Clubhouse grew. When, the day after the arrests at Boğaziçi, dozens of people were arrested at protests in Kadıköy, protesters tuned in to update listeners about the locations of the police. Supporters in the neighborhood opened the doors of their apartment buildings. Lawyers went to police headquarters and offered pro bono services to students detained.

“Normally I would be on the ground, but someone needs to take responsibility for distributing true information. Otherwise, the mainstream press will represent the situation in a very different way,” said Dabaniyasti.

Online activism has enabled the Boğaziçi protests to gain widespread visibility and support across Turkish society. On February 3, when President Erdoğan asked the students, in a video address to members of his ruling AKP, “Are you terrorists who tried to invade the rector’s office, who tried to occupy it?” social media accounts affiliated with the protests released a video in which Boğaziçi students said they were “saddened on behalf of their country.” The video went viral on platforms like Instagram.

When Hazar Kolancalı and the six other students who were charged in relation the exhibition were brought before the criminal court in Istanbul, hundreds of students gathered outside of the courthouse. Many broadcasted live from their social media accounts, where students and organizers shared messages of support.

Inside the courtroom, the students were asked if they were “a part of” LGBTQ+, or if they were part of the “LGBT+ organization”—an attempt to identify them with the Boğaziçi LGBTQ+ club that had been shut down for alleged links to terror organizations. The students denied the categorization and insisted to the judge that they were simply students and artists who had wanted to organize a campus art exhibition. After the judge heard testimony, the trial was stayed. The students and others who were arrested in January and February are awaiting the verdicts of trials that will resume in June and July.

As the students are being tried, Bulu continues to flout the institutional rules of the university from the campus in Kandilli. In February, he created a Law Faculty and a Communications Faculty, a process that would generally take years, without consulting with the university congress. According to Eder, this is another example of the AKP’s attempt “at a micro level” to reshape Boğaziçi, the way it has remade public institutions in its image throughout the country.

 

On the last day of May, as the protests neared the six-month mark, Feyzi Ercin, a lawyer who teaches music at Boğaziçi and who was providing legal counsel to the arrested students, was barred from teaching at the school. Freshly released from a countrywide COVID-19 lockdown, students and faculty again flooded the campus, with signs that read “Don’t touch our teachers” and “Professor Feyzi is not alone.”

May 31, 2021, also marked the eight-year anniversary of the police raid of the protest encampment at Gezi Park. Their brutality sparked the widespread protests that gripped the country through the summer of 2013. The tents of demonstrators, and their destruction by the police, became a symbol of resistance against the government. So when Ercin was dismissed, students and protesters brought their tents to the campus. They would camp like the protesters at Gezi until their professor was reinstated and the rector removed from his post.

The government wasted no time. Police immediately surrounded the campus and formed a blockade at the entrance to the South Campus. Just after midnight on June 1, police with riot shields entered the campus and began destroying the tents and removing students from the encampment.

Hours before the Boğaziçi students’ tents were taken down, unions, activist groups, authors, journalists, and politicians gathered near Taksim Square at an illegal protest to mark the Gezi anniversary. Surrounded by police with riot shields, a coalition organization called the Taksim Solidarity movement read out a statement: “The spirit of Gezi is within the young people at Boğaziçi.”


Erin O’Brien is a freelance journalist living and working in Istanbul, Turkey. She is a graduate of NYU’s Global Journalism Master’s program and most of her reporting is focused on Turkey and the broader Middle East.


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