Ankara, Turkey – Over the last month, protests at a university overlooking the Bosphorus have spiralled into a challenge that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has compared with nationwide demonstrations that threatened his government eight years ago.
Student outcry against a government-appointed rector at Bogazici University, one of Turkey’s most prestigious, has also spilled into the international arena, jeopardising Erdogan’s efforts to build bridges with the new administration in Washington, DC, and repair relations with the European Union.
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Erdogan has been seeking to present a reforming front to the outside world following President Joe Biden’s election win in a bid to smooth over longstanding disputes between Turkey and the United States.
However, police brutality and government efforts to demonise the protesters – labelling them “terrorists” and employing homophobic slurs – has undermined his promises of judicial and democratic reform.
When Erdogan’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, branded demonstrators “LGBT deviants” in a tweet on Tuesday, the US State Department condemned anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and voiced concern at the detention of protesters.
The EU and the United Nations also condemned homophobic comments and called for demonstrators to be released.
The Turkish foreign ministry responded by warning “certain circles abroad” not to intervene in a way that could provoke “groups that resort to using illegal means and encourages illegal acts”.
Erdogan has also hit out at “LGBT youth” after an art exhibition staged by the protesters included an image of the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, and LGBTQ flags.
“As a Muslim student, my initial reaction was that I didn’t want to see that as part of an exhibition, not because I want to limit freedom of expression but because all students are part of the protests and the solidarity among us is too important to sacrifice for any expression,” said Enes Sayin, a second-year history student at Bogazici.
“But it’s been framed as an attack on Muslims when there wasn’t any such intention.”
Hundreds of protesters have been arrested at the university since January 4, as well as at demonstrations in support of the students and LGBTQ rights in cities such as Ankara, Izmir and Bursa.
Residents have demonstrated their support by banging pots and pans from their balconies every evening – a reminder of the 2013 Gezi protests across Turkey that were one of the greatest threats to Erdogan’s 18-year rule.
Opinion poll results released on Wednesday suggest 69 percent of Turks are opposed to assigning politically-linked university rectors. MetroPoll’s research found just more than half of governing party voters also objected to such appointees.
Meanwhile, Mazlum-Der, a human rights group that usually focuses on Muslim issues, condemned police violence during the protests.
“Going outside the law through the arbitrary use of public authority is a crime for the perpetrators and causes the violation of fundamental human rights,” it said in a statement.
Bogazici’s new rector, Melih Bulu, is a former member of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) who applied to be a candidate in the 2015 general election.
However, it is the fact that he was not a member of the Bogazici faculty that marked a departure from previous appointments and was seen as an affront to academic independence.
His posting was the first from outside the university since a 1980 military coup.
Esra Mungan, assistant professor of psychology at Bogazici, said the protests were motivated by an urge to protect an “unbelievably precious” public institution that offered free, high-quality education to students from all backgrounds.
“What distinguishes our university from most other universities in Turkey is its rather anti-hierarchical, horizontal organisation where the rector – despite the almost limitless authority granted by a post-military coup law for higher education – does not execute those powers,” she said.
“We do not want to become one of those places where you can only do research and get promoted if you keep silent and obedient while trying to retain good relations with the rector as a power figure. We are not used to such an authoritarian way of rule.”
Mungan, who was among five female Bogazici academics targeted by pro-government media, added the protests were “not just a struggle for our own university, but a general struggle for democratic, autonomous and free universities”.
Her comments were echoed by history student Sayin, who said Turkey’s universities “lack the fundamental autonomy needed to function as places of learning”.
The resilience of the protests in the face of arrests – the interior ministry on Thursday said 528 people have been arrested across 38 provinces – has been marked by the students’ refusal to back down.
“Courage spreads like an epidemic,” Sayin said. “When you see other students acting courageously, taking risks and standing their ground, it gives you strength.”
‘Headache and opportunity’
For Erdogan, the demonstrations have become a headache as well as an opportunity, according to analysts.
“It’s turned into an embarrassing controversy for Erdogan,” said Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University. “I don’t think he expected the resistance against his appointed rector to be this strong.
“It’s certainly a surprise because since 2016 Erdogan has appointed so many rectors who, like Bulu, were pro-[AK Party] people, even former [AK Party] MPs. This happened at Bogazici in 2016 but that guy was already a faculty member, which was why many other faculty members accepted it because they were worried Erdogan would appoint someone from outside.”
After stoking controversy over the Kaaba artwork, the government “doesn’t have anything else it can do” to win over public opinion, he added.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, said highlighting supposed attacks on religion had allowed Erdogan to boost his party’s credentials and try to co-opt the Saadet opposition party.
By “triggering cultural wars … Erdogan is forcing Saadet to make a choice, like this whole episode about turning the protests at Bogazici into an issue about LGBTI groups insulting Islam”, he said.
“This is how the discussion is being framed and it’s difficult for Saadet to side with the opposition.”
Despite the protests and the refusal of academic staff to work with him, Bulu has rejected calls for his resignation – the students’ key demand.
Meanwhile, the protests have dominated news headlines and propelled some students, such as Seyma Altundal, into the spotlight. She said she had been beaten and her headscarf dislodged by police when she was arrested on Monday.
“We’re here because we know our rights and we’re not afraid to express them,” she said after her release on Wednesday night. “We’re not here because we’re servants to the state, but because we’re servants to God and we know he’s the only authority.”
Turkish universities, particularly high-profile public institutions such as Bogazici and the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, have a long tradition as hotbeds of political activism dating to the 1960s.
These traditions even extend to police not being allowed on campus without the permission of the university rector.
“As a university, it has been our ambition that all of Turkey becomes a place like ours,” said Mungan. “The most important thing we tell our graduating students is to never give up the standards to which they have been trained at our school.”