Turkey is the Loser

Zaman, Turkey
June 1 2005

I turned on the television to watch the evening news on Tuesday, May
24. The top news item concerned the appointment of State Minister Ali
Babacan as chief negotiator for Turkey in accession talks with the
European Union (EU), due to start on October 3. His appointment was
received generally very positively. Bahadir Kaleagasi, the Brussels
representative of the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's
Association (TUSIAD), even described Mr. Babacan as a "chief negotiator
with full EU standards." The news continued with remarks made by
Justice Minister Cemil Cicek in response to what Istanbul Deputy
Sukru Elekdag of the Republican People's Party (CHP) and Aksaray
Deputy Ramazan Toprak of the Justice and Development Party (AKP)
said about the conference on "Ottoman Armenians During the Decline
of the Empire: Scientific Responsibility and Issues of Democracy"
(in which I too was scheduled to speak at a panel) organized by the
Bogazici, Sabanci and Bilgi Universities on May 25- 27.

The justice minister was saying: "This is a stab in the back to
the Turkish nation~E In no university in the world can autonomy and
academic freedom be interpreted as irresponsibility~E This conference
is devoid of responsibility and seriousness~E I wish I, as Justice
Minister, had not turned over my authority to prosecute~E I wonder
what the Higher Education Council (YOK) will do about this issue~E We
must put an end to this cycle of treason and propaganda against the
[Turkish] nation by people who carry its citizenship." I could net
help shouting: "Here is a minister with full EU standards!" I was
dumbfounded by the insulting attacks against a conference that was
organized by some of the country's most prestigious universities,
even before it started, just because the organizers brought together
people who questioned the official view on the Armenian issue. The
minister not only inviting the public prosecutors to duty, he was
also calling on the YOK to intervene.

I soon learned that the Bogazici University was forced to cancel
the conference. I was deeply saddened. This conference would have
shown the whole world that Turkey is a real democracy, where on every
issue very different opinions can be expressed, where academics can
freely question the official views. It would also have shown that the
"genocide" allegation is not accepted by Turkish civil society. I
felt great pain for Turkey being still governed by individuals who
are incapable of assessing the value of the conference from these
points of view. I felt really bad about the damage Turkey would
suffer in world public opinion as a result of the suppression of
this conference. Turkey was the loser and the "genocide" claimers
were the ones rejoicing.

Let's turn to the real issue. The incident is a warning about
a fundamental problem which has unfortunately been very much
neglected: Academic freedom in Turkey is restricted to an extent
that is incompatible with a true democracy. What is academic freedom?
Academic freedom means that scientists are able to conduct research
on any topic they desire, using any method they prefer without being
subject to any political, religious or ideological pressure, and
that they are able to freely express and publish the results their
research. It means that university students as well as professors
and scholars have the freedom to pose questions, conduct research,
acquire knowledge and express views about issues. The philosophy
behind academic freedom is the following: Human knowledge is based
on an unending search for truth. All knowledge is open to discussion
and questioning. The truth is not in the monopoly of any institution,
government, party, group or circle. The duty of universities in a
democratic society is to develop knowledge through research, to
examine intellectual traditionals in a critical way, to educate
students as productive - creative individuals, and to share the
acquired knowledge and opinion with society at large. In a country,
where academic freedom with all of its aspects is not appreciated,
there can be no talk of university or science in the real meaning of
the terms.

I hope the canceling of the conference does not lead to further
suppression of freedom of expression and academic freedom, but rather
helps their expansion.