On March 19, a group of students at Istanbul's Boğaziçi University, Turkey's leading institute of higher education, demonstrated against an event on campus. The event against which they were demonstrating, organized by the Society for Islamic Research, was to champion the Turkish soldiers who had participated in the Afrin invasion. While the pro-government students distributed Turkish delight sweets, the counter-demonstrators unfolded a banner reading: "Invasions and massacres are not [to be celebrated] with delights."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded by having the anti-war students arrested for spreading "terrorist" propaganda. On April 3, a Turkish court jailed nine of them and freed the other six, pending their trial.
To protest what they called a "disturbing trend of criminalizing political speech and dissent in Turkey," over 1,800 renowned academics from around the world, among them Nobel and Pulitzer Prize laureates, signed an "Open Letter of Support for Students Arrested at Boğaziçi University". The letter reads, in part:
"The arrests on campus, as well as subsequent police raids of student homes and dormitories, continue a disturbing trend of criminalizing political speech and dissent in Turkey.
"Erdoğan has cynically referred to these students as 'terrorists,' vowed to expel them from Boğaziçi University, and to deny them the right to study at any other university. We have heard this kind of verbal attack from Erdoğan before and it was followed by the detention of thousands of academics, journalists, artists, and human rights advocates.
"We call upon the Turkish government to immediately cease all investigations and arrests of students exercising political speech."
The curtailing of free speech is nothing new in Erdogan's Turkey. Anyone who dares to challenge the government's accepted narrative runs the very real risk of being targeted and punished. Non-Turkish residents of the country are no exception.
Take the case of the American academic Norma Jeanne Cox, for example. After receiving a postgraduate degree from Boğaziçi University in 1983, Cox worked as a lecturer at Istanbul University, and subsequently at the Middle East Technical University in southern Turkey, where she engaged in discussions with her students and colleagues about the 1915 Armenian genocide, the forced assimilation of Kurds, and protested against the film The Last Temptation of Christ. For these "crimes," she was arrested, fired from her job and ultimately deported. The Ministry of the Interior claimed that Cox had been expelled and banned from re-entering Turkey due to "her separatist activities, which were incompatible with national security." In a suit she filed with the European Court of Human Rights -- which in 2010 convicted Turkey of violating her freedom of expression -- Cox argued that her rights had been violated by Turkey because of her Christian faith and dissenting opinions.
Since then, little has changed. On January 11, 2016, members of "Academics for Peace" -- who signed a declaration calling for non-violence between the Turkish government and the Kurds -- were detained by police, banned from going abroad, exposed to administrative investigations and dismissed from their jobs for "making propaganda for a terrorist organization," among other perceived offenses.
On January 13, 2017, an Armenian MP, Garo Paylan of the opposition party HDP, was suspended from three sessions of parliament for delivering a speech in which he warned against repeating the mistakes of the past. "Between 1913 and 1923, Armenians, Greeks, Syriacs, and Jews... were either exiled with genocides and major massacres or subjected to population exchanges," he said. All mentions he made of the Armenian genocide were removed from the parliamentary minutes.
On January 5, 2018, during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace in Paris, Erdogan accused members of the media of nurturing terrorism, in response to Macron's concern over the Turkish government's crackdown on students, teachers and journalists:
"Terror doesn't form by itself. Terror and terrorists have gardeners. These gardeners are those people viewed as thinkers. They water ... from their columns on newspapers, and one day, you find, these people show up as a terrorist in front of you."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently accused members of the media of nurturing terrorism, and had anti-war students arrested for spreading "terrorist" propaganda. (Photo by Defne Karadeniz/Getty Images)
Erdogan's definition of terrorism is as skewed as Turkey's anti-terrorism laws, frequently used and abused by the government to arrest and imprison peaceful demonstrators -- a practice criticized in a 2010 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report entitled: "Protesting as a Terrorist Offense."
Meanwhile, Turkish authorities turn a blind eye to actual terrorist activities in, and on behalf of, the country. Ankara does nothing to prevent ISIS from selling Yazidi women and children in Turkey; allows unspecified numbers of people to use Turkish territory as a point of entrance into Syria and Iraq to join ISIS or other jihadist groups; hosts and aids Hamas, a terrorist organization that proudly targets civilians and vows to obliterate Israel; and enables jihadi terrorism through the oil trade.
Turkey, a NATO ally that considers itself a worthy candidate for EU membership, warmly welcomes and assists terrorists who commit genocidal crimes against humanity, yet persecutes non-violent academics and journalists whose opinions differ from those propagated by the regime. The inversion is not only surreal; it is deadly.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist born and raised in Turkey. She is presently based in Washington D.C.