BAK [Academics for Peace] Declaration, Intellectuals and Academic Freedom
Translated by Simten Coşar
The declaration, titled “We Will Not Be A Party To This Crime,” which was constituted by the initiative of Academics for Peace, and signed by more than 2000 academics (from Turkey and abroad) attracted harsh response from the state circles, starting with the President of the Republic. I think that this is due to two reasons; one, a century old, the other, more contemporary. Here I would like to focus on these two reasons.
The century old, historical reason is related to what I call the Turkishness Contract, that is a constitutive contract, formed by written document and unwritten tacit agreements between the state and society. In fact, the first version of this contract had been built on Islam; thus, it was a Muslimness Contract. Between 1914 and 1922 native and immigrant Muslim population of Anatolia, composed of different peoples carried out a struggle against the foreign Christian states like Russia, Great Britain, France and Greece. The struggle was essentially Muslimness-based. The struggle against the foreign power was ultimately won; but in due course Anatolia was “cleansed off” the native Christians, who turned out to be threats in the eyes of the Muslims. The cleansing off Anatolia from the Christians took many forms, including population exchange, deportation, threat and massacre; it turned out be a genocide in the case of the Armenian population. Whether one names it genocide or not, in the final analysis hundreds of thousand Armenians were forced to exile; hundreds of thousands died and were killed; and thousands of Armenians—mainly women and children—were forced to convert to Islam and shared among the Muslim population. This process was accompanied by a grand wealth transfer, defined as primitive accumulation of capital by Karl Marx, and which worked so as to constitute the initial capital of the Muslim bourgeoisie.
Muslims continued the eight-year-long war by a contract, which took on overt and tacit forms on two issues. According to the first article of this Muslimness Contract, in order to have a secure and privileged life—both in real and potential terms—in Anatolia it was necessary to be a Muslim. According to the second article of the contract no one shall speak out the facts of what had been done to non-Muslim peoples; neither shall one pursue intellectual work on these facts. In order to benefit from the contract one did not have to directly engage in the torture and oppression of non-Muslims. It was sufficient to keep silent. I think that another critical feature of the Muslimness Contract was that it was not imposed by the Unionists from above. For me contract received extensive support and engagement by the upper, middle and lower layers of the Muslim social pyramid and it was executed by the mutual agreement among these three layers and through their common interests. This widespread involvement in the contract was also fed by the common sentiments like fear, anger, jealousy and ressentment against the Christians, shared by various social segments.
However by 1923, this contract was narrowed and Turkified by a new government that had gained self-confidence. This meant a partial change in the first article of the Muslimness Contract. From then on it was not sufficient to be Muslim for ensuring a secure and privileged life in this country; one also had to be a Turk or Turkified. In other words, you were required to be both a Muslim and a Turk. The second article, that is the article concerning the ban on expressing the facts about the way the non-Muslims were treated was taken over from the Muslimness Contract without any alterations. Turkisness Contract was an invitation to the Muslim peoples of the Republic of Turkey. It involved the possibility of any Muslim who did not consider herself/himself as Turk to become a Turk. But this was not a democratic invitation; for, those who would accept the invitation were to be awarded; and those who would not accept it were to be punished. Eventually millions of Muslims were Turkified; for, Turkishness ultimately was a matter of performance. As long as you spoke Turkish, you acknowledged the saying, “How happy is the one who says ‘I’m a Turk’,” think and feel like a Turk, or at least you disclaimed any identity but the Turk in the public life you were recognized to be a Turk. However there were those who did not conform with the contract. Especially, a significant part of the Kurdish people who had been promised [certain rights] through the Muslimness Contract opposed the first article of the contract, that is they stood against Turkification with a feeling of being intrigued. By the Sheikh Said Rebellion (1925) and its suppression a third article was added to the Turkishness Contract: Expressing the treatment that the Kurds were subjected to and the fact that Kurds existed was banned. Likewise, intellectual activities on these issues were also banned.
Turkishness Contract was secured first and foremost by the laws and the state’s instruments of violence. Those who would not abide with the contract were to be punished. Punishment took many forms such as death, imprisonment, dismissal from work, rejection of employment, deportation and ostracism. The same pattern still continues. Those who conformed to the contract could or would have the potential to go up in the social hierarchy—in economy, politics, bureaucracy, academy, arts etc. These mechanisms of punishment and award were not restricted to the individual per se, they also involved her/his family. In other words, in your decision not to comply you had to consider your family, too.
However compliance with the contract was made possible not only by the law and through the use of violence. Individuals (from different social groups and with different professions) have also developed mostly unconscious strategies of indifference, ignorance and insensitivity on matters pertaining to the Armenian and Kurdish Issues. For, considering and accumulating knowledge [on Kurdish and Armenian issues] would bring in such dangerous moral sentiments as shame and complicity. Since this was meant to be the violation of the contract, among many other forms of punishment, even your family could have excluded you. But refraining from what one knows and thinks might eliminate self-respect. In order to preempt this from happening the most apt thing to do was remaining in full ignorance, full neglect, and thus, in full insensitivity.
This strategies are especially striking for the intellectuals or literati who are expected to speak and write the truth. They especially needed indifference and ignorance; because once you are knowledged it is your intellectual responsibility to write what you have learned. I think that such strategies as undermining the Kurdish issue, not taking it serious, considering it as a reflection of another issue are used in order to prevent this happening. In this context, saying that the Kurdish and Armenian issues are part of the imperialist game, that Kurds are feudal and Islamists, or that they are nationalist and tribalist might be a way to say that you will never pay attention to the facts of Armenian and Kurdish issues. This is because these so-called thoughts relieves one’s conscience and provide a strong sense of righteousness. Here I would rather use the term “so-called” since they are more means of escape than thoughts. Therefore the abstract universalism of such ideologies as Kemalism (enlightenment), Islamism (religious brotherhood, ummah) and Marxism (internationalism) have so far functioned as means for escape for many literati from the concrete universalism of Armenian and Kurdish issues. To the extent that they appeared to be universalist they have been noble ways of escape.
In other words, the Turkishness Contract was at the same time a Contract of Ignorance and Insensitivity. This contract that was guaranteed by the legal instruments of the state and by the unconscious mechanisms of individuals have created a dense silence about the Kurdish issue and the history of Kurdistan even in the academia. Until the mid-1960s there is no independent study about the topic. I think İsmail Beşikçi is especially important in this respect. We can say that Beşikçi was the first academic who disrupted the thick silence of the academia on the Kurdish Issue, thus, who did not comply with the Turkishness Contract, and who revealed the contract. That is why he has been punished so severely. He was dismissed from his post at the university; he was imprisoned for more than 17 years; he was ostracized or cut dead by his Turkish colleagues; more than 30 of his books were banned. But at the same time, Kurds loved him and treated him almost as a heavenly being. How can a Turk challenge the Turkish State and Turkish majority in such a manner... Behind the admiration with love lies the fact that Kurds very well know the price of such an objection. In other words, Beşikçi was punished and loved for the same reason: He told what is banned to be told in the face of the state and the majority and thus paid its price insistently – and by paying the price he showed that there was such a ban. We can call this act as the act of speaking the truth by taking the risk vis-a-vis the powerful as intellectualism. We can also read the Peace Declaration by the Academics for Peace (Barış İçin Akademisyenler, BAK) within this frame, thus as an objection to the Turkishness Contract. I think that this frame allows us to understand the historical and structural aspects of the severe reactions that the [signatory] academics were faced with.
Certainly, since the 1960s there have been many changes in this context. Starting with the 1970s, but especially with the 1980s onwards the Kurdish movement through its different aspects took away the Turks’ privileges of not seeing, not hearing and not attending to the Kurdish issue. These are privileges; for, in a country only the sovereign groups have the power not to see, hear or attend to [the facts]. Thus the Kurds eliminated the Turks’ privileges of not seeing, hearing and attending to [the facts] by making themselves visible and heard via various means. In other words, they came forth as a non-negligible power. This eventually lead to a crisis of Turkishness; because it was no more possible to maintain the ignorance that was among the most important ingredients of Turkishness Contract. The majority of the Turks responded to this crisis by becoming more nationalist, and even racist. But considerable number of Turks faced up to a real transformation and conceded to the collapse of Turkishness Contract on their part. They tried to form genuine empathy with the Armenians and Kurds. In the meantime they broke away with their Turkishness to a certain extent; they got into serious problems even with the ones closest to them. I think the increase in the number of such academics from 1 in the 1960s to 2000 and even more today is related to the transformation at the individual and social levels.
Certainly it is not only the individuals who face with crisis; State, too, is in crisis in the face of the Kurdish movement. Thus in the 1990s they had to recognize the “Kurdish Reality” and in the 2000s they had to initiate “Kurdish Opening.” These developments meant loosening of the Turkishness Contract to a certain extent, and opening a space for the discussion on the Kurdish Issue in mass media and universities. Hence academic studies on the Kurdish Issue started in the 1990s, increased in the 2000s; and many topics related to the Kurdish Issue were opened to discussion in the mass media in the second half of the 2000s. In the meantime the Justice and Development Party governments (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) has opted to resolve this issue by turning Turkishness Contract into the older Muslimness Contract, that is, through a Muslimness-based agreement. But whatever the underlying reason the Process of Resolution could not be finalized and the war started again. The start of the war rigidified the Turkishness Contract once more. The State and the AKP government made it clear that they expected different performances of Turkishness from different Turks, living and working in various settings. And these performances followed one another immediately. While a poor Turk involved in the lynch of a Kurd in Muğla, an elite Turk, İsmet Berkan, reported from within an armored police vehicle in Sur. The fact that the Turks with different political positions unified around the Kurdish issue might be considered in relation to the reactivation of the contract in its most rigid form.
The BAK Declaration emerged in such a critical time. Thousands of academics spoke the truth at a moment when the Kurds thought and told that they were not visible, and heard in the West, that nobody cared about them, when speaking the truth was banned and dangerous. Here, I do not claim that the “truth” is exclusively factually right (personally I think it is; but it is not my intention here to discuss this). It can be objected by singling out its sentences, words or the concepts used; it can be claimed that these and the like are wrong or that they are employed in an incorrect manner. The term “truth,” here, means the “truth” of those whose voices are not heard, who are powerless, and who are not cared and attended to. When the truth, experienced by the powerless is expressed by some among the powerful against the powerful state and majority, expressing this “truth” is an intellectual act—as I noted in the case of Beşikçi. Engaging in intellectual function means engaging in moral act. Expressing the truth of the powerless against the powerful makes that “truth” heard and since doing so leads to risks for the life of the agent herself/himself the moral stance of the agent gains strength. And the “truth” expressed by those who are considered to take a moral stance gains more credibility. What is said is therefore taken seriously even by those who hate the agent(s).
I am not trying to romanticize the category of the intellectual, whom I described as the one who tells the truth which the powerful does not want to hear. Someone who considers herself/himself as an intellectual or someone who engages in an intellectual act can speak or write on subjects about which s/he does not have extensive knowledge; s/he can take a stance in relation to such subjects. In this respect, s/he can act “irresponsibly” over others’ lives; s/he might consider herself/himself over and above the classes and ethnicities, and thus someone who does not pursue self-interests. S/he might also try to give such an impression. In other words, since s/he cannot analyze her/his perspective she can mistaken when judging the others; as s/he detaches from the majority and the state s/he can try to make the minority love her/him; thus, s/he might neglect the minorities within the minorities, more powerless among the powerless. Intellectuals can be and are criticized on these grounds anywhere in the world. For example the two important intellectuals of twentieth century, Jean Paul-Sartre and Michel Foucault have been criticized due to the stance that they assumed in Algerian Independence War and in the Iranian Revolution, respectively.
Nevertheless, the type that we name as intellectual is taken seriously worldwide. I think that the main reason behind this is related to the fact that intellectuals take a moral position on the side of the powerless, and against the powerful. To put it the other way around: Intellectuals are taken seriously because there is the impression that they take a moral stance. And intellectuals are taken more seriously if this stance is against the state—as a sphere where different loci of power (military, political, economic, cultural) intensify and unite and when this state is grappling with racial, ethnic and colonial conflicts; for under such conditions moral stance is reinforced due to higher levels of risk. Here I use the term “to be taken seriously” in a neutral fashion. Those who are suppressed might turn this intellectual type into heros/heroines; or the state and majority might turn this type into a traitor. But ultimately, both parties take it seriously.
And the signatories to the BAK Declaration displayed an intellectual act—this is so, even when the signatories do not consider themselves as intellectuals on an individual basis, or that they do not aspire to be intellectuals. They performed an intellectual act by expressing the truth of the powerless in the face of the powerful. In order to solidify in the case of Turkey, at a time when the Turkishnes Contract is once more rigidified, when Turks are called to indifference and insensitivity, they told that the state committed massacres and pursued a deliberate exile policy in the region. The reaction of first the President of the Republic and the state have been excessively severe. Threats, insults, detentions, dismissals from work, harassment in various forms and finally the arrest of Kıvanç Ersoy, Muzaffer Kaya, Esra Mungan and Meral Camcı followed one another. State’s severe reaction had, in turn, affected the state of affairs in such a way that confirmed signatories’ claims. The most important academics and academic institutions worldwide immediately comprehended what has been going on and took sides with the academics who could raise their voice against such a state. In this respect, the local truth told by the signatories became a universal one.
I have so far touched on a historical reason behind the reaction of state against the BAK Declaration. An almost a century-long historical reason which contains but at the same time goes well beyond the AKP governments: Turkishness Contract. From now on I want to touch on a more contemporary reason. This is a reason, which can only explained directly by the state of affairs that define the AKP’s rule. I think that in addition to the historical reason, behind the severe reaction lies the loss of intellectual legitimacy of the AKP’s rule. Briefly, an intellectual who support the AKP’s rule looses her/his reputation almost automatically and is not taken seriously anymore. This is because the political power holders have lost legitimacy in all spheres and are identified with authoritarism, fascism, corruption, lies and illegality. The fact that the political party concerned still has the support of the 50% of the (voting) population in the country can be raised as an objection to this claim. The fact that the elections took place through illegitimate and illegal methods—perhaps except for the counting—put aside, the following counter-claim may be offered: legitimacy is a power that you can derive not from your supporters but from those who do not support you. In other words, those who do not support you should consider you at least minimally legal, honest and democratic. However today, the ruling party in Turkey is perceived as a mafiatic structure rather than a state structure in the eyes of millions of those who live in Turkey and even by a considerable part of the world.
Therefore an intellectual who continues to extend support to such a ruling body loses her/his prestige and reputation in the eyes of local and universal intellectual communities. And this in turn makes the related intellectual(s) dysfunctional for the very same ruling body. Their functionality could only be derived from effectiveness beyond the masses, supporting the ruling body. Since they do not have such effectivenesss the ruling body does not take them seriously anymore. It is for this reason that academics are tried to be fended off not by the academics or intellectuals but by the mafia boss Sedat Peker. I think that Sedat Peker’s (in)famous speech arises out of a need. A ruling body, which had lost all its intellectual legitimacy can do nothing but face the intellectuals with violence and threat.
In this context, the words of Hilal Berktay, who has intellectual claims, offer an interesting case for our subject matter: “... we shall stop heating the witch’s cauldron; ... [we shall ignore] the extremities and ultra-extremities that extends to Sedat Peker’s ‘we shall shed blood in streams’. On the contrary, we shall properly launch a struggle of ideas. We shall sort out those paragraphs sentence by sentence. We shall let each sentence speak one by one. And then would they be defending the text that they signed sentence by sentence” (“Aykırılık ve Demokrasi”, Serbestiyet, 14 January 2016). Here we can say that Berktay believes that he can falsify the BAK Declaration if he has given the opportunity. But I do not think that he is realistic in his belief. For in order to be able to falisfy those sentences Berktay needs to be an intellectual who is taken seriously in Turkey and worldwide. And due to the reasons that I noted above this is no more possible. In this respect, Berktay faces the following paradox: Even if all his sentences are “true” and all the sentences of the academics are “wrong” he still cannot falsify academics’ sayings. And thus Sedat Peker talks—or perhaps is forced to talk—in the way he does since Halil Berktay cannot falsify the sentences concerned.
The connection formed between Chomsky’s support to the academics on the one hand, and the left networks and disinformation on the other hand, by Berktay (“Akademikler Fazla Siyasi” (Academics Are Too Political), Haber Türk, 25 January 2016) ve Merve Kavakçı (“Akademik Ahlak ve Eksikliği” (Academic Morals and The Lack of It) Yeni Akit, 26 January 2016) is not realistic for similar reasons. If these writers had contacted Chomsky and even if none of the academics could have contacted him he would still support the academics. For, as a universal intellectual Chomsky is well aware of the meaning of intellectual and he knows that the support given to such a ruling body and to the intellectuals who support such a ruling body would risk even his status as an intellectual; and that it would risk the credibility of his word. This “intellectual despair” of Berktay, Kavakçı and similar literati eventually lead them to anti-intellectualism. They start to envisage a portrait of the intellectual who commits disinformation, who has control over networks, who is foreign to her/his peoples and land, and then criticize that type.
The loss of intellectual legitimacy—as I describe here—means a major and deep crisis for the AKP’s rule. And no matter how powerful the AKP is, it cannot overcome this crisis. In fact, the crisis is deepened as the AKP’s power increases. For, as the AKP’s power increases its monopolization of power intensifies, and the more the party commits corruption the reputation of its intellectual supporters decreases. In other words, the support extended by the intellectual means, in a sense, committing suicide. Intellectual loses her/his intellectual identity and ultimately becomes dysfunctional for the ruling body.
Thus the ruling body becomes more vulnerable in the face of those telling the truth and in those spaces where the truth is told. It loses all its tolerance toward the act of telling the truth. This is why it puts so much pressure on those spheres where the duty is to tell the truth. By the supression of those spheres like the judiciary and the media where telling the truth—although in different styles—is a professional and moral duty, the universities, expected to tell the truth as the third important sphere turn out to pose an ever-increasing threat to the ruling body. After the elimination of judicial and media independence university autonomy is targeted. For example, the fact that such institutions like METU, which abide not with local and national standards but with universal standards face with such major threats is related to their offering shelter for those academics who tell the truth. These universities are threatened even by military occupation.
In sum, we can argue that so long as the war countries, so long as the Turkishess Contract continues to rigidify and so long as the AKP’s rule persists the academia in Turkey will have to endure under attack from two sources—one older, the other comparatively new. In such a setting academic autonomy and freedom might be subjected to serious damage; they might even be totally eliminated. In case this elimination takes place the institutional guarantee of telling the truth will be lost; but the loss of this guarantee will not totally block telling the truth. On the contrary, as the pressure on and the cost of telling the truth increases the influence of the act of telling the truth might increase.
 This text was delivered to Hasan Ünal Nalbantoğlu Symposium, held at METU (Ankara, Turkey) between 21 March and 23 March 2016; and to the Panel on Freedom of Thought and Expression, organized by Eğitim-Sen (Union of Education and Science Labourers) at Hacettepe University (Ankara, Turkey) on 12 April 2016.
 Here the author refers to the Union and Progress governments in the period between 1908-1918. The Union and Progress governments are known with their statist policy agendas in Ottoman-Turkish political history.