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“We will not look down”: what is happening with Turkey’s student protests

As 2020 crawled its way to a merciful end, the hope for a better year ahead for students around the world seemed increasingly bleak. But for students at Istanbuls’s Boğaziçi University – one of Turkey’s top educational institutions – the prospect of another arduous term of online classes and social isolation quickly became overshadowed by a more pressing concern.

On 2 January , Melih Bulu was directly appointed by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Boğaziçi’s rector, the most senior position at the university. While previous rectors were chosen democratically by the university, since accumulating power following the 2016 coup, Erdoğan has reserved the right to unilaterally appoint rectors himself. Whilst he has exercised this right 12 times previously, this is the first time in 40 years that a rector has been chosen from outside of a university’s community.

But Bulu’s appointment has more insidious implications; he is a fervent supporter of Erdoğan’s right-wing Justice and Development Party (AKP), and previously ran for public office under the party’s banner. A clear political manoeuvre, Bulu’s appointment is seen by many as an overt attempt at infiltrating and subverting one of the country’s last remaining and highest profile left-leaning institutions. By naturalising AKP affiliated presence in higher education, boundary pushing research and critical discourse risks severe curtailment.

In the days following, the student body and academic staff quickly organised mass on-campus protests. Demonstrations have since spread across Turkey, in solidarity with Boğaziçi as well as in response to further attacks against university autonomy.

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Rallying around the slogan “We will not look down” – a reference to a viral video where police aggressively commanded protestors to keep their eyes downwards – the protests have grown to become one of the largest demonstrations against AKP rule since the Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013.

Multiple alternative forms of peaceful protest have also since been utilised. Most prominently, a public art exhibition was staged, involving donated art pieces placed across campus to draw visual attention to the ongoing protests. One anonymous submission featured various LGBT+ flags surrounding the Kaaba, the holiest site of Islam, covered by the Şahmeran; a mythological Anatolian half woman/half snake figure, often used to symbolise women’s strength.

Whilst the subject of considerate critique by some student Islamic groups who supported its free expression yet viewed it as detrimental to the unifying nature of the protests, it became the source of a broader manufactured outrage. Sensationalised conservative media and politicians erroneously claimed it as evidence of “spreading hate” and subverting the AKP-imposed ideal of Turkey’s national religious values. As a result, five of those involved in the exhibition were arrested just as the country’s strict weekend Covid-19 curfew came into effect in the evening of the 29th of January, leaving them without effective support until the following Monday. Only one has been set free.

On Monday 1 February, large crowds of protestors gathered outside of the rector’s office. With the direct permission and approval of Bulu, the police entered campus, resulting in further brutality. The police force in Turkey is infamously corrupt, with many documented instances of violent abuses of power often passing without accountability. On this day alone 159 people were arrested.

Since the protests began, social media posts have been dredged by Turkish judicial authorities looking for pretext for arrests. There is precedent for this in Erdoğan’s Turkey, as opposition posts on social media platforms have long been a focus for his ire. Su, a student at Boğaziçi, claims that multiple friends were followed around campus by undercover law enforcement and were arrested without warning. Later, photocopies of social media posts were waved in court as proof of their complicity in apparent crimes.

As the protests tentatively continued in Boğaziçi under the increased pressure of law enforcement, the fears of Bulu’s partisan rectorship quickly came to fruition. As his first official act, Bulu forcibly disbanded the university’s large and influential LGBT+ association as a direct backlash against the art exhibition, in spite of the fact that the LGBT+ association had no link to the artwork whatsoever.

But, as a convenient excuse for enacting his conservative agenda, the claim stuck, resulting in the raiding of the association’s headquarters and the subjection of its members to homophobic and transphobic abuse. In light of this, Erdoğan has been quoted as saying that “LGBT does not exist”, and Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu has referred to protestors as “LGBT perverts”. As one of Turkey’s most vulnerable groups, this attack hints at the worrying future of Boğaziçi as a safe space under Bulu’s rectorship.

The successive attacks against demonstrators and supporters has, to Su, instilled an “atmosphere of fear”, making protestors remain constantly cautious of how their protests might be misconstrued by an oppositional media. Erdoğan’s labelling of protestors as “terrorists” controlled by “outside forces” – a rhetorical tactic he often invokes – is a direct attempt to undermine the image of peaceful protest in the public eye.

The fact that finals week fell in the midst of all this has overwhelmed the ability of students to continue protesting as they would like to, contributing to an exhaustion shared by many.
But hope and enthusiasm has far from dissipated. To Su and her fellow students, the government is attempting to “turn it into a big thing to use in their favour”. Terrible economic mismanagement and a poor response to the pandemic has eroded his popular support.

In response, constructing a narrative of a culturally marginalised group as an enemy of national values may drum up support for him, but only time will tell if this will be an effective tactic. All that remains known is that in spite of the constant pressure from politicians and law enforcement, the protests have not let up for even a single day. The vibrant and heterogenous community of Boğaziçi which Erdoğan is seeking to undermine remains strong and, whether or not Bulu is ousted, his time as rector will be under the constant scrutiny of an outraged and unified student body.

Special thanks to Su and Beren for their invaluable help in writing this piece.

Image: OzofAvrupa via Wikimedia Commons

[Image shows protestors gathered in the street holding Turkish flags]