The decision of New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia to confer an honorary doctorate on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is extremely disturbing. The fact that he is not an academic is not the basis for the protests against the decision: there have been numerous occasions when personalities who are not professional academics have been recognised by universities for their work. Around the world, actors, business persons, journalists, writers and politicians have been honoured by universities for their achievements.
This is done on the premise that they have chosen excellence as their pursuit and have made the world more humane through their work. These are the two values universities seek to inculcate in a society: excellence and humanity.
The university seeks to teach young people to do things with perfection. Success cannot be a matter of chance: things have to be done methodically. Training in method is important for scholarship. Even more important is the love or passion for the work that has been chosen as vocation. We gain our individuality at universities but also learn that knowledge cannot be created in isolation.
Universities value these principles and go out of the confines of their campuses to invite people who embody them. They seek to make them exemplars for their young scholars. This is the reason for the Dalai Lama or cricketer Rahul Dravid being honoured by universities. These people have made the world a better place, more beautiful, inviting and exciting. They give young people reason to believe in the possibilities of life. The business of scholarship or knowledge is also a quest for this possibility.
No doubt, Erdogan is also a successful man. He is the head of a state. He has just secured for himself a mandate from the people of Turkey that gives him sweeping powers and makes it possible for him to be their dictator.
However, under Erdogan, scholarship and the creation of knowledge has become a risky business. Under his leadership, Turkey has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for students, teachers and researchers. After thwarting a coup attempt in July, Erdogan ordered a crackdown on schools and universities (along with institutions in several other sectors, including the military, media, civil service, police and judiciary) on suspicions of having links with Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Islamic cleric living in the US whom Erdogan believes was behind the coup.
More than 1,300 teachers in universities across Turkey have been identified and penalised in different ways. Criminal cases have been filed against them and many have been jailed. Hundreds of teachers have been dismissed and expelled. Scholars from other countries who have lived and taught in the universities of Turkey for more than quarter of a century have been asked to leave the country.
In Turkey, education and higher education in particular has traditionally been under strict state control. There are areas that scholars cannot even touch. But under Erdogan, things have taken a dangerous turn. After the coup attempt, a shadow of suspicion has engulfed Turkish society. Educational institutions are being targeted because Gullen’s network runs its own chain of institutions. Erdogan fears that conspirators are hiding in these institutions and other universities as well. As a consequence, he has closed down thousands of them and put others under strict vigil.
Little academic freedom
But if one looks at the record of academic freedom in Turkey before the attempted coup, it becomes clear that suspected conspiracy against the elected government is only a new cover to impose such restrictions. In a piece titled “Why Turkey’s government is threatening academic freedom”, the Washington Post reported in January last year:
“Emboldened by his party’s electoral victory in November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has set out on a crusade against academics. After 1,128 academics signed a petition to the Turkish government imploring an end to the violence in southeastern Turkey, prosecutors launched a criminal investigation against all signatories. University administrations have begun investigating these academics, who have in some cases been detained or suspended.”
The peace petition asked the Turkish government to stop persecuting the Kurdish population. All the signatories were declared to be enemies of the Turkish state.
The article explained that this persecution of the academics had to be seen in the wider context of Erdogan’s attempt to bring higher education under his control. The article states that the Council of Higher Education, under which all the universities come, enforced a regulation which gave it powers to “take over private universities (called foundation universities in Turkey), suspend their activities, and even shut down an entire university indefinitely on the grounds of violations against the ‘indivisible integrity’ of the Turkish state. Such violations can be ‘triggered’ by failure to provide YÖK [the Council] with documentation for its inspections.”
Calls have been made to raze universities to the ground and shower in the blood of dissenters. Erdogan has also been contemptuous of intellectuals . The signatories of the petition asking for peace have been called “fifth columns” of foreign powers and “so-called intellectuals.”
It is time for the academic community world wide to stand in solidarity with their Turkish fellows. How can they do that? At the very least, they could show their disapproval for the man responsible for this atrocity. Globalisation of a different kind is the necessity of our times, one that creates an international community of justice and peace.
Honouring state leaders is often not the decision of the universities, they do it on behalf of their governments. But diplomacy is not the business of universities. They do create friendship among nations and different peoples but not by being agents of their states.
We should also ask: why Jamia and not Delhi University? Is it because an Islamist dictator can be honoured only by an Islamic institution? Have we forgotten how a smear campaign was launched against Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University, calling them dens of terrorists, by those who hold power today?
Why are the teachers and students of Jamia silent? Why is the larger academic community of India unwilling to even take note of this decision?
- Scroll, May, 2017