The Current Turkish Debates On The Borders Of Academic Freedom: Freedom As A Post-1980 Take-It-Easy Option?

By Dr. Başak Alpan

13 January 2011



“The white cracker who wrote the [American] national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it (…) Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me”. These are the words of Belize, the nurse/ ex-drug queen of the TV serial, ‘Angels in America’, adopted from Tony Cushner’s play with the same title. Cushner in this play gives a subtle account of the Reagan era politics in the US, characterised by a rapid change of the social and political climate and new phenomena such as AIDS epidemic and the gay movement. Although Cushner criticizes the above depiction of ‘freedom-without-content’ rather to hint the need for a community-based American society, the recent debates on ‘academic freedom’ in Turkey is to some extent remiscient of the above line. Last week, the debates on ‘academic freedom’ have been all the more intense in Turkey following the sack of 3 lecturers over their approval of a porn film as a final project at Bilgi University.

As early as last year, final year student, Deniz Özgün, shot a porn film as his final project in order to ‘test the borders of academic freedom’. After the weekly magazine, Tempo, reported this story last week, the University decided to shut down the Department of Visual Design where the film had been submitted to and sacked the faculty who approved the project. As the magazine reports, Özgün wanted to test the borders of freedom in the university, which is ‘a vast unused space of freedom’. Without any doubt, the purge of the 3 lecturers involved in the incident and the attitudes of some scholars from the field such as Oğuz Adanır from 9 Eylül University who stated that, “academic freedom is none of the students’ business” are unacceptable. Nevertheless, the representation of the ‘academic freedom’ solely with respect to the debates on porn points to the ‘take-it-easy’ conception of ‘freedom’ prevalent in Turkish politics after the 1980s when the repercussions of the 12 September coup d’état and the launch of neo-liberal policies swayed Turkey after which the public increasingly got indifferent to politics.

The fact that the last weeks’ university students demonstrations against the raise in tuition fees and the brutal police interventions at the universities have never been represented under the rubric of ‘academic freedom’ by the public opinion points to the recent conceptual borders of ‘freedom’. A quick glance at the representation of the protests at the news as well as at the public opinion draws a picture where these demonstrations are marginalized and attributed to ‘spoiled’ and ‘irreconcilable’ youngsters. Interestingly, it was mainly the public university students protesting against the government and they hardly got support from the students of the private universities, including Bilgi University. Along the same lines, as Tarık Şengül rightly argues in his unpublished commentary in BirGün, last week’s meeting where the President Abdullah Gül met with the university student representatives, one of which joined the meeting after parking his Jaguar in front of the President’s office, dovetails with the above mentioned political and social rupture in Turkey after the 1980s. Therefore the representation of ‘freedom’ as a ‘take-it-easy’ option rather than something negotiated, contested and political has been a distinguishing feature of post-1980 Turkish politics.

This entire story reminds me of the latest ad of a mobile phone company where the ad shows the details of a new tariff. A graffiti tag at the bottom of the ad, which is a part of the ad itself but gives the hint that it has been sprayed by young street artists, reads: ‘we want to talk freely now’. Yes, now we are talking about freedom more than ever, but we are confining it to the freedom to buy a Jaguar, to change mobile phone tariffs or to shot porn films.


Dr. Başak Alpan is Lecturer at Middle East Technical University
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