Turkey is going through a self-induced brain drain, with leagues of teachers and academics fleeing universities in fear of not only their professions, but for their safety as well. Where did this chaos originate, and what does this mean for the nation moving forward, especially in light of the country's upcoming referendum elections on April 16?
Last July, a failed military coup left 290 dead and the country in a declared state of emergency – contributing to a trend of alleged terrorist attacks, as traced by CNN, that has taken the lives of 617 people in Turkey since January of last year.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has since reacted by firing leagues of teachers and academic authorities across the nation. Turkey Purge, a coalesced group of journalists dedicated to exposing the human rights violations committed by Erdoğan, reported that by official decree, 15 Turkish universities were shut down almost immediately after the coup, displacing over 60,000 students – and the situation has only escalated since.
During a broadcast televised after meeting with his National Security Council in 2016, Erdoğan justified his harsh measures by labeling them as a shield against a "threat to democracy, the rule of law, and the rights and freedoms of citizens in our country." Falling into these so-called threats have been social workers, journalists, academics, as well as dissenting sections of the military and government.
"This is the biggest we've seen in Turkey," attests University of Southern California Annenberg professor Gordon Stables. "If your goal is to prevent any opposition effectives, purges are the way of doing that."
So far, Erdoğan has been loyal to this mission, seeing the coup as a threat to his growingly centralized authority. Since the incident, over seven thousand academics have lost their jobs, while over 128,000 public service workers, including teachers, have been ousted by the government, as recorded by Turkey Purge.
As these numbers continue to escalate, however, little opposition has been felt within the nation's borders.
"A substantial portion of Turkish people seems to be supporting the purges as they are subjected to the government narrative on every TV channel…or online portal," claim Turkey Purge's editors.
Admittedly, through rhetoric that has stapled an "us vs. them" mentality onto the minds of Turkish residents, President Erdoğan has managed to foster significant opposition against any dissidents – speaking to his nearly 67 percent approval rating following the coup last summer, according to a poll conducted by MetroPOLL, an Ankara-based survey organization.
As a result, McCarthyist-tendencies have come to infect citizen relations, with an eagerness to find the next underground coup plotter fostering national chaos. As voiced by the editors of Turkey Purge, "the country has never seen this many partisan people who report their family members critical of the government to the police; and get them arrested…or dismissed from state institutions."
This paranoia might allude to why these purges have continued persistently without much protest.
To Selcuk Unal, a tour guide living in the western town of Izmur, the reason is linked more to a mere weighing of values in the face of national crisis. "So much has been happening in the country that 'purges in schools' does not sound that important, unfortunately."
What Unal refers to is years of terrorism, a weakened economy, and failed bids into the European Union that have diminished the role of Turkey in the global sphere since the beginning of Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, at the turn of the 21st century. As attacks by the Kurdistan Workers' Party loom and a growing number of Syrian refugees flood through borders, the fates of teachers have fallen behind in the priorities of Turkish residents – giving room for Erdoğan to exert his power.
"At this point, liberal people are like 'let him have his power' so there's no more bloodshed," sighs USC freshman and Turkish native, Can Erel. Having come to the United States to study in an environment he found more fit to his educational interests, Erel sees the underlying effects of Erdoğan's power as dire. "People don't have access to education anymore."
Where this has left Turkey is nowhere short of a string of human rights violations at the hands of an increasingly autocratic government. Dutch Turkologist and professor of Turkish studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, Erik-Jan Zurcher, sees contemporary Turkey as a falling out from a previous atmosphere of democratic hopefulness. In a 2016 letter addressed to the Dutch media, Zurcher explains his decision to revoke his Turkish "Medal of High Distinction" as a symbol of his opposition to Turkey entering the European Union: "The Turkey of Tayyip Erdoğan cannot and should not be a member of the EU…a country where…universities have become playthings for a de-facto dictator and his clique of sycophants."
The nation now faces elections on a constitutional referendum to grant Erdoğan almost unlimited presidential authority – a move that would essentially dissolve the country's parliament or any other decentralizing faction of government. The voting, scheduled to take place later this week, will prove to be one of the most divisive in recent Turkish history.
While these purges continue to illustrate the dangers of autocracy, Selcuk Unal hopes for an opposition to the referendum; yet the fairness of the elections is not guaranteed. "We learned in a hard way in past years that anything is possible and likely."
For a nation that continues to face many of the tribulations it has battled over the past ten years, more of the same shouldn't be seen as a surprise – only a further digression from democracy.
Updated 1:53 p.m. PT on May 9, 2017: A previous version of this article misstated the location of Leiden University. The school is located in the Netherlands.