Harvard and Berkeley discuss Turkey with Ahval

Turkey’s deep systemic crisis and oppressive regime this year have been under the spotlight of think tanks, lawmakers in Washington and the lawyers involved in prosecuting Turkey’s state-run Halkbank for breaking sanctions on Iran.

But these are not the only U.S. institutions to take an interest in the current state of Turkey: Scholars and students of international relations, media freedoms and human rights at some of the country’s most venerable universities have been monitoring the course of events in the country.

In many respects, what one observes is a litmus test for understanding not only the current trends in that geography but also the wave of authoritarianism that has swept the globe. So, I had much to say to discuss with keenly interested audiences at the universities of Harvard and Berkeley.

The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University and three departments at Berkeley University were keen for me to share my analyses of Turkey’s domestic politics, the Kurdish issue, the pressures on the country’s media and the regional developments centred on Syria.

I was delighted to accept the invitation from Harvard, a home ground for my fellowship five years ago – I prepared a long report on media ownership and self-censorship in Turkey at the Kennedy School, after being brutally fired from my role as a media ombudsman following the Gezi park protests in 2013. My follow-up talks were to take place at Berkeley, where the interest in Turkey has always remained high.

People at both universities spoke of Ahval as a main source of independent news and commentary and spoke of their high expectations from the site. 

The meetings also held a distinct and special meaning as they took place just as our news site reached its second anniversary.

When I went to Shorenstein Center to meet professor Thomas Patterson, one of my peers in my fellowship, he handed me a copy of his new book, the wonderfully titled “How America Lost Its Mind”. 

Then we got to talking.

We reached the conclusion that the current neo-populism, authoritarianism and muzzling of the media will be here for the long-term in Turkey and in many other countries, no doubt.

Patterson was very inquisitive about how the disastrous political and legal legacy that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is bound to leave behind him can be lifted. I told him anybody with a swift and clear answer would be lying. Nobody knows.

I discussed in my talk how, in the five years since my 2014 report was published, Erdoğan had gradually seized control of the media and completely taken over public discourse, and how over that period he has strengthened his own party and moved to one-man rule through a series of civil coups. 

The rapt audience listened with both interest and concern. The most common question was on Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s relationship with the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood, making it glaringly obvious that this is where matters have come to a head.

The quest for the complex truth in Turkey was tougher in San Francisco. The three back-to-back meetings in Berkeley University lasted for hours, and were a most enjoyable chance to speak with exceptionally bright students.

The first sitting was hosted by Edward Wasserman, the dean of Berkeley School of Journalism – one of the most respected institutions for media education in the country. We were joined by graduate students for this discussion. 

I was hosted by journalist and filmmaker Goran Zaneti a Kurdish-American,  whose identity in itself made him a keen follower of the region.

In my talk on “subjugated journalism”, I discussed how important the seizure of the media had been in the government’s usurpation of power, and the extent to which obstacles to corruption had been removed during this period.

I described the methods Erdoğan’s regime had used to engineer the media, how journalists and opinion leaders had been jailed or silenced through judicial pressure, how the government had captured media institutions one by one, the similarities between the Turkish Presidency’s Communications Directorate and Joseph Goebbels’s Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in Nazi Germany, and whether or not the country’s alternative media had a future.

Then came a long flood of questions: Why has civil society not come out in support of independent media? Is there any strong solidarity on media freedom? Are the younger generations alert to disinformation, and how do they reach fact-checking institutions? What can we do from here to support imprisoned journalists, opposition politicians and civil society representatives?

An hour later came the next meeting, this time with the class of Turkish Studies lecturer Jason Vivrette. 

I found myself speaking Turkish with a curious and engaged group of students, all of whom were combining the study of Turkish with their own academic fields of expertise. Some were from Caucasia and some from Central Asia, but the rest were either U.S. citizens of Turkish origin or those who had come to the United States from Turkey at some time in their lives. 

Adopting a question and answer format, we discussed everything that came to our minds, from the generation of dissidents that emerged with the Gezi Park protests of 2013, to Turkish television serials to politics.

My final two-and-a-half-hour meeting was with a crowded group of mixed ages from the university’s prestigious Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

I talked about how and why Erdoğan had executed a 180-degree shift, bringing Turkey from a policy of reform in the early millennium to a war footing over the last 10 years, and how this had left all of the country’s chronic problems unresolved, from the demand for Kurdish rights, to the relation between religion and politics, to the separation of powers and rule of law.

As could be expected of an audience that follows Turkey and the region closely from thousands of kilometres away during a period when Erdoğan and Trump’s relations have provoked intense interest, they paid close attention and asked questions afterward. 

They were especially interested in the July 2016 coup attempt and the backdrop to Erdoğan’s relations with his erstwhile ally Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the religious group he blames for the coup. 

They also asked about the government’s plans to redesign Turkey, whether the country has a future in the NATO alliance, what Erdoğan’s plan is for the occupied parts of northern Syria, and how Turkey’s relations with Russia are progressing. 

I was exhausted by the time of the final talk, but I got my second wind when I saw that some Turkish students had come to Berkeley from Stanford and other nearby universities. The talk was followed by a two-way discussion with the students, who had grown sick of the abysmal state of Turkish academia and come instead to a place where they can receive a good education and have a chance for an honourable future. 

The most painful thing was seeing how disappointed and hopeless most were about Turkey. 

None are thinking of returning, nor did any hold hope that this rough period will end soon. They see Turkey’s sedentary opposition as meaningless.

More generally, there was a sense of anger among the younger generation at their elders for leaving them with a world plagued by environmental problems.