When he labelled outspoken academics as terrorists, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was probably not thinking of Voltaire’s eighteenth-century philosophical maxim: “To hold a pen is to be at war”. Erdoğan sent shivers down the spines of those who care about human rights by declaring on 14 March that those who support terrorists are as guilty as those “who pull the trigger”, and that Turkish law should be changed to reflect this. “The fact that an individual is a deputy, an academic, an author, a journalist or the director of an NGO does not change the fact that that person is a terrorist,” he said. One the same day, three academics from universities in Istanbul were hauled into police custody and then refused bail while prosecutors considered charges of making propaganda for a terrorist organization. Their crime? In January, they had signed a petition that called for an end to violence in the southeast of the country, where government forces have been fighting Kurdish separatists. The petition was signed by 1,128 academics, mostly from Turkish universities, when it was publicly launched on 11 January. It immediately sparked Erdoğan’s rage. Many politically appointed university rectors leapt into line, launching disciplinary investigations into members of their staff who had signed — more than 500 so far. Dozens of signatories were brought in for police questioning. The harsh response attracted a shocked solidarity. Another 1,000 people signed the petition, including a large number of Western scientists, before it was closed on 20 January.
An atmosphere of uncertainty and fear prevails. None of the signatories knows whether they, too, will be arrested, and several have had death threats. Some have actively sought sabbaticals abroad; those working outside the country are afraid to return even to visit family. Meanwhile, Turkey is playing a major part on the world political stage, in a role that is overshadowing the fate of the academics. Turkey is a geopolitical fulcrum. On one side it borders war-torn Middle East, on the other, strife-ridden Europe that is struggling to cope with the refugee crisis. When the country reached a historic agreement with the European Union last week to take back migrants who were crossing into Europe illegally, many in the EU complained bitterly about making a deal with Erdoğan because of his worrying human-rights record.