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Explained: Why are students protesting in Turkey?

Turkey’s handling of the protests has faced criticism from the US, UN and the European Union.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 5, 2021 9:54:14 am
Students of the Bogazici University stage a protest in support of their detained friends in front of a courthouse in Istanbul. (AP)

For over a month students and teachers at Turkey’s Bogazici University, which is one of the most prestigious universities in the country have been protesting against the appointment of a former political candidate and academic as the Istanbul-based university’s rector.

Melih Bulu was appointed directly by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which demonstrators see as an undemocratic move, especially since Bulu had previously applied to run for parliament as part of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party.

So what’s happening in Turkey?

On Saturday, four students were arrested over a photograph that mixed LGBT symbols with Islamic images. More than 150 protesters were detained on Monday after they did not agree to end the protests and on Tuesday, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu called the student protestors “LGBT deviants” on Twitter, which has further angered the demonstrators.

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Turkey’s handling of the protests has faced criticism from the US, UN and the European Union. UN Human Rights said on Twitter, “We call for prompt release of students & protestors arrested for participating in peaceful demonstrations, and urge the police to stop using excessive force. We condemn homophobic & transphobic comments by officials, inciting hatred & discrimination against LGBT people.”

However, Turkey has defended the actions of its security forces through a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry on Thursday in which they have condemned their foreign critics saying that it is an internal matter. “It is in no one’s limit to attempt to interfere with Turkey’s internal affairs,” the statement said.

What has the government’s response been like?

Following weeks of protests in the university, Erdogan made remarks against the LGBT movement in the country. According to the BBC, in a video broadcast to members of his party, he said, “We will carry our young people to the future, not as the LGBT youth, but as the youth that existed in our nation’s glorious past.”

“You are not the LGBT youth, not the youth who commit acts of vandalism. On the contrary, you are the ones who repair broken hearts,” he said in the broadcast. While homosexuality is legal in Turkey, public sentiment towards homosexuals is still guarded.

On Wednesday, the president called the protesters “terrorists” and said that the demonstrations should not be allowed to escalate into the anti-government protests seen in 2013, a report in The Middle East Eye said.

According to a report in The Financial Times, supporters of the government are defending Bulu’s appointment by saying that the move has been taken to fight elitism in higher education. On the other hand, the supporters of the protests see the move as stifling academic freedom at an institution that has been known to defend the rights of all its students.

Erdogan, who has been in power for a decade, is largely seen as an Islamist and a conservative and some media reports have likened the current wave of student protesters to what was seen in 2013. That year saw one of the biggest protest movements against Erdogan, which started from a peaceful sit-in against the demolition of Gezi Park in central Istanbul but quickly grew into a demand that Erdogan resign after the police cracked down on the protesters.

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Crackdowns in Turkey

Crackdowns by Turkish authorities are not uncommon since authorities are not very tolerant of public display of discontentment. In early 2020, Turkish prosecutors ordered the arrest of nearly 700 people including military personnel and people working in the justice ministry among others as part of a move against those who were involved in a 2016 coup attempt to overthrow the government.

Since the unsuccessful coup took place, the Turkish authorities have been carrying out a crackdown on the alleged followers of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Erdogan has long accused of plotting the 2016 coup. Gülen has denied these allegations and has condemned the coup. In fact, he has previously suggested that the coup was “staged” by the government itself.

Even so, the “Gülenists”, as Gülen’s supporters are called, weren’t always enemies. Until Gülen left for the US in 1999, when he started living in Pennsylvania in self-imposed exile, they supported Erdogan. But the relationship soured after the Gülenists started revealing instances of corruption in the president’s circle. Since 1960, there have been four coups in Turkey, all of them successful.

Significantly, in late 2020, the Turkish parliament passed a bill that would increase the monitoring of civil society groups. The act is called “Preventing Financing of Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” and was proposed by Erdogan’s party in order to comply with UN Security Council’s recommendations to keep terror financing and money laundering in check.

Broadly, the Bill gives the Turkish government the power to appoint trustees to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), to suspend their activities, seize their assets and monitor their sources of funding.

Critics saw certain provisions of the bill as arbitrary and believe that it is a way to crack down on dissidents in a country where civil society is already not very free. Some also believe that it violates certain provisions under the Turkish constitution because it interferes with the right to freedom of association.

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