An example of civil disobedience: Don’t look down people of Boğaziçi University

Translated by: Selin Çetin /
Orjinal Metin (tr-2/2/2021)

Hello, good day. We are talking about Boğaziçi University, and it looks like we will continue to discuss it for a while. This is very normal because there’s been various events transpiring that are out of the ordinary in Turkey. There is a resistance in Boğaziçi University. Protests of students and faculty members emerged, as they did not accept the rectorship of Melih Bulu, who was appointed by the President in the New Year. At first it was violent, then it calmed down slightly, picking up intensity once again, days later. Now, a significant portion of the 159 students detained have been released, their statements are still being collected and interrogations are still ongoing, but they will probably all be dropped. I have previously portrayed this as “the consequences of a lost culture war”. Boğaziçi University stands before us as one of the most striking examples of how the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, who has been in power for nearly 19 years, has changed everything but failed to gain cultural power. And this appointment of a rector to Boğaziçi University from the outside —I won’t say was an attempt “to seize it in some way”, it’s something else actually—, it was a step in the pursuit of self-imitation, and a strife is persevering with students, faculty, graduates, and their supportive families — society in general — who do not want to allow it.
Initially, I will say this. The “don’t look down” phrase that I have put on the headline here, comes from the following. With the signature of the constabulary, the General Directorate of Security, shared a post on social media saying “We didn’t say look down, we said walk from below “; but in their post, we can see how police chiefs brutally attack young people. For the Boğaziçi University students walking along the road… In all actuality, it doesn’t matter if they said walk from below, walk down or look down. After all the “We’re not going to look down!” slogan was established for the protests. We have already seen this in the demonstrations of the faculty members today. They raised banners reading “We’re not going to look down. We do not accept. We’re not going to give up!” At the same time, they constructed a “159” sign, which symbolizes the 159 students arrested during the protests, and then left it at the rector’s door.

I am someone who stepped into Boğaziçi University about 40 years ago in a place called South Campus – which was the only existing area at that time. It must have been September 1982; I may have gone earlier for registration, nonetheless I studied my foundation year in September ’82. Later, I studied in the economics department for years, but I did not finish my degree, and if I am not mistaken, I left Boğaziçi after spending 8 years there, when it was time for me to complete my mandatory military service (which typically in Turkey is for 6 months but in exchange for a fee can be shortened to 20 days, the latter is what I chose to serve). Thus, to be more precise, Boğaziçi left me; but I consider myself a Boğaziçi native even though I didn’t graduate. This is not something to be hidden at all, on the contrary, it is something to own and flaunt, this must be emphasized.
Boğaziçi is really one of Turkey’s most important educational institutions. The year I entered, I was in prison, in military prison, in Hasdal. I put down Boğaziçi University as my first option when I made my choices, but I didn’t tell this to most of my friends at the ward. Because at that time, Boğaziçi University was a passive university for us radical young people, it was a pacifist institute. It was a bourgeois institute. Why did I choose this university? Firstly, I didn’t think my points would be enough to get in anyway. Even if my score was sufficient, I did not believe I would be selected among the thousands of eligible applicants. Despite my hesitations, with a sufficient score and an acceptance letter, I found myself in Boğaziçi University. Secondly, I knew that some of my classmates that I really liked from high school, Galatasaray High School, attended there. I wrote down Boğaziçi as my first option with the urge to study alongside them. I’m glad I did, and when I examine it 40 years later, frankly, these recent events surprise me. 
Of course there is an immense disparity between Turkey 40 years ago and Turkey today– All kinds of social movements in the present-day are harshly repressed and, it has also become a place whereby any objection is suppressed too. Usually, in our universities, movements are mainly created by students and only partially supported by some faculty members and administrators. Boğaziçi University, with all its students and academic staff –this must be especially highlighted– generated a brand-new type of student movement where for the first time ever we are here all together, and of course the support continues with new and old graduates or those who are not graduates like me but who feel as a Boğaziçi native. Despite all these hardships with the lack of freedom of speech and absence of a constitutional government, for Boğaziçi University students and faculty members to be able to catalyse a social movement during a pandemic no less, is in itself a colossal achievement and is a resistance which has triumphed. If Melih Bulu resigns from rectorship this success will increase twofold. However, I don’t believe his resignation will come so easily.
Because this event is no longer just to do with Melih Bulu, we know that political powers are seriously engaged here. The people with the greatest voice in the government are constantly trying to play a role in this issue, about Boğaziçi University. Especially the Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu, or the President’s advisors, Head of Communications, etc. are constantly trying to say something about Boğaziçi and see it as an area of struggle. Apart from that, I would like to emphasize that many representatives of the government were not involved in this event. Maybe they are like this in general; but when looked at in this regard, it is very desirable. On the one hand, it was first associated with terror; using all letters of the alphabet, it was deemed to be the product of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP), The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKPC) etc. It was said, special forces entered houses by breaking down doors. All of these allegations came up dry. They didn’t even apologise for this. But the terrorist label they attempted to attach to the Boğaziçi movement did not hold. On the other hand, they accused the protestors of insulting Islam, of insulting the Kaaba, and in the words of Süleyman Soylu calling LGBTQ+ protestors ‘freaks.’
If a country’s Minister of Interior defines its citizens’ sexual orientation as ‘freakish’, then we can see that place, in other words that Turkey does not have a constitutional government. Everyone has a right to express one’s sexuality and to be free from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, from the outset, to portray them as perverse and hence criminal or potentially criminal is never acceptable in democracies. Of course, we have come across these issues many times. However, it should be emphasized that the fact that some of the spokespersons of the ruling power have talked about the LGBTQ+ issue in the protests so relentlessly, shows how desperate they actually are. If they could get something out of the terror accusation, they would still be using it too. When it was understood that they could not weave the terrorist narrative, they steered attention to the narrative of protestors being ‘LGBTQ+ freaks’ and are making huge strategic mistakes here. First of all, they are discriminating against their citizens due to their sexual orientation. Second, in societies like Turkey, these conversations have historically always been hidden, and the reason why some pro-government spokespersons are discussing these issues excessively is actually because comfort or liberal views on this issue has amplified in their own circles, especially among the younger generations. Today, those who think that they will be able to mobilize people through their negative stance on LGBTQ+ rights and form a block against the Boğaziçi resistance this way, have probably seen how much they have failed in the last couple of days. Even their own children –of course some may still see it as perverse– but even a large group of their own children do not rely on such hateful rhetoric. In new generations, especially in the conservative community, –I’m not quite fond of this word but– ‘awareness’ has formed.
What has this done? The name of what has been done is called civil disobedience. Civil disobedience can be a good thing. If we look at an essay from 1849: an essay written by Henry David Thoreau in the United States, the approach of civil disobedience is mentioned, and since then it has been adopted by the rest of the world. What is this? The civilian authorities may tell you that they are doing something legal, but if you do not give consent to them, you have the right to completely passively refuse to accept and resist it. Some examples of civil disobedience in the world were conducted by Gandhi in India, Tolstoy in Russia, and Martin Luther King in the United States (US). These examples are the first to stand out. Civil disobedience –I know about it very well since as a journalist I follow current events religiously– In the 1980s, 90s the Islamic movement in Turkey utilised it a lot and debated on the approach frequently. In fact, the title of a book of essays by Ismet Özel was “Waldo, why aren’t you here?” Let me try to summarize it briefly. Thoreau sees Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom he calls ‘Waldo’, as a kind of mentor. Thoreau opposes the Mexican war. He refuses to pay taxes, so he is thrown in prison, albeit for a day, and there Emerson comes to visit him which is the promise he made to him. So that’s how I remember it, I hope I’m not remembering it wrong. Waldo’s question “Why are you here?” and Thoreau’s answer “Why aren’t you here is also one of the most beautiful defences of civil disobedience.
This is what Boğaziçi University students are demonstrating to us right now. In other words, they represent a very striking example of civil disobedience, and most of the arguments voiced by the political powers against anti-racist movements in the US or anti-colonial movements in India and anti-racist civil disobedience movements in South Africa– albeit in varying tones– we see that it is presented to us today. What are they saying, for example? “This is legal. A legal appointment has been made. ” There are debates on this issue, but, well, let’s say that a legal appointment was made, but the people of Boğaziçi say: “In our traditions, it was only after September 12 that someone who was not a lecturer at Boğaziçi University became a rector.” Ergün Toğrol – exactly when I began studying at the university; he became the new rector, if I remember correctly, Boğaziçi students were chanting: “We don’t accept this as a group, and as Boğaziçi”. And they built their resistance on this basis. The government tried to spew conspiracy theories from this, linking it to terrorism, opposition and then, if you notice, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Provincial Chair, Canan Kaftancıoğlu’s support for the people of Boğaziçi was mentioned vehemently in a negative light. 
But what happened next? When the spokesperson of CHP, Faik Öztrak, took the bait of the government and made a statement like “It is necessary not to insult religious values”, this time they saw that CHP was on their side. I’m trying to find a subtle word for this, but I can’t think of one, let’s day ‘mind-blowing’. They tried to make up for the incident. We see that Melih Bulu has finally found a vice-rector in all this time. He appointed an industrial engineer called Gürkan Kumbaroğlu. When I took a look at his social media presence, he has two social media accounts on Twitter. He has made his own personal account private; obviously over the reactions that came after he became the vice-rector. Another account was created for his professional presence and his contributions in the media. When I looked there, I saw that he was someone who spoke in places like Akşam TV, Ulusal Kanal, and A Haber and whose name I heard for the first time. Another name is Oğuzhan Aygören, he is also an advisor to the rector. Perhaps because his title is a doctor, he could not possibly be appointed to a higher level, so he was appointed as an advisor to the rector. However, this person, who is the founder of the Democratic and Progress Party (DEVA), said that he did not accept this assignment upon public outrage. It should be noted that this incident cast a serious shadow on the DEVA Party and that, with its effect, Ali Babacan and other DEVA spokespersons made a very serious effort on the Boğaziçi University matter.
I took many notes. I said almost all of them. I would also like to say this. Melih Bulu, the audience knows, we called him many times to be a guest on the show, when he was first appointed as rector, he did not deign to come to Medyascope. He appeared in places such as A Haber, CNN Türk, NTV and from there he tried to describe himself as part of the Boğaziçi group. Actually, in his TV appearances he addressed the people in power saying, “I’m glad you chose me”, but now I suppose he’s thinking “Why did you choose me?” After this time, I don’t think it will be possible for him to resign easily. As you already know we are not saying resignation anymore, we say “request for forgiveness”. Because his resignation will mean the political power would have to take a step back against a resistance that Erdoğan is really not in favour of. Therefore, although Melih Bulu does not want to anymore, it seems that he will remain as rector for numerous years. It is not possible to predict how events will unfold from now on; but it is certainly possible to say: this event during its first month, has been recorded to have found its place amongst Turkey’s social movements as one of the brightest examples of civil disobedience in the history of the Republic of Turkey. Whether Melih Bulu resigns or not, the winners were those who objected to his appointment as trustee and trustee rector.  Of course, what will happen next has an importance; but most of what will happen from now on will remain as extraneous details. All the arguments built against the protestors such as linking them to terrorism, calling them LGBTQ+ ‘freaks’, or stating they were insulting Islam, the disinformation, manipulation and distortion examples of this classical post-truth period did not work despite the facilitation of the state. We have seen that the arrests of young people were useless. People of Boğaziçi University truly demonstrated to all of Turkey, commitment to power and opposition, democracy, fundamental rights and freedoms and institutions –let’s underline the word institutions once again– the Republic’s most important institutions –we see what state the most important institutions have come to– the most we can do is to applaud the plight for survival of one of the most important institutions in education in our country.
Yes, that is all I have to say, have a good day.

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