Of vines and fig-trees

Several years back I wrote an editorial for EMBO Reports (doi: 10.1038/ embor.2011.63), in which I pointed out some of the hypocrisy inherent in western attitudes to Turkey, a tolerant country that for centuries has provided sanctuary to scholars fleeing persecution. But today, darker clouds are gathered over the Bosphorus. I feel it is the duty of those of us who have been (and still are) friends of Turkey and of its science, to speak out against the worrying trends that confront us.

A military takeover in a democratic country that upholds universal values is wholly unacceptable. So the failure of last July’s military coup in Turkey should be welcomed. But the response to it must also stand up to scrutiny, within internationally recognized and democratic norms.

Turkey’s academic community have been one of the most visible targets of the crackdown that followed. Initially all of them were prohibited from travelling abroad. Those already abroad at the time of the failed coup were summoned home. Subsequently, many have been removed from their posts, on grounds of political opinion or affiliation, rather than actual participation in the attempt to seize power.

What should we do? There is continuing background chatter about boycotts and sanctions. But these actions are rarely effective, usually hurt most those who are already in difficulty, and often lead to even greater bloody-mindedness on the part of those at whom they are directed. Instead, and without compromizing our values, we need to find practical ways to assist our colleagues in Turkey, offer incentives for the regime to come back fully into the fold of civilized nations, and show patience and respect to those insiders who are trapped in this difficult situation.

At the same time we need to stand ready to intervene more directly and at short notice, if the situation should worsen, especially given the wave of terrorist attacks that has also been unleashed in Turkey recent months, albeit for other reasons. It's easy to recount historical examples where academics and intellectuals were in the front line of state repression - the crushing of the Prague spring, or the reign of terror perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. The process that led ultimately to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany began in 1933 with the progressive exclusion of Jews from the universities. None of those tragedies would have been averted by soothing words, nor even by boycotts. Bravery and a willingness to bend all rules necessary – if needed even engage in clandestine actions at great personal risk, were the only ways to extricate colleagues from such situations.

So we need to remain vigilant, monitor closely what is happening, and prepare to act if necessary. At the same time we must offer our strongest voices in support of all those who uphold the values we cherish, in the hope that they will prevail. If Turkey can somehow pull through these challenges and re-assert its traditional standards, we will all gain.

The text was published on the Professorblog at the end of January.

Howy Jacobs
Director, Institute of Biotechnology
University of Helsinki

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