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Turkish educators after the coup: ‘We will win’.

published 6 December 2016 updated 6 December 2016
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Earlier this year, on the night of 15th July, there was an attempted coup in Turkey. The coup was quickly defeated and immediately afterwards the government imposed a State of Emergency. The government claims the State of Emergency is intended to defend and stabilise democracy. In reality it provides cover for hugely undemocratic actions aimed at shutting down the government’s critics. Opposition politicians and many journalists have found themselves attacked and sometimes imprisoned, but thousands of educators, in schools and universities, have also found themselves in the front line of this attack.

The coup attempt is blamed on the Hizmet movement, associated with Fethullah Gulen. This movement in Turkey has supported many schools, and the teachers had their own union. Immediately after the coup the schools were closed down, all the teachers dismissed and the union was banned.

This is not the place to debate the role of particular groups in Turkey, and whether or not they were involved in the coup. What is important to recognise is that long before the coup Turkey’s human rights record was dismal (especially on labour issues), and that since the coup the crack down on opposition groups extends far beyond those accused of plotting the coup. In particular, the State of Emergency is being used to attack any groups associated with defending the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish population.

I recently visited Turkey as part of an Education International research project. In Turkey there are many teacher unions, but only one, Egitim-Sen, is affiliated to Education International. The union represents educators in schools and universities and has a proud record of defending secular education (currently under attack from the government), opposing privatisation and advocating for the rights of the Kurdish community. It is well used to attacks from government, and in the past several Egitim-Sen leaders have been imprisoned.

Whilst in Turkey I was informed of the scale of the attack on educators. Some figures illustrate:

  • After the coup 33,000 teachers, and 5342 university staff, were suspended from work. That figures continues to rise as further announcements are made
  • Over 10,000 members of Egitim-Sen have been suspended.
  • 781 members of Egitim-Sen have been dismissed with no possibility of re-employment as teachers or academics. Further dismissals are expected.

Members of Egitim-Sen are promoters of secular education. This is a completely different policy position to those blamed for the coup. It is clear therefore that the coup is not the reason why many of these educators are dismissed or suspended. However, the State of Emergency means that the government provides no reason for dismissal, no evidence to support the action and the dismissed have no right of appeal. Several people I met expect the government to try to close down Egitim-Sen itself at some point in the future.

I met a dismissed teacher at a local branch office of Egitim-Sen in downtown Ankara. He told me how his colleagues contacted him and said his name had appeared on a list of dismissed teachers on the government’s website. He was dismissed with immediate effect, after 16 years as a teacher and four years excellent service in his school. He will not be able to work again as a teacher. He still does not know why he was dismissed.

I also met a university academic who was ‘under investigation’. He was a signatory to a petition critical of government policy in relation to the treatment of Turkey’s Kurdish population (organised by ‘Academics for Peace’). As he sat behind his desk, describing his plight, he said stoically ‘I am under investigation, I will be dismissed’. He will not be able to work in a university again and current restrictions forbid him leaving the country, and so he cannot seek work elsewhere. He told me how he joined the union when it was illegal, and how he has lived through periods of dictatorship in Turkey, ‘but things have never been as bad as they are now’.

In the cafes of Ankara it is possible to imagine that life is normal. But talk to the teachers in their staff rooms and the level of fear and intimidation is palpable. Several talked about ‘spies’ in schools who will report anyone who expresses views critical of the government. With no due process, there are no checks and balances to the arbitrary application of state power to dismiss or suspend. Everyone is afraid and suspicious. The State of Emergency also makes any form of visible protest virtually impossible. In Turkey, protest is an act of extraordinary courage.What can be done? It is clear that there is little prospect of an immediate improvement in circumstances. The government uses fear and the State of Emergency to further tighten its grip on power every day. For teachers, and the union, the watchwords are support and solidarity. The union does its best to argue the case for dismissed members, and it also supports them financially. Many members organise regular collections at their workplace to support dismissed colleagues (although some fear that if it is known they are giving they too will be suspended – one small example, from many, of how fear is being used to try to sap collective strength).

What is clear is that the obstacles teachers in Turkey face are too big for them to face alone. The principle of solidarity must be extended beyond the borders of the country. Education International, its European section (ETUCE) and many individual unions in other countries are already providing support. That support is much appreciated in Turkey and the need for it can only grow.

However, there is a need to extend this international solidarity in ways that mobilise the capacity of individual teachers and union members. In a world with so many problems, events in Turkey can seem a long way off. However, although we may not know these teachers personally, and we are unlikely to ever meet them, they are our colleagues. At the present time they are doing their work, the same work we all do, but doing it in the face of the most extraordinary challenge and intimidation. An attack on their classrooms and lecture halls is an attack on the principle of democratic public education. We should all feel their pain.

If we all resolved to do something, some small act of solidarity, things can change. When those individual acts become collective actions then real change becomes possible. That is why it is important to work collectively, in and through our unions, to support our colleagues in Turkey. At the very least teachers in Turkey will know they do not stand alone. This provides a base from which confidence can grow and new possibilities emerge.

As I left the office of the university academic who expects any day to be dismissed, he said simply ‘We will win. They attack us, but we will come back.’ They must win, and we all have a responsibility to make sure they do.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.