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Turkish Protests Roil Academia

14 June 2013 5:45 pm
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Young and the restless. Social science surveys suggest recent protests in Turkey, such as this one earlier this month in Istanbul's Gezi Park, are being driven by relatively young and apolitical citizens.

Turkish academics are hoping for a peaceful resolution to the protest movement that has gripped their country. After weeks of disrupted final exams and televised threats leveled at two universities, the first official meeting on 14 June between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and protest leaders may spell an end to the violent clashes.

The drama began on 28 May, when environmental activists staged a sit-in at Gezi Park, one of the last expanses of trees in Istanbul. Their stated goal was to block the planned demolition of the park to make room for a new shopping mall. As the days passed, the protest took on a festival-like atmosphere, with university students playing music and grilling meat. But after police cleared the park with batons and tear gas on 31 May, Turkey convulsed in violent protests in many cities. The violence has caused five confirmed deaths and thousands of injuries.

Some Turkish academics have used the conflict as a natural laboratory. A team from Istanbul Bilgi University surveyed 3000 protestors in person, sharing their findings immediately on the Internet. Contrary to government claims that the protests have been fomented by political opponents or even foreign governments to destabilize Turkey, only 7% of protestors identified themselves with any political organization. Instead, they found a young population—60% under 30—that named government corruption and political repression as their main grievances. Another survey, led by a private social science institute in Istanbul, used the protests as a lens for examining the demography of dissent in the country. Not surprisingly, dissatisfaction with the conservative government was correlated with youth, level of education, and political liberalism.

The protests were gathering steam just as Turkish universities began administering final exams. "The public transportation was being cut, and there were security concerns, so the students were having difficulty coming to school," a Turkish scientist at Koç University in Istanbul writes to ScienceInsider in an e-mail. (He asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals for communicating with the press.) On 2 June, university president Umran İnan sent an e-mail to all faculty and students, advising them that given the circumstances, students unable to attend their exams could reschedule. The next evening, Erdoğan announced on national television that Koç University was encouraging students to join the protests. "He read the email word by word and added that he will be fighting with the university from now on," says the Koç scientist. In another televised announcement, Turkish sources tell ScienceInsider, Erdoğan took aim at another Istanbul-based university, Sabancı University, stating that the government only "allows" faculty and students there to use the state-owned land.

Just before the 14 June meeting with protest leaders, Erdoğan announced that the fate of Gezi Park would be left to the courts and a democratic referendum. During the meeting, according to Turkish media, he issued a "final warning" for activists to vacate the park; protesters responded that they would stay put until the park is officially protected.Even if the protestors disband, some Turkish academics aren't optimistic about the future. "Fear, corruption, and unethical behavior have become the new normal here," says a Turkish molecular biology postdoc who requested anonymity because his research is government-funded.

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