Erdoğan’s War Against Freedom on Campus

Erdoğan’s War Against Freedom on Campus by Burak Bekdil for Gatestone Institute

  • On February 2, Turkish police detained more than 150 people peacefully protesting Erdoğan’s appointment of a party loyalist as BOUN’s new rector. It was the first time a non-BOUN graduate was appointed as head of the university since 1971. Students, professors and alumni have been protesting the appointment of rector Melih Bulu, a former member of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, since early January.
  • On February 3, Erdoğan denounced student protesters as “terrorists” and vowed to crackdown on demonstrations. By then the police had detained more than 250 students. Erdoğan admitted he feared the BOUN protests could grow into anti-government protests and said he would not let them swell.
  • In [Erdogan’s] Islamist worldview, youth dissent is good only if it protests ideas Islamism opposes, not if it protests Islamists.

Bosporus University (Boğaziçi Üniversitesi in Turkish, or BOUN in its acronym) is one of Turkey’s top three “Ivy League” higher education institutions. Established as Robert College in 1863, BOUN was the first American university founded outside the US. Its founders were wealthy philanthropist Christopher Robert and missionary Cyrus Hamlin. Robert College was handed over to the Turkish government in 1971 and reflagged itself as BOUN.

BOUN’s notable graduates include former prime ministers Tansu Çiller and Ahmet Davutoğlu. Times Higher Education put BOUN in 601-800 in its 2021 world university ranking. Every year about 2.5 million Turkish pupils take a national examination to enter a university. In last year’s examination 708 of the top 1,000 in 2.5 million contenders enrolled at BOUN. In other words, 70% of Turkey’s best students prefer this university.

Turkish Islamists have always been at odds with the liberal, pro-Western traditions of BOUN. In an interview, Binali Yıldırım, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s choice for prime minister in 2016, commented that he did not attend BOUN in his youth because he “saw boys and girls sitting and talking together in the university’s yard” and found the genders intermixing unacceptable. It was precisely this ideological incompatibility that opened a new front in the battle between tyrannical Islamism and an elite university.

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