Laboratory of Democracy? Turkey’s Scientific Institutions After the July 15 Coup

Laboratory of Democracy? Turkey’s Scientific Institutions After the July 15 Coup

Since Turkey experienced a failed coup attempt a year ago, hardly a week goes by without news of new firings, suspensions, detentions, and arrests. By the end of June 2017, over 138,000 government employees had been removed from their jobs and over 110,000 citizens had been detained—with nearly half of these detentions leading to formal arrests. Numbers of this size are daunting. To put them in perspective and to give some sense of how the post-coup purges have affected institutions and lives in Turkey, consider the case of TÜBİTAK.

Established in 1963 to support state-led economic planning, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) identifies and promotes areas where government support can serve to develop strategically important technologies. In addition to its own research facilities, the council underwrites research by providing grants and scholarships. To foster science more generally, TÜBİTAK also sponsors student science fairs and academic competitions. Like any government institution, many positions are filled through patronage, but the need for specialized education has made TÜBİTAK an especially attractive institution to followers of Fethullah Gülen—the influential imam whom the government of Turkey alleges to have masterminded the failed coup in 2016.

Though many experts have questioned the extent of Gülen’s involvement, their qualms have not stopped the government and its allies from accusing the imam and his movement of responsibility for the coup and a host of other problems plaguing Turkey in recent years. For decades, Gülen promoted a moderate version of Islam that emphasized involvement in the material world. He encouraged followers to establish banks, foundations, media enterprises, and—most important in this discussion of TÜBİTAK—numerous private schools in Turkey and around the world renowned for their focus on science and math. (In the United States, the movement is often described as operating “the largest” network of charter schools.) As a result of its efforts, the movement has cultivated a sizeable number of followers with the specialized education necessary for securing important positions in state institutions.

From 2011 until 2015, the president of TÜBİTAK was Yücel Altunbaşak, an American-trained scientist with experience in the public and private sector, as well as a belief in privatized education that helped burnish the government’s reformist image internationally. During his time in America, he was also on the founding board of the Fulton Science Academy, a Gülen charter school in Georgia. During his time as president, TÜBİTAK hired around 1,700 new employees—a sizeable portion of its 4,500 total. TÜBİTAK also directed increasing funds towards research centers at universities such as March 18 University in Çanakkale. By 2014, the school’s rector, Sedat Laçiner, was happy to announce that March 18 was among the top thirteen recipients of research funding.

From the beginning of Altunbaşak’s term, there were allegations of his ties to the Gülen movement. Yet, at the time, the Turkish government was still on good terms with the movement. Over the next several years, the relationship soured and the government announced it would close all university prep-schools in the country—a sector in which the Gülen movement was deeply invested. The split between the Gülen movement and government came to a head in late December 2013 when Gülen-linked prosecutors launched a series of arrests and investigations of government ministers and their associates.

Much of the government’s energy since 2013 has been directed toward removing Gülen movement members from office. By late 2014, TÜBİTAK had become a particular focus of government concern. Speaking in December, Prime Minister Erdoğan declared to the organization, “You say, ‘Science and research,’ [but] some individuals have infiltrated the institution like cancer cells and are eating away at your efforts. Such a network has established itself that [TÜBİTAK] is not being used for science but for treason.”

In particular, Erdoğan was convinced that Gülenists working at TÜBİTAK research centers had used their knowledge to tap his phone lines. A bug had been discovered in the prime minister’s office in late 2011 and recordings of his phone conversations had been leaked to the press in 2013-14. In February 2014, the head of TÜBİTAK’s Informatics and Advanced Information Security Center (BİLGEM), Hasan Palaz, was removed from his post and prosecuted for falsifying reports. In addition, the current and former heads of TÜBİTAK’s Marmara Research Center (MAM) were also fired. Like TÜBİTAK president Altunbaşak, the brother of the MAM president had also been on the board of the Fulton Academy.

In April 2014, Altunbaşak was removed as head of TÜBİTAK. Beginning in 2015, purges began in earnest: in January, Palaz and ten others were charged with phone-tapping. In April, twenty-eight MAM employees were detained, and many subsequently arrested. Palaz was found innocent in June, but accusations against him and other government officials continued to mount. Pro-government journalists now spoke of a “Fethullah Gülen Terror Organization/ Parallel State Structure” (FETÖ/PYD) that had seized control of key institutions. They claimed that Gülenist rectors had been appointed at universities such as March 18 in Çanakkale.

Such accusations softened the ground for the government’s on-going efforts against alleged members of the Gülen movement. In the case of March 18 University, for example, Erdoğan—now president—declined to reappoint Sedat Laçiner rector in March 2015, despite Laçiner having received the most votes from his peers. Following his removal, Laçiner was investigated for “FETÖ/PYD” connections and fired from the university on July 14, 2016.

The failed coup attempt was launched the following day. In the weeks to follow, the government dramatically stepped up its activities against alleged-Gülenists like Laçiner. The week following the coup, he was arrested along with his brother and fiver other university employees. By the end of the month, March 18 University had fired 224 employees including thirteen professors, sixty-eight docents, thirty-nine teaching staff, twenty-nine research assistants, seventeen instructors, and twenty administrative staff. By February 2017, 145 academic staff members had been fired and 322 employees in total were under investigation.

The main evidence linking staff at March 18 University and other institutions to the FETÖ/PYD was their use of ByLock, a data encryption program that had been widely used by members of the Gülen movement—a program that the government believed had been designed by TÜBİTAK researchers. In early August 2016, the Ministry of Science, Industry, and Technology (which oversees TÜBİTAK) announced that 167 employees had been removed in the weeks following the coup attempt. The new president of TÜBİTAK promised to purge the organization of any remaining Gülenists who, he suggested, had been using their positions to block Turkey’s scientific development and military capabilities. The following week, twenty employees were arrested on accusations that they had helped develop ByLock code. By the end of the month, the total number of fired employees had risen to 368.

Altunbaşak was arrested in October. Another spate of arrests followed in February 2017. A “red bulletin” was issued for Hasan Palaz who had fled the country. In March, the ministry reported that 1,846 TÜBİTAK employees had been removed since February 2014. The accusations against Gülenists tend to repeat themselves: in addition to using ByLock, prosecutors allege that suspects used bank accounts at Bank Asya (a Gülen movement-lined bank) and donated part of their salaries to the movement. Moreover, members of the movement are said to have hidden their religious affiliation by smoking, discarding their headscarves, and using secular greetings rather than religious ones. True or not, such details help paint the movement as impious—President Erdoğan, for example, likes to refer to Gülenists as “haşhaşiler” in reference to the medieval order of hashish-smoking Islamic assassins.

Against this background of firings, arrests, and prosecutions, the government is seizing the opportunity to remake TÜBİTAK as it sees fit. The council’s new president, Ahmet Arif Ergin, argues that money has been wasted for years, often by duplicating efforts in the private sector or by undertaking projects that could be better handed by private enterprise. Going forward, Ergin proposes to coordinate better with private firms, selling them patents TÜBİTAK has developed. Additionally the government  has legislation in the works that would weaken TÜBİTAK by separating its associated research centers and placing them under the umbrella of a newly created “High Technology Center,” which would have more freedom in allocating funds according to political leaders preferences.

Whether or not these changes will have real affects, they have certainly failed to win Turkey more friends abroad. In May, TÜBİTAK’s French equivalent, the National Scientific Research Center (CNRS), froze relations with the Turkish institution. CNRS pointed to both the Turkish government’s treatment of academics in general and, more specifically, to a letter TÜBİTAK had sent Turkish research journals, instructing them to remove any board members who had been implicated in the purges.

The letter suggests that the reformed TÜBİTAK will not function differently from its predecessor. Under new leadership, it will not give more grants; nor will it conduct more research. Rather those grants will be re-directed to schools that are politically close to the government and that research will focus on subjects more in-line with government priorities. Science and development are not the issue here: authority and power are. After allowing a movement outside its control to access key institutions, the government is now striving to insure that no institution remains beyond its control.

Reuben Silverman is a PhD candidate at University of California, San Diego. He focuses on the economic and political history of Turkey during the Cold War. He is the author of the book Turkey's Ever Present Past: Stories From Turkish Republican History (Istanbul: Libra Press, 2016). His work can also be found at his personal blog: