In Istanbul’s Universities: Who is Friend, Who is Foe?
→This article was firstly published in November 2014 by the German students magazine freistuz←
The controversies among the students of the country mirrors every political conflict in Turkey. Because of the growing threat by the Islamic State another old debate arouses.
Black letters were sprayed onto the bleak wall in a hurry. They demand solidarity with Kobane, they ask for a boycott. They declare Suphi Nejat Ağirnasli’s immortality. This name pops up on the campus of Boğazici University in Istanbul’s suburb Bebek again and again. On flyers, posters and graffiti. The central square, normally known as “Kuzey Meydani” was renamed by the students into„Nejat Ağirnasli Meydani“. A group of young people gather underneath a temporary erected white pavilion. A photograph shows a young man in military uniform with a machine gun. The photo is decorated with red cloves. Suphi Nejat Ağirnasli, combat name Paramaz Kızılbaş, is a former fellow student. Just a couple of days ago he died fighting the ISIS in Kobane.
Fighters of the kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) and the militia of the ISIS find themselves in an embittered battle about the Syrian city of Kobane. It is only a couple of hundred metres from here to the Turkish boarder. After hesitating for a long time Turkey agreed on October 2 2014 to join the American lead coalition against the advancing radical islamic organisation. At the same time Turkey continued to deny any military support for the Syrian Kurdish PYD. Regarding the question of how the governing party in Turkey AKP (Justice and Development Party) should act, the country seems to be divided into two camps. On one side stand the supporters of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On the other side those that support the Kurds. A glimpse into the universities of the country shows how steamy the situation is at the moment. “Every political conflict that Turkey experiences is reflected within the universities,” explains Hüsniye Güngör, a journalist from Istanbul. For example after the military coup in September 1980. Back then it especially was the students that demonstrated on the streets, “of course that also applies for today.”
Kerim Can rotates his half filled tea cup in his hands. “There are things that we can do and there are things that we can’t do. That’s politics.” The 22 year old history student calls himself a nationalist and a conservative. What Turkey could do is to take in refugees. What Turkey can not do is to support the Kurds in Kobane in any way in their fight against the IS. Can does not use the customary term of the “kurdish issue” but talks about the “kurdish problem”. Because that is what the Kurds are for him – a problem. The PYD seem to be the actual terrorists that could endanger Turkey. More than ISIS. “If we equip terrorists like the PYD or the PKK with weapons they will use them against us sooner or later.” This is also one of Erdoğans arguments for refusing military help for the Kurds in Kobane. Furthermore the Turkish government repeatedly equates the PYD with the PKK. For decades things are more than tense between the authorities in Ankara and the Kurdish underground organisation PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). They are asking for an autonomous state territory within the Turkish frontiers. Many of the fighters in Kobane are connected with the PKK. But Can explains: “This is not about the fear of Kurdish autonomy, but about the fear of terrorism within our own boarders.” He does not want to have to avoid Taksim Square because of being afraid of an attack by the PKK, executed with weapons delivered by the Turkish government. Many Turks are united in the fear the country could relive the violent conflicts they experienced in the 1990s.
But the inert behaviour of the government leads on the other side to massive protests. Mainly in the predominantly Kurdish south east of Turkey, but also in Istanbul. On the touristic Istiklal Caddesi, in the wealthy suburbs of Etiler, in the Kurdish Okmeydani and in the universities. During the clashes nationalists and islamists – including supporters of ISIS – face the pro Kurdish leftists. More than 30 people already lost their lives, dozens were arrested. Those tensions also strike down in the academia. On October 13 2014 police officers arrested 42 students of Istanbul University, as reported by the state-owned news agency Anadolu. In the last weeks, the university compound located in the old town of Istanbul repeatedly became the site of fierce clashes. The day of September 26 marks the beginning. A group of leftist students put up a poster in the faculty of literature. On the sign they condemned the murders of ISIS. Early afternoon a group of masked men entered the building and asked for the poster to be removed. The situation escalated after the present students refused to take the banner down. On a video shot by one of the students, the two groups had a verbal exchange before they started to attack each other with projectiles. A couple of days later ISIS supporters admitted the attack in the religious conservative newspaper Haksöz Haber.
Meanwhile, due to the increased media attention, the islamist hardliners mostly backed down from the public. The pro Kurdish protestors however keep going to the streets almost daily. So does Nefes Okyar (name changed). While the 25 year old philosophy student talks, his reddened eyes fixate a point on the opposite wall. He was a good friend of Suphi Nejat Ağirnasli, who was Kurdish. Sarcasm swings in Okyars voice as he emphasises that he himself is Turkish. “I don’t have any association with the Kurds. Genetically I am a ‘first class Turk’. But of course that is nonsense.” It is not only because he lost a companion in Syria that he feels obliged to support the Kurds by going to the streets. “We can’t accept that people die only because of the fear for what could happen in the future. We have to support the Kurds in Kobane. We have to trust.” On October 10 2014 Okyar lead a protest near the Boğazici University. The students demanded a corridor from the Turkish-Syrian border to Kobane to provide for the Kurdish fighters inside of the city. If not with combat gear then at least with food and medical equipment. “That is one of our claims. Another one is that our government has to stop supporting ISIS” explains Okyar.
Kobane is located within the autonomous state territory Rojava, also known as West Kurdistan. If this independent state would be able to establish itself Turkey would see it as a threat. However Turkey took important steps towards the Kurds, for example in lifting the ban on the use of the Kurdish language. In the last months Rojava evolved into the proof that an alternative to the totalitarian regimes of the Middle East could exist. Okyar also expresses this wish for Rojava. “I am dreaming of an egalitarian democracy with an absolute equality of both genders.” By publishing the Charter of the Social Contract in which the Syrian cantons Afrin, Jazira and Kobane declared their independence another step in this direction was taken. This raises the fear that the revolutionary ideas of the PYD could also spread into Turkey.
Nationalist Can shares this concern: “That would only lead to a manipulation of the region. Strengthening the Kurds would mean the weakening of our government.”
For those reasons many supporters of the Kurds are certain that the AKP is speculating that ISIS is going to destroy the project in Kobane. In that case it is not only about the rumours that Turkey is supplying the terrorist militia with weapons and allowing european jihadis to enter Syria via the Turkish border. Okyar makes clear: “By watching ISIS taking over Kobane and killing people there our government is supporting these terrorists and their actions.”
Even though the student was arrested after the police broke up the protest on October 10 he and his fellow students are planing further projects to show their solidarity with the Kurds. Kobane can be defended against ISIS without Turkey’s involvement but nevertheless tension in the country and among the students will be high.
The strictly religious philosophy student Bahar Kılınc is an active member of the islamic students movement Boğazici Mektep. She understands the government’s concern regarding the Kurdish issue. Furthermore the members of the Mektep, that study the Koran during their weekly meetings also support the protestors in the streets. This whole story is not about if someone supports ISIS or is against the Kurds. “It is about living together in peace. As it is written in the Koran. But our country is far away from that.”