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“I am not a refugee. I am a scholar in exile.”

The Turkish sociologist Nil Mutluer holds a Philipp Schwartz Fellowship awarded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

Nov 02, 2017

Sociologist Nil Mutluer was politically active in her home city of Istanbul. It led to her losing her job at the university. She now holds a Philipp Schwartz Fellowship at Humboldt-Universität.

Sociologist Nil Mutluer was politically active in her home city of Istanbul. It led to her losing her job at the university. She now holds a Philipp Schwartz Fellowship at Humboldt-Universität.
Image Credit: Ralf Bergel, Image Credits: HU

“In Turkey, scholarly work is seen as a political rather than an academic matter,” comments Turkish social scientist Nil Mutluer during a conversation in a café in Berlin-Schöneberg. Until early in 2016 she was head of the Institute of Sociology at Nişantaşı University, Istanbul. Her research interests are the subjects of nationalism in Turkey, masculinity, state power, and anti-intellectualism. Like many of her academic colleagues the professor, known for her criticism of the political situation, became a target for Turkish nationalists as a result of her work. Mutluer left turkey in July last year and since then has been living in Berlin and conducting research as a Philipp Schwartz fellowship recipient at Humboldt Universität.

“There is no objectivity for social scientists,” she says. Having tried to concentrate on her work, her field research brought her into contact with more and more instances of human rights abuses. ”If you are inclined to be critical, it is really hard not to speak out.”

As one of over 2000 Turkish academics, Mutluer signed the Academics for Peace petition against Turkish attacks on Kurds and consequently lost her professorship in February 2016. She was described in the Turkish media as a terrorist.

At first Mutluer was loath to leave Turkey, despite the danger she found herself in. Only after receiving an email from Gökçe Yurdakul, a professor at the Berlin Institute for Migration and Integration Research (BIM) at Humboldt-Universität, did she change her plans. Yurdakul asked whether Mutluer was aware of initiatives supporting scholars under threat in their own country. Mutluer was interested, and only a few months later became a researcher at Humboldt-Universität, thanks to the Philipp Schwartz fellowship.

A Program for Academic Freedom

The Philipp Schwartz Initiative does not permit individual applications; instead, universities in Germany enter a competitive procedure for funds that enable fellowships. This is a means of verifying that a contact already exists between potential fellowship recipients and colleagues at guest universities, proving a connection with the research context.

In addition to the Philipp Schwartz Initiative run by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, at-risk researchers at the Berlin universities are funded through the Scholar Rescue Fund. The program is organized by the Institute of International Education (IIE), an independent nonprofit organization based in the U.S. Some researchers are given support through the respective university’s own funds.

Besides Mutluer, two Syrian Philipp Schwartz fellowship recipients are working at Humboldt-Universität, and another Turkish recipient is expected to join them soon.

Freie Universität has taken in six at-risk scholars from Syria and Iran since 2011, and anticipates welcoming another four from Syria and Turkey in the coming months. Freie Universität and Humboldt-Universität are members of the international Scholars at Risk Network. Since the beginning of the year, a Syrian architect has been doing research at Technische Universität Berlin, and a Turkish female computer scientist will soon start work there.

Under the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, researchers are selected for their achievements and skills. The universities emphasize the expert status of these scholars, above all wishing to avoid stigmatization.

“Selection is based on the person with the best academic profile, and not according to the question – hardly something that can be assessed – of who is most at risk,” says Inse Böhmig, academic consultant in the International Strategy Office and contact person for the Refugees Welcome initiative at Humboldt-Universität. The matter of self-image is important to Mutluer. “I am not a refugee,” she says. “I am a scholar in exile.”

“There is no life for me in Turkey”

Böhmig explains that the researchers “contribute exciting new ideas and a plethora of individual networks to the academic portfolio of their respective departments.” But it is also important to think beyond the two-year grant period. Most researchers in the Philipp Schwartz or Scholars at Risk programs at the Berlin universities have no prospects of being able to work in their native countries in the foreseeable future.

This is true for Mutluer. She says, “There is no life for me in Turkey.” She would like to stay long-term and do research in Germany. “A significant part of the support service is concerned with thinking ahead as to what perspectives could open up,” says Böhmig. This would include support for applications for follow-up funding from the university or other institutions.

In order for this transition to run smoothly, a lot of translation work is involved, says Baris Ünal, head of General Academic Advising and refugee officer at Technische Universität Berlin. “Academic careers can vary enormously from one country to another.” International colleagues therefore require specific advice as to what their future career path might be.

Mutluer must also become accustomed to the differences between the academic systems. She finds that research in Germany is organized in terms of projects. “A lot depends on securing funding.” In her subject, where she was in any case internationally active, Mutluer has not had any problems finding her way round in Berlin. “Colleagues and mentors are very supportive.” Things were more difficult apparently when it came to practical things, such as finding a flat.

Developments in her home country continue to shock Mutluer out of her everyday existence in Germany, and she continues to be politically active in Berlin. “My friends and colleagues are still in Turkey and I often think of them,” she says. During our talk at the café she received several messages on her mobile phone, all from Turkey. At such times, she says she feels closer to Istanbul than to Schöneberg.

Further Information

All over the world, scholars and prospective students are persecuted and threatened as a result of their research activities and ideas, and can be prevented from carrying out their work. The Berlin universities use various initiatives and programs to help at-risk scholars.

The Philipp Schwartz Initiative was set up by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation together with the German Federal Foreign Office. It enables universities, universities of applied sciences, and nonuniversity research institutions in Germany to award grants to at-risk visiting researchers. Along with the grants, the initiative provides funds for the creation of structures at guest institutions as well as conferences on exchange and networking between guest institutions. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation works closely with international partners such as the Scholars at Risk Network, the Scholar Rescue Fund, and the Council for At-Risk Academics.

One of the core tasks of the international Scholars at Risk Network is to afford support as a mediator to researchers and teachers who are threatened and persecuted in their native country, arranging a stay at a member university within the network.