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The University as a Safe Haven

The Global Congress of Scholars at Risk is being held at Freie Universität Berlin. All three major universities in Berlin are members of the international network which enables threatened scholars a new start in exile.

Apr 24, 2018

Arrived in Berlin: Esra Demir-Gürsel, lawyer, and Kivanç Ersoy, mathematician.

Arrived in Berlin: Esra Demir-Gürsel, lawyer, and Kivanç Ersoy, mathematician.
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

“There was so little we could do. But even for this little, many people were punished,” says Esra Demir-Gürsel. Following the publication of a call for peace in January 2016, a large number of scholars in Turkey at that time became the target of violent attacks. In the open letter, more than 2,000 of them had called on their government to halt military operations in Kurdish areas and to resume the peace process with representatives of the Kurdish population. Esra Demir-Gürsel also signed the petition without any hesitation. She left Turkey nine months after the appeal was published, facing the threat of prosecution as well as dismissal by her university. Via the Scholars at Risk (SAR) network, she later came to Freie Universität Berlin.

Scholars at Risk is an international program in which more than 500 universities and research institutions in some 40 countries work together to protect academic freedom. Together, they stand up for the human rights of researchers and teachers under threat in their home countries. Freie Universität was the first German university to join Scholars at Risk in 2011 and has been an associate member since 2013. Technische Universität Berlin joined the international network in 2016 and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in 2017.

Help for scholars at risk begins on many levels: Scholars at Risk organizes solidarity campaigns, advises victims, and documents human rights violations. Above all, however, by arranging guest stays at the member institutions, the network helps with a new beginning in exile.

“Scholars at Risk stays are a meaningful stage of an academic career”

This is a complicated process, says Stefan Rummel, who supervises the scholarship holders at Freie Universität. “SAR stays are not internships. These are research positions that aim to prime the profile of researchers and form a meaningful stage in their academic careers.” Freie Universität has already become a safe haven for more than ten endangered people, especially from the Middle East. Esra Demir-Gürsel has been working with a scholarship from the Philipp Schwartz Initiative of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation on public law at the Department of Law at Freie Universität Berlin since last fall. In her research project, she is dealing with the limited influence of human rights norms when faced with the increase in authoritarianism and populism. Kivanç Ersoy began his research at Freie Universität at about the same time. As a Scholars at Risk fellow, the 38-year-old mathematician continues his work on problems of algebraic and finite simple groups, which he had had to interrupt because of the repression by the Turkish state.

When talking about the actions of the Turkish military in the Kurdish areas since 2015 and their own helplessness in the face of violence, Esra Demir-Gürsel and Kivanç Ersoy still become noticeably upset. Esra Demir-Gürsel says, “We had a brief dream that Turks and Kurds could live together peacefully. We were brutally torn out of this dream.” She is afraid that Turkey missed a historic opportunity. And Kivanç Ersoy adds, “As a Turk, I am ashamed that not all people in our country have equal rights. For example, I was taught in my mother tongue - Kurdish children do not have this right. For things to change, I have to criticize my state.”

“It is becoming criminalized to talk about peace and the rights of certain people.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan´s reaction to the petition followed in a televised address: “We will not take part in this crime!” He insulted the petition signatories for half an hour, labeling them as traitors and terrorists. Since then, hundreds of scholars have been dismissed without notice; many have been threatened, and passports declared invalid. Kivanç Ersoy not only signed the petition, but also made a public statement on the dismissals. For this, together with three other scholars, he spent 40 days in custody.

Esra Demir-Gürsel´s planned appointment to a professorship came to a sudden stop. As “talking about peace or the rights of certain people was equated with terrorism by the state authorities and thus criminalized,” she says that she felt uncomfortable addressing certain issues in her final lectures. The emergency laws following the failed coup attempt in summer 2016 exacerbated the situation. With many Turkish scholars no longer allowed to ever work again in the public sector due to their dismissal under the emergency laws, the invalidation of their passports, and their stigmatization, the Academics for Peace network writes that many of them are in a situation that could be described as “social death.”

Most of the scholarship holders of the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, which awards funds for the employment of threatened scholars at German research institutions, now come from Turkey. Kivanç Ersoy says that the Turkish academic exile community is in close contact with the SAR network. To network within Germany and, at the same time, to support the scholars in Turkey, the affected people have also founded the Academics for Peace Germany.

They will use the Scholars at Risk Global Congress at Freie Universität, at the end of April, to intensify contacts. Under the theme of “The University and the Future of Democracy,” the congress will be taking place in Germany for the first time. For it is not only in Turkey that academic freedom is under threat. “In view of the increase in authoritarian regimes and the worldwide attacks on academic freedom,” says Stefan Rummel, “universities have an increasingly important role to play: as protectors of endangered scholars and as defenders of the freedom to express, share, and question thoughts.”

Further Information

The Global Congress of Scholars at Risk on the theme “The Universities and the Future of Democracy” will take place at Freie Universität Berlin from April 24 to 26, 2018.

At the international conference, participants will report and discuss the threat to scholars, the threat to academic freedom worldwide, and the role of universities in defending democratic values. Philosopher and literary scholar Judith Butler from the University of California, Berkeley, will also give a lecture at the congress. The conference of the Scholars at Risk Network, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and Freie Universität is also the first Scholars at Risk Network Global Congress to be held in Germany. The event is open to members of the network.