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Accused of terrorist propaganda by the Turkish state, an academic speaks out

Turkish academic Mahmut Çınar was recently blacklisted from his professorship because he signed a petition in support of rights for Kurdish populations. He defended himself against the accusations of terrorist propaganda in the Turkish High Court. This is his statement of defence.

January 24, 2019 - Mahmut Cinar - Articles and Commentary

Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Modris Putns (cc) wikimedia.org

Editor’s Note: Mahmut Çınar, a citizen of Turkey and former professor at Bahçeşehir University, appeared before the 37th High Criminal Court in Istanbul on October 9th 2018 to defend himself against charges of “terrorist propaganda”. The accusation stems from his choice to sign the petition “We will not be a party to this crime”, a document organised by the group Academics for Peace and released in January 2016 in support of rights for Kurdish populations and in criticism of the Turkish government’s deportations and violence against Kurds living on Turkey’s territory. Signed by over 2,000 academics and researchers, most of whom are Turkish citizens but also including international figures such as Etienne Balibar, Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky, the national government responded to the petition with various attacks aimed at signatories living in Turkey. Many have been fired from their jobs, blacklisted from new employment opportunities, verbally threatened, physically harassed, charged with the claim of terrorist propaganda or affiliation, imprisoned and/or had their passports confiscated by the Turkish government. Çınar was recently deprived of his professorship a position he had held for ten years and tried in court. The following text, translated into English from the original Turkish by Çınar himself, is his defence statement: 

The charges brought against me in this court are not only part of a case against me individually, but also against thousands of other people in this country who expressed their demand for peace. It is my firm belief that neither myself, nor any of my colleagues who are being tried in similar cases, are guilty of anything close to the accusations levelled against us. What follows is my personal statement to this effect:

I reject the charges brought against me and declare that I have never offered my support to any armed organisation because I was born one year before the military coup of September 12th 1980, at a time when a climate of conflict prevented people from going about their lives or following their daily routines, and in an area at the centre of that conflict, the same area where I lived until I reached high school age.

After many years – years in which the sound of gunshots rang in our young ears, and bullets, fired by whom we did not know, rattled our walls and windows; years in which, in our humble civil-servant household, an evening together in front of the television would be interrupted by blackouts and screams – my mother and father, both teachers, decided that these were no circumstances in which to bring up children and asked to be reappointed to a school in the west of the country.

In short, they realised that the conflict was a threat to our safety, to our peace, and to that vital desire for happiness, and were therefore forced to leave behind the lands in which their ancestors had lived for centuries. Having grown up in the east, even as a “Turk”, in the early years of my adolescence in the western city where we had newly settled, I had to live with the prejudices and accusations faced by myself and many others who, like me, had been forced to migrate; I saw the way such people were treated at school, in the street and in the workplace; and I was confronted with the cultural, regional and psychological divisions in the country for the first time.

After this point in my life, I rejected violence in everything I did, a stance that was fed by the desire to ensure that the climate of conflict created by such fractures and divisions would not inflict the same trauma on the next generation.  

I reject the charges brought against me and declare that I have never offered my support to any armed organisation because the life that I have lived, that I was forced to live, has shown me that the only possible political approach can be one that is based on rights.

I believe that the right to life applies not to only men, not only to a group of people who believe that they are the essential elements of the country, not only to those who think they have a greater claim on this country than anyone else, but to all citizens, to all people, men and women alike, whatever their opinions, lifestyle or faith, and indeed to all living creatures together with the natural environment in which they life.

I have always been driven by my belief in rights, whether it was when, as a young man who believed in freedom and peace, I faced senseless violence for questioning why some of my friends were not allowed into school because of their clothes; or when I spoke out against the destruction of nature for profit and financial gain or against humanity’s destruction of animals’ habitats; or when I demanded peace and the end to conflict at a time when I felt that people in an area of my country were being deprived of their basic rights.

I reject the charges brought against me and declare that I have never offered my support to any armed organisation because signing the statement referred to as the “Peace Petition” brought my academic career to an end, a career in which I fought against discrimination and hate speech, wrote about the unconditional, unavoidable need for fundamental human rights and freedom of expression, and represented my society in international projects supported by the government of the Republic of Turkey.

At the root of all the projects I have been involved in, of all the books that I have contributed to as an editor or writer, of all the articles I have written, of all of the educational projects in which I have taken part – projects that are still ongoing and that that brought me together with young people of all political persuasions from around the country – are the rights of every creature. And at the very foundation of those rights is a single concept that makes them real and that makes them possible: peace.

Any action that, for whatever motive, distances people from peace has always been, and will continue to be, part of my academic field. It was for this very reason that I signed the petition entitled “We will not be a party to this crime”, a petition that I believe to have been written in order to protest the human rights violations experienced during the conflicts, military operations and curfews that began in 2015 in East and Southeast Anatolia. As a citizen and also as a teacher providing a public service, I was addressing myself not to an organisation that I, needless to say, believe to be illegal and to which I have absolutely no connection, I was addressing myself to the state, whose existence I, like its millions of other citizens, support with the taxes I pay and the services I provide, the state that I consider to represent my political existence through its borders and institutions.

At a time when I believed that the conflict was making it impossible to speak out and call for peace, it was through this petition that I expressed my demand for peace. As a literate person, I know that the petition in question does not contradict the fundamental rights based on freedom of speech given to me by the Turkish Constitution, and nor does it, as has been claimed in the cases of many of my colleagues, violate the relevant articles in the criminal code, or in any way go against these rights and articles.

As a result of the legal research I have carried out in these areas, I can see that signing the petition that is the subject of this case does not constitute a crime according to the jurisprudence formed by legal decisions made in the courts of the Republic of Turkey, according to the European Convention on Human Rights, of which Turkey is a signatory, or according to the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

I reject the charges brought against me and declare that I have never offered my support to any armed organisation because as an academic and an active citizen who has, at every stage of his life, stood against violence of any kind, I reject the claim made against myself and my colleagues that we were following “orders”.

Throughout these trials, I have made the acquaintance of most of the academics who signed this petition along with me and have had the chance to examine their works time and again. And what I have found is that I am being tried for the same crimes as a group of people who are more tied to their values than anyone I have ever met during my academic career: people who would never view receiving orders from any entity as being compatible with their academic ethics; people who strive to do all that is required of them by science and by their academic responsibility; people who, over many years, have raised the academic level of this country to international standards. Just like them, I reject the claim that we “received orders” to sign the petition and indeed I see such a claim as an insult to me personally as well as to my understanding of academic ethics and to my human values.

I reject the charges brought against me and declare that I have never offered my support to any armed organisation because I may have signed the petition as an academic, but as a father I am also a close observer of the circumstances, difficulties and constant struggles with which human beings come into this world. I firmly believe that no one who has witnessed at first hand a baby’s struggle for existence and for life, no one who has watched that baby grow into a conscious and, like every human being, valuable individual, and indeed no one who can empathise with process, can possibly be in favour of war or conflict.

I believe that it is for this very reason that, in many places around the world, it is women – given the responsibility of bringing up their children as though it were their innate duty – who demand peace more forcefully and more genuinely than men. I have seen that wars bring out men’s most aggressive, most violent side; that it is women and children who are the real victims of war; and that wars rob all non-human creatures of their right to life. I therefore wish to state here today that I will never give up on my call for peace, which I see as the civic duty entrusted to me by my belief in universal rights, of which I spoke earlier.

Mahmut Çınar. Photo: Private collection

Mahmut Çınar is a former professor at Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul. Having signed the petition associated with the group Academics for Peace entitled “We will not be a party to this crime”, the Turkish government applied pressure to his university to then indirectly force signatories like him out of their positions. On December 13th 2018, the High Criminal Court assigned him a suspended sentence of 15 months.

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