Academics faced discrimination during 1997 coup, professor says

Academics faced  discrimination during 1997 coup, professor says

Mim Kemal Öke, a professor of history and an expert on Turkish foreign policy, faced discrimination along with dozens of academics during the Feb. 28 period. (PHOTO KÜRŞAT BAYHAN)

April 29, 2012, Sunday/ 15:24:00

Turkey has deepened its confrontation with its coup-ridden past by launching several coup probes in recent years.

An amendment approved by a majority of the voters on Sept. 12, 2010 enables civilian courts to try military officials, accelerating the prosecution of military officials who engaged in coups to bring down civilian governments. The Feb. 28, 1997 coup, which toppled a democratically elected government in 1997, was one of those coups that deeply impacted Turkish society.

This coup reshaped the political landscape and the entire country. Thousands of people were affected. Politicians, military officials, teachers and civil servants -- the majority of whom were conservative -- faced tough challenges in the aftermath of the coup. Conservative academics also experienced indefinable difficulties as most of them were expelled from their posts in universities with slim legal footing. Professor Mim Kemal Öke was one of them.

Öke, a professor of history and an expert on Turkish foreign policy, also faced discrimination and other problems during the Feb. 28 period. In remarks to Sunday’s Zaman, Öke revealed what he experienced during the coup period.

He was doing a program, “Milletin Meclisi” (People’s Parliament), on STV during this period. “Our program talked about just how important democratization was. It was a very popular program, with lots of faithful viewers. At the time, I was also doing consulting for the Journalists and Writers Foundation [GYV],” Öke said.

Öke stated that the program incurred the wrath of some groups and circles, causing tremendous pressure to be put on him and his colleagues. Moreover, he underlined that the journalism profession began to erode as it was under threat. Facing great pressure, he finally decided to quit the program.

In response to a question on whether pressure from the political establishment continued in the aftermath of the coup, he  said that it was wrong to attribute the whole Feb. 28 process to a certain period.

“The period continued even after the AK Party [Justice and Development Party] came to power, with coup plans and court cases aimed at party closures,” Öke said, adding that he lost his job at the Tercüman newspaper in the coup period along with 27 other journalists. The newspaper in the late 1990s was owned by a prominent businessman, Mehmet Emin Karamehmet, one of the richest people in the country.

No reason was given for the loss of his job, as both the editor-in-chief and the general publications director also lost their positions, he said, remembering those dark days. This brought him economic hardship. The inability to become a full-time professor at Boğaziçi University, where he already had a part-time job and salary, made things worse.

“At the time, I was working at the Atatürk Institute at the university. However, they told me: ‘We do not want you full-time or even part-time for that matter. Neither the department nor the board of directors want you’,” Öke said. “Among the people saying this were those whose own assistant and full professorships I had even signed off on. What’s more, they gave no reason for their views. One of my colleagues at the university told me I should take the case to the executive court. My wife also said, ‘Might as well take it to court, at least get some compensation’.”

He resigned without receiving any compensation. He couldn’t hide his frustration and even surprise over the actions of the academic staff at such a prestigious university, known for its stance in favor of liberties and freedoms.

The rector of Boğaziçi University at the time was Professor Sabih Tansal. He went to his office to learn the reason for his dismissal.

Öke had worked for 23 years at the university before he was forced to resign with no pension. “I have worked for this university for many years. How could you do this to me?” he asked the rector. Instead of responding to his question, Tansal completely clammed up and called in security -- those same men with whom he had drunk tea and coffee and chatted with over the years. Öke said: “They grabbed me by my arms and threw me out. After that, the telephones at my home went quiet. No one called or even asked about me. All conversation and greetings just stopped.”

According to Öke, the reason his friends cut their ties with him was out of fear of the same fate. He noted his old friends probably thought, “If we start talking to him, maybe the same thing will happen to us?” Öke said he can’t recall any other period in his life when his telephone lay so quiet or when he was left with so little money and so many problems. He could get by for a while on his family’s savings. He also called some of his friends. He said: “I’m hungry, please give me work. I actually said, ‘I’m hungry’,” he remembered angrily.

However, Öke continued writing books to shed light on controversial themes in the country. He wrote a book titled “Din-Ordu Gerilimi” (Religion-Military Tension) about the military approach to religion in Turkey. When that book came out in 2000, the AK Party had yet to come to power.

The main thesis and conclusion of the book was striking. As he examined the struggles between juntas and religious groups on a worldwide level, he concluded: “When there are conflicts between religious institutions and military institutions, they always end with the defeat of the military institutions. This is true around the world.” Öke addressed the ways and factors for a compromise between religion and the military, two different sorts of institutions.

Moreover, he suggested in his book that the military must tie itself to civilian authority in the 21st century. In fact, the book was written with Turkey in mind. “This was actually my reaction to Feb. 28,” he said. Later, he also wrote the book “Derviş ve Komutan: Özgürlük-Güvenlik Sarkacındaki Türkiye’nin Kimlik Sorunsalı” (Dervish and Commander: Turkey’s Identity Question 1983-2004). The book focused on the country’s identity crisis and offered explanations for the causes of conflicts in the political system and culture.

In response to a question on whether he had any feedback from the military after publication of his books, Öke noted that one general positively commented on his book “Din-Ordu Gerilimi.”

“At a meeting in Ankara (in the mid 2000s), one of the top-ranked generals close to Hilmi Özkök, the chief of General Staff at the time, came up to me and wanted to talk. He said, “Mim Kemal Bey, I read your most recent book (“Din-Ordu Gerilimi”). I underlined many parts of it. I read it over and over.” We even laughed together a bit. He said: “I agree with 90 percent of what you wrote. Mim Kemal Bey, the Turkish Republic is grateful to you. You have served the nation very well.” That was a sort of a delayed show of respect; in a sense, an apology for Feb. 28,” Öke said.

He was pleased to hear about the arrest of one of the prominent generals of the Feb. 28 coup, Çevik Bir, and other members of Western Study Group (BÇG). “I was not happy; but as a human being, I was not exactly sad either! I also said to myself that it was a kind of “divine justice.” he added.

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