Defending Academic Freedom: Interview with Dr Naif Bezwan
By By Guest Blogger, on 11 April 2018
By Miriam Matthiessen, UCL’s Cara Student Ambassador
Dr Naif Bezwan is a scholar from Turkey currently at UCL as a fellow through the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara).
Founded in 1933 by Britain’s foremost academics and scientists to help refugee academics escape Nazi Germany, Cara assists those in immediate danger, those forced into exile, and many who choose to work on in their home countries despite serious risks. UCL has partnered with Cara since 2006.
Dr Naif Bezwan had been an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Mardin Artuklu in Turkey since January 2014, when one day in October 2016, he received the news that he had been indefinitely suspended from his post and all civil service by emergency decree.
This was due to an interview he had given to a Turkish newspaper, which related to core areas of his academic interest and expertise, including Turkey’s political and administrative system, accession to the European Union, and foreign policy.
In the interview, Naif stressed the danger of using military force at home and abroad to deal with the Kurdish question and democratic aspirations of citizens at large, through tackling an essentially domestic issue by military means and conducting cross-border military operations.
Only a couple of hours after its publication, he received an order from the university administration, in which his reflections were described as evidence of support for a “terrorist organisation” and “undermining national security”, and used as grounds for suspension. The dismissal was issued prior to the outcome of a disciplinary investigation.
Naif is one of a number of academics, teachers and civil servants from Turkey dismissed from their jobs in the aftermath of the failed coup in July 2016.
According to a UN Report, over 100,000 people were reportedly dismissed and suspended throughout Turkey from public or private sector jobs for suspected links with the coup organizers. Over 40,000 staff were allegedly dismissed by the Ministry of Education, mostly teachers. This included some 10,000 teachers in South- East Turkey, over 90 percent of whom were serving in Kurdish-speaking municipalities.
This was not Naif’s first disciplinary investigation. The first one took place in February 2016 after he signed a ‘Petition for Peace’ together with 36 colleagues and a total of 1,128 academics, calling on the Turkish government to end military operations against its Kurdish citizens. Signatories of the petition were targeted by a campaign of abuse, violence, and death threats.
In many public speeches, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the petitioning academics of “treason”, “support for a terrorist organization” and of threatening “national security,” which promptly resulted in numerous investigations, suspensions and dismissals.
Naif said he sees a great risk in the increasingly authoritarian regime, which governs the country “essentially through extralegal means unbounded by rule of law and the most basic principles of a democratic and accountable government.”
Finding a fellowship
Naif left the country for the UK in November 2016 – just days before the passports of all of his colleagues, subject to the same decree-law as him, were revoked.
In early 2017 he was recommended to apply for a Cara fellowship, for which he was found eligible in February.
He was granted a full fellowship at the Department of Political Science at UCL where he has been working since June 2017, doing research on Turkey’s political and administrative system as well as issues of Kurdish Conflict resolution and authoritarianism.
Coming to the UK meant having a breathing space in comparison to his colleagues who were not able to leave the country in time, and are therefore prevented not only from taking public jobs but also from seeking opportunities abroad.
For this reason, Dr. Bezwan continues his scholarly and public engagements as far as he can while in the UK. He is involved in Academics for Peace UK, and together with colleagues, has established a charitable institution, the Centre for Democracy and Peace Research, which aims to provide funding to colleagues in need back home and beyond.
In Naif’s own words: “Living in a country without concern of being exposed to harm, unjust treatment and intimidation, having the possibility of living under decent human conditions, and working in a friendly, international and inspiring academic setting, as UCL is, is of immeasurable value.
In a very critical period of my individual and professional biography, the Cara fellowship provides me with an opportunity and essential basis to continue with my life and studies in dignity and safety. The value of this support, and the importance of the institution which has provided, and continues to provide, hundreds of scholars under risk with a dignified foundation for their personal and professional life, cannot be emphasized enough.”