How a Promising Turkish College Becomes Victim of Political Vendetta: The Tragedy of Sehir University

President Erdogan graced the opening of Istanbul Sehir University in 2010; ten years later, he ordered its shutdown. A college fell victim to palace intrigue and political revenge.

President Abdullah Gul, C, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (4th-L), then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (3rd L), Sehir University Rector Gokhan Cetinsaya (2nd L) during the inauguration ceremony of Sehir University on October 5, 2010.

On October 5, 2010, President Abdullah Gul, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and countless other bigwigs of the Turkish government all graced the inauguration ceremony of a newfound university in Istanbul’s Asian side. This high-profile attendance was a testament to the privileged status of a university — Istanbul Sehir University — as well as their expectations from it: raising a new generation of intellectuals with a conservative worldview.

I was there on that day. I was a new master student as the school simultaneously accepted its first undergraduate and graduate students that semester. We were bundled together with other MA candidates at a small place while media members and a wide array of academic figures crammed into a tiny space reserved for them due to security and protocol reasons. Over the roof of the small campus in Altunizade, snipers and special forces units were carefully positioned. Their presence gave an air of anxiety rather than offering reassurance. For these ultra-high security measures, we were kinda prisoners at hour home university, not hosts but rather guests who were subject to endless body search even for entering the school for a cup of coffee and then getting out. At some moments, we were not even allowed to leave our seats.

The university officially opened that day with great media fanfare and pomp. It spoke to the level of ambition and decades-long dream of the Science and Arts Foundation (BISAV) founded by and forever associated with Davutoglu who served as foreign minister and prime minister in AKP governments until May 2016 when a palace coup (by Erdogan) marked the end of his active career within Erdogan’s party.

The story and final tragedy of Sehir University, in one sense, has never been independent of the course of the relationship between Erdogan and Davutoglu. When they fared better, the university was left unmolested. When they fell out, the university, too. Nearly 10 years after that memorable inauguration ceremony, an overnight presidential decree sealed the fate of the university. For me, it was a painful reckoning to reflect on the genesis and evolution of a promising institution, which fell victim to the palace intrigue and political revenge.

The emergence of Sehir University was the product of a longstanding quest by a group of conservative intellectuals led by Ahmet Davutoglu under the umbrella of BISAV. The foundation was found in 1986. In the intervening 24 years in the prelude to the Sehir, BISAV served as a platform to raise a generation of enlightened intellectuals befitting the demands of the modern age in every aspect.

It would be prudent to visit the historical roots of the community in order to understand the pillars of its Weltanschauung (worldview). Turkey’s transition from an Islamic civilization during the Ottoman era to the modern Republican period was not as smooth and streamlined as progenitors of the political modernization might have desired. The story of modernity in Turkey is defined by a cultural shock-therapy, a militant interpretation of secularism that criminalized and suppressed the Islam as an identity for the long stretch of time in the republican era, a top-down implementation of Westernization in all layers of social life, and the full-scale transfer of Western legal codes, institutions and technology for the consolidation of the new nation-state. The Republican experience had been tumultuous, chaotic and painful. The enduring legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s reforms still has a profound impact on today’s Turkey.

Davutoglu, who is intellectually fascinated with the German concept of Weltanschauung, and his BISAV enters the story here. The BISAV community has sought for an intellectual revival among conservative intelligentsia to compensate the shortcomings of the Republic, to heal the cultural wounds inflicted by far-reaching excesses of the revolutionary zeal of the republican founding fathers who (unsuccessfully) tried to uproot anything belonged to the past, tradition and the Ottoman era. It also proffered a comprehensive policy framework to empower a self-reliant Turkey after building a long overdue peace with its past identity. The foundation de facto served as a second university for generations of college students, who later became bureaucrats and diplomats serving in various roles in high echelons of the policymaking. It was a tight-knit community that shared a common sense, identity and purpose. The original goal, inscribed on the debut volume of Divan, an inter-disciplinary social science journal, was defined as the grooming of a new academia person who is in peace with his/her cultural origins, who has a strong sense of national awareness, and an academic pedigree in global standards to face the challenges of the day.

To give the foundation its credit, I must admit that it mostly lived up to its central objective for most of the time. I was once a proud member of that community before the political trajectory of Turkey separated my personal odyssey from the rest of it.

For all its lofty scheme and well-credited mission for more than three decades, how the story later transpired warrants a critical re-assessment given the role of BISAV alumni in Erdogan’s ruling apparatus as enablers of an anti-democratic and authoritarian program that steadily dismantles whatever left of Turkey’s (never-perfect) democracy.

A new breed of self-serving advisors such as Ibrahim Kalin, Burhanettin Duran, and Fahrettin Altun, not to mention countless others with BISAV stamp in their resume, all rose to national fame from obscurity, thanks to Davutoglu. They betrayed no scruples when they have further enabled Erdogan’s demolition machine in the unmaking of the republican system, to the detriment of Turkey, and to the betrayal of BISAV’s ethos, its historical mission, its identity, and institutional integrity. Whatever Davutoglu dreamed about building a new Turkey, his students, in betrayal of the professor and his sincere ideals, are currently busy with dismantling the republican democracy as Erdogan, Davutoglu’s arch-nemesis, came to personify the Turkish state by stamping his personal rule on every layer of the decision-making and governance. Little wonder, these former disciples simply elevated their personal interests and self-promotion above any moral sense of loyalty or gratitude to Davutoglu, siding with Erdogan even when the president made clear his intentions about the founder of BISAV, the honorary leading figure of Sehir University and former prime minister.

As AK Party has become synonymous with Erdogan, BISAV cannot be imagined without the personality and figure of Davutoglu. The hodja, as he was called by students and advisors during his ministerial tenure, was in the vanguard role of the community for rolling out its vision and projects about Turkey and beyond.

On a personal level, Davutoglu was regarded as the architect of Turkish foreign policy for more than a decade until he became the prime minister in 2014. He served as the chief foreign policy advisor to then-Prime Minister Erdogan until 2009 when he was named as Turkey’s foreign minister.

‘Strategic Depth,’ his signature doctrine that evaluates the geopolitical aspirations of Turkey in a region frequently buffeted by upheavals and endless competition between regional powers, was seen as the guide that shaped Turkey’s revisionist foreign policy. The gist of his argument was that Turkey had been inhibited by self-defeating policies, its myopic relation with its grandeur past, its lack of self-confidence to assert its role in the regional power play, and its dependent relationship with the West. To offset man-made deficiencies that undercut Turkey’s true potential from within, he offered pro-active diplomacy to diversify its relations in every direction around the world. He defended a robust posture in its vicinity through the active invocation of Turkey’s economic and cultural heft. Under his watch, Turkey sought to reset relations, tormented by the psychological burden of the past, with the neighboring countries. For this to happen, Turkey, Davutoglu envisioned, must shun a conflict-driven mindset inherent in Turkey’s national security paradigm that views surrounding geography as an existential threat to the country’s security.

Zero problems with neighbors,’ an ambitious agenda and policy formulation, came to be the measure of success and failure for Davutoglu's foreign policy. When Turkey headlong plunged to the Syrian morass and when its relations with neighbors soured throughout the first half of the 2010s (until Davutoglu’s unceremonious departure from the government in 2016), the professor became the central target of criticism at home and abroad.

Shifting the gravity of blame on one person for what went wrong in Turkey’s foreign policy would be unfair and misplaced. But Davutoglu’s outsize influence over policymaking cannot be papered over either.

Cherry-picking that infamous phrase — zero problems foreign policy — suffers from a reductionist reading by his discontents as well as foreign observers who inadvertently over-emphasizes one sub-element in a larger paradigm, and who over-simplify a web of contradictory and clashing dynamics that we call international politics. Neither Davutoglu is solely responsible for what happened in Syria nor does Turkey. From Obama White House to E.U., from Russia to Iran, from Qatar to Saudi Arabia, never to speak of Bashar Al-Assad, the major perpetrator of countless atrocities against his civilian population, all share their part of the blame for failing to arrest the carnage that consumed the war-torn country for nearly a decade.

To do justice both for a critical review of Davutoglu’s accomplishments and shortcomings, a new assessment is necessary. But such an enterprise is beyond the scope of this essay, which has no intention to accord more than a passing mention to Davutoglu’s contested legacy in Turkish foreign policy, for the sake of preserving the main focus of the piece.

In a clear break with his predecessors, Davutoglu set the bar high for policy objectives before fully realizing the limitations of Turkey as hard power, let’s say, for a regime change in a neighboring country. In an unforgiving contradiction with his own doctrine, where he urged the policymakers in Ankara to take the global and regional powers’ calculations into account before any strategy in foreign policy, the professor simply misread the unfolding complexion of regional politics and regional actors’ reaction to Arab Spring, which later descended into a long winter. His reading of the social upheavals that swept across the Middle East was distorted by a blend of far-reaching idealism and a misplaced faith on the people’s expected deference to a Turkey-designed regional order.

According to a poll by Brookings Institution in 2011 during the nascent days of the Arab Spring, Turkey’s trio leadership— Gul, Erdogan and Davutoglu — were the most popular leaders in the Arab streets. But Turkey’s leadership prematurely abandoned the prudent politics of soft power, which captured people’s fondness and admiration for Turkey over the promising pillars of economic growth, the successful (though not flawless) combination of Islam and democracy, and the commitment to E.U. reforms. No need to remind how the Turkish model later unraveled after the authoritarian turn of the Erdogan government in Turkey.

Turkey’s manifest destiny, as formulated by the Davutoglu doctrine, became its own predicament, rendering the country a prisoner of an ever-shifting vortex of geopolitical contest and power play in the Middle East. Syria’s thwarted spring and the outbreak of a bloody civil conflict, in this context, became the catalyst for a major turn in Turkey’s regional policy. Ankara’s image in the region and beyond suffered a dramatic setback; it evolved from becoming a source of a model to another regional actor with imperial interests for meddling in the internal Arab affairs. “Being on the right side of history” did no good more than offering solace from a self-professed ethical point. Turkey’s active support of armed rebels only exacerbated the situation on the ground, inviting a monstrous response from the Assad regime that culminated in a bloodbath for the mastery of territory in Syria’s fractured geography over the span of a decade. Whatever moral higher ground Turkey claimed to have at the outset of the conflict, it eventually evaporated by the naked manifestation of its national interest and security policies in the later phases, in a deviation from its originally expressed policy objective — orchestrating a people’s revolution through peaceful protests.

The Syrian civil war and Davutoglu’s stewardship of Turkey’s increasing entanglement will likely haunt the professor for the rest of his life. But in the post-Davutoglu era, Erdogan even went further by launching a military endeavor in northern Syria, taking Turkey’s involvement to a whole different level.

These low points and existential blunders aside, Davutoglu certainly deserves credit for enriching the sources of Turkey’s diplomatic conduct all around the world. He also pushed to expand the personnel of the Foreign Ministry with the recruitment of promising and brilliant new minds. He advocated for proactive diplomacy both in the West and East, something that has become a bipartisan staple of new Turkish foreign policy even after his departure. His attempts to change the Foreign Ministry by diversification of its human resources from all corners of the society eventually fell victim to a sweeping purge in the post-coup era. At least 550 diplomats were sacked without any semblance of due process, dealing a debilitating blow to the institutional cohesion of the foreign service and effacing any trace of Davutoglu from the ministry.

During his premiership, Davutoglu’s ties with President Erdogan (R) were not always smooth.

Davutoglu’s claim of full responsibility as a foreign minister and later as a prime minister heralded a new era of relationship between him and Erdogan. As time moved forward, snippets of clashes between the two entirely different personalities began to emerge. Both as a foreign minister and then prime minister, Davutoglu came to realize the depth of an authoritarian leader’s intolerance. It strictly began to limit the space for his maneuvering.

Gezi Park protests and a sweeping corruption scandal that implicated Erdogan’s close associates in late 2013 marked his full-scale authoritarian turn. There, the idealist Davutoglu stood at a crossroads to make a decision: either staying on board with a leader whose reputation and legitimacy was on the line over serious graft charges or part his way to salvage his own career and moral integrity. The hodja bet his hedge by remaining in Erdogan’s train by naively thinking that he could act as a prime minister — the head of the executive power according to the Turkish constitution — and temper Erdogan’s worst impulses. But it was a gamble that never worked out as Davutoglu expected.

After Dec. 17 corruption scandal, Erdogan has completely abandoned the pretension of his faint commitment to rule of law and began to act like a roller coaster, unwinding the century-long norms and tenets of the republican system. By killing off the investigation, Erdogan killed judicial independence, too. From then on, the story of Turkey’s democratic unraveling, Erdogan’s incessant power grab and evaporation of the separation of powers openly began to manifest themselves on the political scene. In this specific context, remaining in Erdogan’s court simply meant one thing: Davutoglu was burdened with the nasty job of after-fact rationalization and justification of the authoritarian policies enacted by Erdogan in undoing the progressive reforms of the 2000s.

Then-Prime Minister Davutoglu (L) meets with President Erdogan in the presidential palace in Ankara in 2015.

Davutoglu’s heartfelt dream to serve his country with a competent cadre of intellectual fellows was tempered by a sober realization soon after Erdogan’s ascension to the presidential palace in 2014. To put it simply, there was a clash of personalities and world views. When Davutoglu refused to be Erdogan’s pliant point man, the countdown to his end just began. On his front, Erdogan did everything to block the professor from becoming a self-reliant prime minister for independently running the government without his blessing and meddling. Davutoglu’s refusal of a subdued role in executive power eventually prompted Erdogan to seek a replacement. Two months before the botched putsch, Erdogan pulled off a palace coup, forcing the prime minister to resign in May 2016.

In these critical years, Davutoglu’s BISAV-generated personnel played a pivotal role to advance Erdogan’s anti-democratic agenda. Without understanding the contribution of BISAV-dominated SETA to formulate policy prescriptions to steer Erdogan’s emergency regime policies with a veneer of intellectual touch, it would be impossible to see the real architects of the post-coup purge and the vicious crackdown against the government's political opponents.

No matter how he envisioned a Turkey true to his ideals, Davutoglu’s disciples (Kalin, Duran, and Altun) first betrayed the professor and then the country. This trio goes down in history as the gravediggers of the republic by killing all its gains in terms of democracy and state-building. This generation is fascinated with the concept of civilization. Instead of restoring Turkey’s civilizational identity, which was defined by British historian Arnold Toynbee as frozen in time, back to its historical place, they proved perfectly competent in dismantling all the pillars of Republican Turkey without offering a plausible and functioning alternative in return. What we have at hand is a one-man rule with no respect for science, for truth, for democracy, and for anything. The demolition wrought by the post-coup purge in Turkey’s bureaucracy, its centuries-old state tradition, and culture is no small thing. We are currently enduring its disastrous consequences.

In the end, Sehir University became a victim of a political vendetta after a fallout between two personalities — Davutoglu and Erdogan. Davutoglu’s appointment of Sehir Rector Gokhan Cetinsaya to the presidency of the Council of Higher Education (YOK), a semi-autonomous body that regulates the affairs of universities across Turkey, without Erdogan’s consent constituted the first major clash between them. (Cetinsaya did not stay long in that position). Later, Sehir University, with Davutoglu’s backing, resisted political pressure during Gezi Park protests and did not dismiss any academic who involved in the anti-Erdogan protests. Additionally, Sehir’s protection of the academics who signed ‘academics for peace’ memorandum in early 2016 again incurred the wrath of the thin-skinned president. While the post-coup purge devoured Turkey’s college landscape, the school did not provide any name for the purge list prepared by YOK. Its list of sins and crimes, in the view of Turkey’s most powerful president since Ataturk, has only grown by the time.

The moment the former prime minister moved to launch a party against Erdogan (in December 2019), the president swiftly acted to appoint a trustee to the BISAV. Then the April decision came for the takeover of Sehir University, citing its piling debt and some minor irregularities in the purchase of its glorious campus in Istanbul’s affluent Dragos district. Last week, an overnight presidential decree finally sealed the fate of the university after 10 years of active service. It was completely shut down.

The tragedy of Sehir is only a small symptom of a larger conundrum that has gripped Turkey for the past several years. Despite all his outcry, Erdogan’s unrelenting war against academia began under Davutoglu’s watch when he was premier. The professor rightfully denounced what befell Sehir. But he remained mute when more than 1,000 schools and 15 universities were shut down by a blanket decree without any proper legal procedure in summer 2016. He preferred silence when more than 7,000 academics were deprived of their livelihood and their posts at colleges. It would be politically risky to voice a loud criticism in the hazy moments of post-coup chaos. Yet, the purge started well before the coup, during Davutoglu’s premiership. He had no compunction to defend the shutdown of several media outlets during his tenure.

This is no rejoicing at his current predicament by reminding him of his troubling record chart. If Davutoglu sincerely aims to re-establish his credentials as someone who fights for justice, then he should not discriminate against the victims of government crackdown according to their affiliation. His cause must be unwavering, his embrace universal. He should seek justice for everybody who has been wronged in Turkey, regardless of their political creed, social persuasion, and personal background.

Note: This piece has been updated.

New York-based writer. Politics, culture, literary criticism, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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