On October 14, 2005, police in the eastern Turkish city of Van arrested Yücel Aşkın, the rector of Yüzüncü Yıl University, on charges stemming from alleged corruption involving the purchase of medical equipment. In an effort to humiliate the rector, the police allowed local television to film Aşkın's arrest and denied him bail. Few outside observers accepted the charges, and, within days, university presidents across Turkey were rallying in Van for the freedom of their colleague.
Aşkın has been in the eye of a storm centering on Islamist encroachment in Turkish universities. As Yüzüncü Yıl rector, he defied pressure from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has sought to break down the barriers between mosque and state in Turkey. Aşkın defended secularism, questioned the qualifications of those with exclusively religious educations to gain admittance to secular universities, and enforced the headscarf ban.
These charges were not the first leveled against Aşkın. Police raided his home in July 2005 in search of illicit antiquities and arrested him on charges of violating the law on protection of cultural assets. A judge later dropped the charges when it emerged that Aşkın held government licenses for every artifact in his possession. The corruption charges appeared just as spurious. The university purchased the medical equipment a year before Aşkın became rector. It would be difficult for the rector to corrupt a decision of which he was not part.
Still, the government is determined to press the case, not only against Aşkın, but also against his senior administrative colleagues. On November 13, university general secretary Enver Arpalı committed suicide after being held for months without trial. Aşkın's trial has yet to be scheduled.
The Turkey Higher Education Board (YÖK) has condemned the situation. Soon after Aşkın's arrest, it released a statement indicating that "defending the rector amounted to defending the republic." Prime Minister Erdoğan responded by warning the rectors to "mind their own business." While the court replaced one judge after determining he was biased in favor of the AKP, YÖK chairman Erdoğan Teziç's comments that "politicization of the judiciary poses a serious threat to our country," drew an angry response from the government prosecutors, who announced a new investigation into the YÖK for illegal criticism.
Rule-of-law has suffered under the AKP as the party implements its agenda to weaken Turkey's secular foundations. Erdoğan has launched an all-out assault on institutions and independent panels. On March 1, 2006, over the objections of the president, the AKP-dominated parliament passed a bill to found fifteen new universities. Rather than bolster education, the move will better enable Erdoğan to control it. Fifteen new university rectors drawn from a field of the prime minister's candidates means fifteen new votes on the Higher Education Council, enabling the prime minister to undercut the YÖK's anti-Islamist consensus.
At an AKP meeting on February 14, 2006, Erdoğan complained about continued bans on teachers wearing headscarves and called on the judiciary to change its mindset. If rule-of-law and liberalism are to be preserved in Turkey, though, it is the prime minister who must change mindset.
Michael Rubin is editor of the Middle East Quarterly and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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