Meet the 'Yes Men' of Turkey, Using Creative Subversion to Resist Their Government's War on Dissent

News & Politics

Declaring that moral outrage has been exhausted, an anonymous collective of Turkish scholars and artists is now turning to public satire and subversive spectacle to expose the government crackdown on free expression that has forced several of their colleagues into jail and joblessness.

In this spirit, the dozens-strong group recently created the mock “University of Metris Prison,” named after Istanbul’s infamous state-run Metris prison, known for the torture and incarceration of political prisoners. The satirical school does not have a physical location, but it does have an online presence and student recruitment campaign, including a darkly humorous video advertisement that blurs the lines between higher education and prison.

Evoking the style of the hacktivist group Anonymous, the video depicts a generic businessman who, through speech-generated animation, states in a chilling deadpan: “There are endless reasons why you should choose this nest of science, this lifelong education center that grows stronger and stronger by the day… Here you will be far, far away from anything that could possibly disturb your concentration.”

Meanwhile, the mock school’s website declares: “Metris Prison University is proud to announce that three new faculty members have joined us as of last week,” referencing three academics—Esra Mungan, Muzaffer Kaya and Kivanc Ersoy—recently arrested on false charges of “terrorist propaganda.” The site continues: “As we welcome them, we would like to also remind that this is just the baby step of our plan to transfer over a thousand more!”

MetrisU lists as its "coordinator of international relations Chris Stephenson, a British academic who was temporarily deported from Turkey on dubious charges of “making terror propaganda."

A member of the collective, whose participants are scattered across Turkey and the world, told AlterNet that the weeks-old initiative is already generating attention and controversy in Turkey, as well as support from one of the incarcerated scholars awaiting trial.

Requesting anonymity due to security concerns, as well as to adhere to the group’s agreement to remain nameless, the member explained: “Our motivation was, we were looking at Turkey and seeing all kinds of absurd things happening. Tragedies are inflating. We decided we need to find a different way to talk bout it and raise consciousness, not only for the general public but for our own good.”

“Things we wouldn’t even imagine are now taking place in Turkey, from violence to war to mistreatment of migrants,” the individual continued. "MetrisU was inspired by the imprisoning of academics. But the whole country is also being turned into a prison for many reasons. It’s not just the legal crackdown, but also the bombings, political and other means of violence, human rights violations and abuses towards women and LGBTQ communities.”

The commentary is striking a chord in a country in the throws of a draconian crackdown on academic freedom.

At the beginning of this year, over 1,400 scholars in Turkey and around the world signed an open letter calling for the government to “abandon its deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples in the region.”

"The Turkish state has effectively condemned its citizens in Sur, Silvan, Nusaybin, Cizre, Silopi, and many other towns and neighborhoods in the Kurdish provinces to hunger through its use of curfews that have been ongoing for weeks,” the petition states. “It has attacked these settlements with heavy weapons and equipment that would only be mobilized in wartime. As a result, the right to life, liberty, and security, and in particular the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment protected by the constitution and international conventions have been violated.”  

Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan responded to the petition by falsely accusing the signatories of treason and supporting terrorism, and unleashing a severe wave of repression. Now, all signatories are being criminally investigated for “terrorism propaganda” by an Istanbul prosecutor, according to Human Rights Watch. The watchdog organization reports that many more have been detained and at least “30 other academics have been dismissed and 27 suspended by their universities pending investigation.”

In an "urgent call for solidarity," U.S.-based scholars put this number far higher, writing that "hundreds of academics who signed the petition have been subjected to disciplinary and criminal investigations, detentions, and suspensions from their jobs.” Despite being a key ally and military backer of Erdogan’s murderous regime, the U.S. government has remained relatively silent on the abuses, issuing a tepid rebuke but falling short of meaningful action.

"The crackdown on academics is the direct result of their call to the government to immediately stop militarist policies within Turkey," said the anonymous collective member. "And the Turkish policy of 'fight with the Kurds in Turkey' is actually a continuation of their ambition to destroy the Kurdish autonomy in Syria."

"It is almost common-sense knowledge in Turkey that no government can rule easily without the consent of its strongest ally, the United States," the individual continued.

Alongside the crackdown on academic freedom, the Turkish president has “embarked on an offensive against Turkey’s media,” Reporters Without Borders recently warned. “Journalists are harassed, many have been accused of “insulting the president” and the Internet is systematically censored.”

This repression is crossing borders and oceans. Late last month, Erdogan’s security team attacked reporters outside of the Brookings Institution where the president was speaking. And on April 15, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that prosecuters will be permitted bring charges against a German comedian who wrote a poem strongly criticizing and ridiculing the Turkish president.

Now, two journalists and four academics await trial on Friday under the country’s draconian anti-terror laws. As activists and supporters across Turkey prepare to mobilize for the trial, the collective is not afraid to be sincere. It is calling for people around the world to take to social media and “Raise Your Pen for Freedom,” and hundreds so far have heeded this call.

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