Foundations of Solidarity: A Conversation with Zeynep Gambetti

July 5, 2021   •   By Helen Mackreath

Banner image: Hazar Kolancalı, 23. Boğaziçi University student. Photo by Haydar Taştan.

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IN THE WAKE of the intensifying resistance to the occupation of Palestine, the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States (and beyond), and such movements as #StandWithStandingRock, appeals for solidarity with the plight of migrants, occupied populations, racialized minorities, and Indigenous peoples have become culturally pervasive. This new LARB series on the Foundations of Solidarity draws together thinkers from the loosely defined region of the Middle East to discuss the topic from creative, historical, and political perspectives.

It’s in hell where solidarity is important, not in heaven,” said John Berger. But is solidarity, indebted to the shared conditions of catastrophe, as much as we can hope for, without an imagination of something better? On the other hand, solidarity based on a notion of global sameness invokes an ambiguous “we” that disguises social and material injustices. From the settler colonialism in Gaza and the West Bank and in the occupied territories of Rojava and Kashmir to the structural racism and police violence in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, the messy work of envisioning and building coalitions of solidarity is underway. These are revolutionary solidarities anchored in the intersectionality of freedom struggles, the collective product of movement and contradiction, rather than abstract notions of what it means to be human.

Our first interview is with Zeynep Gambetti, associate professor of Political Theory at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, whose work interrogates collective agency, ethics, and public space. Boğaziçi University has been a center of resistance to authoritarianism in Turkey since the beginning of the year, when President Erdoğan undemocratically appointed a new rectorate. In this interview, Professor Gambetti draws attention to the global attacks on academic freedom and critical scholarship, connecting the assault on higher education in Turkey with global struggles against racism, sexism, exploitation, and new forms of fascist authoritarianism. 

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HELEN MACKREATH: What is happening at Boğaziçi University, why did the protests start, how are they continuing, and who is participating in them?

ZEYNEP GAMBETTI: What happened to Boğaziçi University is actually a continuation of the pressure already being exercised on the quasi-totality of universities in Turkey. The criminalization en masse of academics started in 2016 when more than 1,000 scholars intervened into a controversial political issue by signing a Peace Petition, one that recalled times foregone when university professors assumed the role of public intellectuals exercising the right to speak truth to power (as in the case of the Manifesto of the 121 in France in 1960 and the Petition of Intellectuals in Turkey in 1984). The Peace Petition was penned in reaction to the government’s brutal anti-terror operations in Kurdish towns within Turkish territory. President Erdoğan and the pro-government press lost no time in deploying their reflex tactic of fabricating a toxic atmosphere, discrediting the signatories of the Peace Petition as “traitors” and “would-be intellectuals.” Prosecutors followed suit, concocting terrorist propaganda charges against them. The pretext provided by the failed coup of July 2016 gave the government an excuse to further devastate higher education through mass evacuations, administrative or judiciary action against professors, and the incarceration of scholars, students, and intellectuals. Many academics have fled the country and are now in exile in Europe and the US.

Boğaziçi University was somewhat spared from this onslaught owing to its prestige and international connections, but the AKP has been effectuating a form of Gleichschaltung by hollowing out every institution in the country to make it subservient to its own aims. And it is not an infrequent occurrence that illicit methods and partisan politicking are used in Turkish universities to appoint deans or heads of department. But Boğaziçi had a singularly democratic tradition: the rector was elected, department decisions could not be overruled, and plurality was encouraged among students and faculty. It seemed certain that Boğaziçi too would sooner or later be placed on the government’s firing line.

As expected, on the first of January this year, Erdoğan appointed a new Boğaziçi rector by midnight decree. (These midnight decrees are part of a “shock and awe” tactic used by the government since the failed coup attempt.) Neither the university administration nor faculty members were consulted concerning the nomination. Like 20 other university presidents in Turkey, the appointed rector was affiliated with the ruling party. This leaves no doubt as to the politically motivated nature of the scheme. What’s more, we learned a month later that a law school and a school of communications were to be created at the university. The top-down imposition of two new schools is intended to open the way for hiring loyalists and changing the balance of forces within the university.

Whether out of haughtiness (“how can this happen to us?”) or devotion to universal academic principles, or possibly both, we reacted to the appointment from day one. Not only academic freedom but also the critical function of the university was at stake. In the first week of January, Boğaziçi became the main news agenda in Turkey when the police cracked down on students and clamped the university gates with handcuffs. The protests have been going on uninterrupted ever since. Professors, students, alumni, and unionized personnel have rejected this wholesale, each university component struggling in ways that are both suitable and available to it.

What are the different forms of violence being deployed to attempt to disrupt, fragment, and demotivate protests for academic freedom? And what are the different forms of agency that university-based protestors are claiming and enacting, both collectively and individually?

Without even feeling the need to make constitutional amendments, the present government is churning out a plethora of laws, bylaws, directives, and regulations and leaving law enforcement agents the discretion to use them according to the stated or presumed objectives of the government. This amounts to the tacticalization of the law, as conceptualized by Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. In the age of governmentality, law is used tactically to monitor populations, regulate and control them, bring their actions into uniformity, and punish those who deviate from the norms deemed acceptable for the persistence of political and economic power structures.

The not-so-insignificant difference is that, in Turkey, law is embodied in the party and the party is personified by the president. In keeping with the characteristics of this form of governmental sovereignty, the Boğaziçi resistance is facing a combination of state violence, biopolitical governmental strategies, and neoliberal tactics of dispossession. These are accompanied by the transgression of legal, moral, or commonsensical limits, out and out polarization, the amplification of unpredictability, and the constant production of equivocation and untruth by the party-state.

The students have clashed with the police on several occasions and have been subjected to an irrational and unjustified chain of detentions. Law is invoked on a partial basis (“the COVID-19 ban on open-air gatherings is to be applied to this city district and not to others today”) so as to concoct prohibited spaces. This is then used to outlaw students protesting on the streets. Such governmental tactics allow the students to be taken into custody in accordance with “law” and put under house arrest with electronic bracelets around their ankles. Several students were imprisoned on fabricated charges of belonging to terrorist organizations, only to be liberated for lack of evidence after being kept behind bars for weeks. By portraying them as “bogus students,” both establishment discourses and the law enforcement apparatus mark the students as “outsiders” within the civic body, while at the same time delegitimizing their demands. The logic works like this: if they are taken into custody, then they must be terrorists posing as students. This is a brutal game that intends to break their willpower and intimidate others who might be tempted to protest. To be honest, it has succeeded in dividing the student body to some degree and in discouraging off-campus rallies.

Sena Nur Baş, 24, Boğaziçi University student. Photo by Haydar Taştan.


Hivda Selen, 22, university student and political activist. Photo by Haydar Taştan.


Muhammed Hizmetçi, 24, translator. A house arrest warrant was issued for him as a result of his participation in the Boğaziçi protests. Photo by Haydar Taştan.


Melis Akyürek, 34, clinical psychologist. Photo by Haydar Taştan.


Pro-government media have also targeted professors, by singling some of them out as undercover agents of coup-plotters or as a handful of radical provocateurs beguiling other faculty members. But rather than sovereign reflexes, bureaucratic maneuvers and neoliberal tactics are being used to demotivate professors. Internal elections for administrative units are disregarded, the senate and executive board cannot function properly because bylaws are constantly being violated, and plans to dispossess the university of some of its property are in the making. I admit that all this is very demoralizing. Talking truth to power is of little use in curbing it. There seem to be no rational, moral, or legal limits to treacherousness.

Although the new administration does not and will not allow elected candidates to fill key positions within the university, we are holding intra-institutional elections nevertheless. Our stubborn refusal to recognize the vertical form of authority imposed on us has generated horizontal modes of action that, in Hannah Arendt’s terms, pit collective power against a form of violence that intends to blur the boundaries between terrorism, civil disobedience, and critique.

Given the diversity that characterizes Boğaziçi, the professors united around a moral minimum that consists in defending the universal principles laid down by the university senate: academic freedom and university autonomy. The rallying cry that mustered the largest support was: “We do not accept! We do not give up [our principles]!” As professors, we enacted Boğaziçi’s participatory administrative culture by organizing horizontally into committees and holding weekly assemblies to deliberate on resistance strategies. Our main repertoire consists of our bodily presence in the main square on campus, dressed in full academic attire, with our backs turned to the rectorate building. It is a form of holding our place, marking the university as “our own.” By standing there every single workday at noon, we are performing our tenacity: our refusal to accept the appointed rector is at the same time an act of civil disobedience and a show of force.

In a different line of action, we opened three lawsuits that paradoxically call a higher law into effect, since the delegitimation of the protests involves the tactical deployment of legality. One lawsuit involves challenging the law that enables the president to appoint rectors. But the legal battle will take a long time, and we despair at times that much harm will come to the university before these matters are settled in courts.

More politically minded students within the student body found our place-based politics too narrow and instead attempted to organize street protests together with opposition MPs and students from other universities. They sought, rightfully in my view, to connect the struggle for academic freedom with the larger struggle for democracy in the country. They get the credit for initiating solidarity networks beyond the campus and articulating the call for democratic elections at the university to calls for inclusion by Kurds, women, LGBTI+ communities, the working class, and other precarious groups.

The Boğaziçi protests served to drive home the fact that a university is an interdependent whole that exceeds the student-professor body. Without the university union, which includes professors as well as other staff, it would have been difficult to keep track of the rector’s insidious shuffling of personnel, especially among security guards. The union is putting up a fight by filing lawsuits against malpractices. And Boğaziçi alumni have turned out to be a surprisingly devoted ally in this struggle. Alumni are incredibly supportive in thwarting attacks by the establishment. Their professional know-how and networks help spread the word in Turkey as well as abroad.

How does this resistance inform our understanding of the subject of political agency? What kinds of coalitions are being built?

The Boğaziçi protests present a challenge to the political regime in Turkey because we reclaim the liberties and institutional guarantees for autonomy that have been confiscated by the government. But we also call upon the “ideal” that prefigures an “alternative” to the prevalent form of institutionalization of the production and dissemination of academic knowledge. I’m not sure that all faculty members are aware of this or intend to embrace such an alternative, but the overall thrust of the struggle has transformed us in unspoken ways. This is a newly founded “academic body from below,” as it were, which is substantially different from the formal or institutionalized one.

To put it schematically, the homo academicus previously tucked away in an ivory tower finds itself in an odd position, where the mastery of the classroom or the mastery of the laboratory is of little help in confronting the contingent (and, in Turkey, arbitrary) forces at play in the field of politics. This struggle, as well as the experience acquired during the Academics for Peace petition process, is gradually politicizing academia, giving it a new direction. This is a turning point that at the same time reconstitutes the subject of the turning. Boğaziçi scholars did not walk down this path intentionally. And yet, in the walking, they are now committed to the unfamiliar world that has been opened up before them. Not only does this bring to awareness the vital role of the intellectual in dark times, but it also forges new forms of relating to students, employees, alumni, and the public at large. Within this complex web of interdependency, the scholar becomes part of a multitude whose deliberations produce effects only through other forms of action and agency.

For instance, students and alumni are using social media extensively in establishing bonds of solidarity and trying to offset the atmosphere of “post-truth” built around the resistance by the pro-government press and media. Scholars previously unacquainted with Twitter have had to learn how to use it as well. This is actually a “we” in the making, learning to speak languages that it is not quite familiar with. Also, the image of professors in robes standing on the central lawn on campus proved to be much more powerful than carefully worded statements or press releases. The images make a huge impression on the public and also on us. Standing silently in the proximity of other colleagues in academic attire gives us a daily-renewed sense of the solemnity and significance of the struggle. These daily vigils perform a bodily transgression without the intervention of words. They defy the law in order to signal its illegitimacy, and attempt to mark the limits of authoritarianism and arbitrary power. This, admittedly, amounts to the transfiguration of the scholar into a body that performs instead of a cogito.

I need to underline that the Boğaziçi resistance has mustered enormous support from the public at large. Without support from Turkish society and abroad, it would have been difficult to sustain the resistance since January. A recent poll among people from all ages and worldviews in Turkey showed that 67 percent of those interviewed believe the protests are justified. This is somewhat surprising, since Boğaziçi has often been branded an “elitist” school and academic freedom is hardly a cherished notion in society. But Boğaziçi is by far the best public university, and young generations compete fiercely to get the chance to study there. This gives us ample reason to believe that Boğaziçi’s demise is being associated, on the symbolic register, with the more general confiscation of the future of the country by the party-state. What is being done to Boğaziçi in a miniature scale has already been done to numerous institutions. Professional associations, unions, and other universities are inspired by the Boğaziçi resistance, since it promises to create a crack in the wall and spill over to other struggles for democracy. Our tenacity seems to have awakened suppressed desires to revolt. Courage is contagious: as soon as it enters into circuits of affective transmission, it moves others in the double sense of inspiring them and inciting them into action.

Among the international coalitions being forged through this resistance, our collaboration with Greek colleagues deserves special attention. As you know, there is also an intense struggle being waged in Greece against a law that allows police presence on campuses and a bill that will modify the procedures through which university presidents are selected. We’ve held several meetings with Greek scholars to compare and contrast assaults on academic freedom. It appears that the rallying cry in Greece is “Bread! Education! Freedom!” — a slogan inherited from the student uprising against the military junta at the Athens Polytechnic Institute in 1973. Now, while Greek colleagues look admiringly at our struggle from the other side of the Aegean and are eager to learn from us, those of us from Boğaziçi participating in these meetings came to the painful realization that we were far behind in summoning the intellectual and organizational resources needed to relate our struggle to broader societal demands.

Such encounters are transformative in a Spinozist sense: they bring into question past certainties and enable new intellectual as well as material and bodily connections to be made, thereby augmenting our power to orient ourselves in the world. We are prompted to look at ourselves through a fresh perspective that both modifies and extends the meaning we attach to our resistance. In the encounters with Greek colleagues, for instance, we who imagined defending one particular university in Turkey ended up deciding that we must create an Academic International that unites scholars across the world!

In your co-edited volume Vulnerability in Resistance (Duke, 2016), you call into question the assumption that vulnerability and resistance are mutually opposed. In the case of the Boğaziçi protests, how do you see vulnerabilities, and perhaps also precarities, as potentially being part of, and enabling to, the resistance itself?

It is always the case that, in difficult times, relationships become more intensified and unforeseen bonds of solidarity are built between previously unaffiliated groups. This becomes the source of our strength. Our initial position of vulnerability opens us up to establishing support relations with others in two distinct but interrelated ways. First, it is because we are under attack that we understand how fragile the institutional and constitutional arrangements upholding freedom are. This triggers a moment of reflection that dissipates the illusion of self-sufficiency. Second, it is by reaching out to others that we come to recognize what unites us, despite our differences. This allows for the construction of a common ground of struggle and mutual aid, transforming all of us as we relate more and more to each other.

It was, for instance, very eye-opening for me to participate in a panel with a French colleague who is being targeted in the witch-hunt against so-called “Islamo-leftists” by both French academia and the political establishment. Our colleagues from the Global North previously pitied us, intellectuals of the Global South, since they had the impression that our academic vulnerability owed to “underdevelopment.” We now realize that we’re all in the same boat. Academics from the North become increasingly aware that the encroachment by political and economic rationalities on acquired freedoms is a global condition. And that they have something to learn from the struggles being waged in the Global South.

The targeting of Boğaziçi University is part of a larger assault on academic freedom and knowledge production across the globe. There are other examples where academia is under attack by far-right, conservative, or neoliberal powers. I wonder whether these struggles in academia — and the forms of protest emerging in response to them — have the potential to translate to other struggles in the countries in question? Or are there dangers of potentially erasing the particular context, politics, and history of what’s happening at Boğaziçi and in Turkey?

There is indeed a generalized attack against academic freedom across the globe. This may be played out according to the particular politics and history of the country in question, as you suggest, but certain common patterns are discernible in all cases. In some countries, the undermining of critical scholarship and university autonomy takes the form of direct political interventions, whereas in others the neoliberal university model is being imposed to produce similar results. The level of violence inherent in the corporatization of the university might not appear as fearsome as the use of state power, but I would like to underline a paradox here. Scholars faced with state violence know what they are struggling against — and that the struggle is amply justified. Those being subjected to disciplinary practices such as the introduction of performance criteria, contractual employment, competitive grant writing, and collaboration with the military-industrial complex, on the other hand, tend to internalize these new norms of academic knowledge production and dissemination, and cease to question them. Educating critical citizens is not the same as educating “human capital,” as Wendy Brown has remarked. The loss of the critical function of the university may take longer in the US and UK, for instance, but the trend is unmistakably in that direction.

One of the most insidious patterns common to most contexts in which academic liberties are being eroded is the offensive against gender and LGBTQ studies. This is most pronounced in Brazil, Romania, Poland, Hungary, and Turkey, but also to a certain degree in France now. The anti-LGBTQ discourse became especially toxic during the first weeks of the Boğaziçi resistance when “religious sentiment” was used as an excuse to shut down the LGBTQ club and criminalize the rainbow flag. Two months later, Erdoğan declared that Turkey would move out of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women. As in many parts of the world where populist authoritarianism is gaining ground, gender and sexual orientation become buzzwords that cement reactionary factions together around symbolic crusades. This allows the government to conceal the inequalities that devastate portions of society and, especially in Turkey, allows a nepotistic system of privileges to flourish.

Institutional autonomy is also at stake. In Brazil and Greece, right-wing leaders have declared their intent to meddle with the method of selection of university rectors. Struggles are taking place in South Africa and India to fight against government interference into university curricula, police violence against students, and restrictions on freedom of speech and academic research. Knowledge is power, and control over knowledge has become a sizable stake in the age of information.

I don’t think translating these struggles into each other would efface the particularity of the contexts in which they are waged. Each form of resistance provides an example, an inspiring one, that will never be reiterated verbatim in other contexts but will metamorphose into something else when taken up by different collective movements. What is important, in my view, is to remember that resisting encroachments on academic freedom is never going to be a purely academic matter or an issue concerning only academia. The ivory tower is collapsing. It is high time that academics connect to struggles against racism, sexism, exploitation, and new forms of fascism, not only intellectually but also politically.

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Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books based in Istanbul, previously in Beirut and the West Bank.