Turkey Blames American Scholar For Coup Attempt

A.J. Caschetta Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow, Middle East Forum
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Observers of academic trends might expect the smearing of an American scholar with unfounded charges and wild conspiracy theories to provoke an impassioned defense from all of academia.  But that has not been the case with Henri J. Barkey, a scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center who has become a target of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s widespread persecution of “intellectuals.”

Upon regaining control on July 16, Erdogan struck back, initiating what many are calling a purge.  First he targeted members of the Turkish military, then the judiciary and then journalists.  But his most outlandish attack is the bizarre accusation that the coup was orchestrated by a group of academics attending a conference in Turkey, all fomented by Dr. Barkey.

Through his media loyalists, Erdogan has ordered the rather dull story of an academic conference rewritten into a tale of espionage and revolution.  The conference, titled “Iran And Its Neighbors,” was hosted by the Global Political Trends Center (GPoT) of Istanbul Kultur University.

The dangerous nest of conspirators in Erdogan’s unlikely yarn, according to Bir Gun Daily,  were “Iran expert at [the] International Crisis Group Ali Vaiz; Egyptian researcher Ahmet Morsy; Middle East expert at Yildirim Beyazit University Bayram Sinkaya and Kultur University lecturer Prof. Dr. Mensur Akgun.”

Barkey’s centrality to the coup is alleged in many news sources aligned with Erdogan, such as a July 26 article in the English-language Yeni Safak News, portraying Barkey as “former CIA personnel.”  The CIA’s omnipotence is a standard feature of Middle East conspiracy theories.

The Yeni Safak article notes that the conference was held at the “Splendid Hotel, which was used as a British Military Headquarters during the days of occupation in 1919,” behind closed doors in “a special room” (a term used three times).  Here the espionage emeriti plotted “to design Turkey’s political arena” at the behest of Fetullah Gulen.  Like a bookish James Bond, Barkey is said to have been caught with special equipment (“an ex-model cell phone”).

Kultur University Associate Professor Mensur Akgun calls the allegations “nonsense” and “unreal fantasies.”  Barkey has dismissed them as “salacious” and “outrageous.”

So why the fixation on Henri Barkey?  Neither a supporter nor a particularly harsh critic of Erdogan, Barkey has even criticized the coup attempt.

Perhaps Erdogan thinks the Wilson Center is a CIA front.  After all, Barkey’s predecessor as the Center’s Director of the Middle East Program was Haleh Esfandiari, an American academic arrested for plotting to overthrow Iran’s government and held at the notorious Evin prison from May 8 to August 21, 2007.

Or perhaps the fact that Barkey is Jewish and Turkish was all Erdogan needed to target him.

Whatever the cause, Erdogan’s preposterous claims evince all the characteristics of Middle East conspiratorial thinking associated with the governments of Iran (a nation that has arrested squirrels and pigeons for spying) and some Arab states, but until recently not Turkey.

None of this, strangely enough, has merited a response on Barkey’s behalf from the protector of academics and guardian of their freedoms – the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).  Granted, the AAUP has issued a general statement  and an open letter condemning Erdogan’s crackdown on Turkish professors.  But silence on Henri J. Barkey.

Compare that with the hyperventilating that followed the University of Illinois’ decision to rescind a job offer to Steven Salaita after discovering his anti-Semitic tweets.  Many came to his defense with the hollow cry of McCarthyism.  The AAUP issued a lengthy report on Salaita, expressing fear that academics are “vulnerable to attack by the local conservative newspaper for their teaching, their scholarship, and their extramural comments.”

The AAUP also found Ward Churchill worthy of a 136-page defense.  It notes that Churchill’s essay calling those murdered at the World Trade Center on 9/11 “little Eichmanns,” prompted the University of Colorado to conduct “an investigation into all of Churchill’s publications, actively seeking other grounds on which to fire him.”

Isn’t it curious how those accustomed to shouting “McCarthyism!” when their ideas are challenged seem uninterested in defending a scholar harassed by a government.

A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.