A group of Kurdish women fighters photographed in 2015 (via Wikimedia Commons)

A group of 280 leading scholars, writers, and artists have signed a petition to boycott Turkish government-sponsored academic and cultural institutions. Signatories include famous scholars Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky; art critics Boris Groys and David Levi Strauss; anthropologist Michael Taussig; musician Brian Eno; and Eyal Weizman, founding director of the London-based collective Forensic Architecture, among others. The petition was released in response to Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish regions in northeastern Syria.

The petition calls on academics, artists, and intellectuals around the world to opt-out of joint projects and research collaborations with Turkish universities and to pressure international academic institutions to sever all ties with Turkish counterparts. It also calls on trade unions representing university staff to make a commitment to support the boycott.

“The boycott we are calling for does not preclude communication and collaboration with individual Turkish scholars or democratic institutions/journals,” the petition clarifies. “Turkish scholars will be welcome to attend academic events, using institutional funding to do where appropriate, to publish in academic journals and to take part in other activities as individuals.”

This is also a call for cultural workers and cultural organizations to boycott events, activities, agreements or projects involving Turkish government or government-funded cultural institutions. International venues and festivals are asked to reject funding and any form of sponsorship from the Turkish government.

“Turkey’s academic institutions are deeply enmeshed with Turkish capitalism and the military industrial complex,” the campaign’s website reads. “Many universities act as incubators for Turkish military technology, making the arms companies richer, and strengthening the state’s oppressive militarism.” Turkey’s government and academic establishment, the petition adds, have been “working together to stamp out freedom of speech in Turkey.”

The petition builds on a previous call to boycott Turkish institutions released in 2017 in response to the Turkish state’s persecution of anti-war academics in the country. In January 2016, more than 2000 academics working in or researching on Turkey, a group that came to be known as Academics for Peace, signed a petition calling on the Turkish government to end its war in the Kurdish region, seek a peaceful resolution of the decades-long fight against Kurdish groups, and allow international observers to monitor the situation in Kurdish towns and cities destroyed by the Turkish army.

The Turkish government responded with a fierce crackdown on the scholars. More than 700 of them have been criminally charged with making propaganda for a terrorist organization. “[They] have been subjected to vindictive and punitive attacks ordered by the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and implemented through joint efforts by the government and the higher education establishment,” the website hosting the petition reads.

Turkey’s military operations in Syria’s Kurdish regions began on October 9 after Erdoğan was reportedly given clearance by President Trump (the president later denied endorsing the invasion). Yesterday, October 21, United States troops withdrew from Syria, signaling a dramatic shift in American foreign policy in the region. A five-day ceasefire that was achieved last week expires today, October 22. Meanwhile, Russia is filling the void the American withdrawal left behind with a new agreement between Erdoğan and Russian president Vladimir Putin, which divides the power along the Turkey-Syria border between the two countries.

“US troops have been abruptly withdrawn from northern Syria, placing the Kurdish people in Rojava and others in Syria’s danger,” said Davis in an address at a conference in Sao Paolo, Brazil earlier this week. “I am inspired by the struggle for freedom that has been undertaken by the Kurdish people,” she continued. “Women’s freedom is conceptualized as the very heart of Kurdish freedom and of their struggle for democracy and socialism […] Kurdish women and men have been building the kind of democracy that should inspire us all to be more imaginative and more radical in our own aspirations and in our constant struggles for Freedom.”

In an email that raised a lot of eyebrows on October 14, chairman of Contemporary Istanbul, Ali Güreli, defended the Turkish invasion of Syria and called on visitors of the fair not to fall for “black propaganda” about ethnic cleansing of the Kurds in the region. In a follow-up email on October 18, Güreli retracted his statement, calling it “entirely inappropriate,” and vowing to “remain outside of any political situation or debate.”

“People in Turkey are being fed this Erdoğan gray wolf propaganda that what happened in Rojava was just an extention of the PKK [The Kurdistan Workers’ Party],” David Levi Strauss, critic, poet, and chair of the MFA program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “That’s what’s they’re being told over and over again, and they believe it.”

In 2016, Strauss co-edited the book To Dare Imagining: Rojava Revolution, a collection of essays about the Kurdish revolution in Syria that has been hailed as a socialist, feminist, and democratic revolution since it started in 2012. In the past few weeks, Strauss has published a series of articles on the situation in Rojava, expressing his dismay of the overall indifference of the American public and media to atrocities committed against the Kurds. “Overall, the coverage in the U.S. media has been disgraceful,” he wrote in his latest dispatch. He continued: “Almost no one has mentioned the Rojava Revolution or the new society that had been formed there. No mention of the women. Do they really not know anything about it? The only mention I’ve seen was on Democracy Now.”

“We thought that we could have something to do with changing the conversation by publishing that book in 2016, and it had no effect what-so-ever,” Strauss told Hyperallergic. “Trump just handed Putin and Erdoğan everything they wanted,” he commented on the recent developments, “the ceasefire was just an extension of that.”

“What Rojava built, while attacked from all sides, was an amazing thing,” Strauss said. “I’m afraid it’s being crushed under the boots of Erdoğan, Trump, Assad, Putin, and it’s a terrible loss for the world.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...