Turkey’s president wanted to muzzle a UC Davis professor. Instead, he made him famous

Baki Tezcan is an associate professor of history at UC Davis.
Baki Tezcan is an associate professor of history at UC Davis. Courtesy of Baki Tezcan

If the government of Turkey wanted to hide its alleged massacres of Kurdish civilians from the world, its strategy has clearly backfired. By prosecuting critics like UC Davis professor Baki Tezcan, who dared to sign a petition protesting the Turkish army’s slaughter of innocents, embattled Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has created global awareness of the issue.

Until recently, few in our community had ever heard of Tezcan, a historian with a focus on Middle East history who has worked at UC Davis for decades. Now his plight has become a regular feature in the news. He was seized by Turkish authorities in June when he arrived there to conduct academic research. The Turkish government has put him on trial for signing a petition criticizing the government’s policy towards the Kurdish people.

Few of us keep up with the twists and turns of Turkish politics, but now we know how sensitive Erdogan’s government is about charges that it has deliberately killed Kurdish civilians.

In California, we are quite familiar with Turkey’s desire to deny historical atrocities. To this day, the Turkish government refuses to admit the fact that it carried out a genocide against the Armenian people. Turkey exterminated approximately 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1916. Despite ample and indisputable historical evidence of the Armenian genocide, Turkey aggressively denies the truth.

Now they’re playing the same game with regards to the Kurds, an ethnic minority located mostly in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The Kurds have long sought to establish an independent state that includes a region of southeastern Turkey, and the Turkish military has fought armed separatists and terror attacks. As part of their strategy to suppress the insurgent forces, the Turkish military has also killed civilians.

In 2016, Tezcan joined 2,000 other academics in signing a petition to protest what they called the “deliberate and planned massacre” of Kurdish civilians in southeastern Turkey “with heavy weapons and equipment that would only be mobilized in wartime.”

“Once the petition circulated widely, Turkey began charging the signatories, claiming that they spread propaganda from a Kurdish group that Turkey deems a terrorist organization,” according to a Sacramento Bee story by Elaine Chen.

Standing before a judge in a Turkish courtroom last week, Tezcan defended the right to free speech, saying he “couldn’t really be comfortable with pulling back.” He also noted the fact that the “Declaration of Peace” he signed with other academics only gained widespread notice after Erdogan decided to make it an international incident.

“What keeps the Declaration for Peace in the news is not the declaration but the reaction to it in Turkey… For example, the local newspaper where I work in California reported on the Declaration for the first time, three and a half years after it was originally signed, in the context of an article reporting on my having been detained in front of my wife and children when I disembarked from the plane,” said Tezcan in a written statement to the court. “In other words, the Declaration has now been publicized in California’s capital of Sacramento not because of my signature but due to the arrest warrant issued by this court.”

Let’s hope Turkey’s judges prove wiser than its president and end the persecution of Tezcan and his fellow academics. To prosecute citizens for free speech is to attack democracy and freedom, and to push Turkey backward instead of forward. Besides, President Erdogan’s thin-skinned and overblown response to criticism has done more to highlight the plight of Turkey’s Kurds than any petition ever could.

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