One scholar who recently came to study and research at Stanford is the Turkish political scientist Halil Ibrahim Yenigün, who had to leave his home country because of a government crackdown against dissenting academics.
In 2016, Yenigün signed a petition, organized by a group called Academics for Peace, that called for an end to the state violence against Kurds living in Turkey’s southeastern region. In the petition, signatories also offered to work with the government to create a roadmap to achieve lasting peace, as well as their services as human rights observers in the region.
Yenigün knew supporting the petition was risky but he felt he had to sign it. “The political situation and state of democracy in Turkey had started deteriorating and it became obvious to me that I had to do something,” he said.
A new wave of activism had emerged in Turkey following the Gezi Park protests. In 2013, environmental activists had staged a sit-in against the Turkish government’s plan to demolish Gezi Park, a city garden in Istanbul, and build a shopping center in its place. After demonstrators were violently forced out, people from across the country took to the streets to protest the rise of anti-democratic policies and the country’s strongman leader, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
These events also led to more aggressive suppression against government dissent, Yenigün explained. So when Yenigün signed the Academics for Peace petition, he knew he was making a statement not just about Kurdish politics, but also about the rise of authoritarianism in his home country.
“Erdoğan was on a very clear track to establish one-man rule and we just felt like we had to stop him. We had to do anything we could,” Yenigün said.
Within hours of Yenigün signing the petition, President Erdoğan appeared on national TV condemning the scholars’ actions. And within days, Yenigün was suspended from his position at Istanbul Commerce University and eventually fired after a newspaper columnist targeted Yenigün not once but twice in their column.
Yenigün was one among many Turkish academics removed from their teaching posts. Some scholars had their homes raided by the police, others were criminally charged and sentenced to prison.
To continue his academic research, Yenigün had no choice but to leave Turkey. He found a one-year postdoctoral position at the Transregional Studies Forum in Berlin. It was then he connected with the IIE and the Scholar Rescue Fund where he was offered a two-year fellowship in the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies program in the Stanford Global Studies Division.
“The position helped me get back to my research,” Yenigün reflected, adding that being part of an academic community was incredibly valuable. At Stanford, Yenigün taught several courses, participated in workshops and spoke at various events.
After Yenigün’s fellowship ended in 2019, he was a lecturer at both Stanford and UC Berkeley during the 2019-2020 academic year. Currently, he is a lecturer in the Political Science Department at San Jose State University.