Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (I)

By Noémi Lévy-Aksu

Since the mid-2010s, the authoritarian turn of the Turkish regime has resulted in multiple violations of human rights and freedoms. Universities have been particularly affected by the process, with mass dismissals of academics, repeated attacks on academic freedom and autonomy, and repression of students’ initiatives and protests. Hundreds of signatories of the Declaration for Peace in January 2016 have been targeted by intimidation, arbitrary dismissals and prosecution[1]. While in July 2019 the Constitutional Court decision stated that the Declaration for Peace was in the scope of freedom of expression and quashed the terror-based convictions, only a couple of academics have been reintegrated to this day. Some could pursue their academic activities abroad, most often through temporary dedicated fellowships for at-risk scholars. While they continue to struggle for their rights, a significant part of those who remain in Turkey have become involved in solidarity networks and alternative organizations. Known as “Solidarity Academies”, new formations emerged in different cities of Turkey, gathering academics and students affected by the repression and their supporters[2]. Since 2016, these formations have emerged as important spaces for critical thinking and knowledge production and transmission. While most of them remain anchored at local level, other have opted for a thematic focus and gather members throughout Turkey. These groups offer workshops and seminars for different audiences, but they have also engaged in civil society projects including research, fieldwork and monitoring activities.

The Kültürhane Library-Café in Mersin/Turkey; Copyright: Ulaş Bayraktar

Since their creation, these initiatives have become spaces for solidarity and social interactions for dismissed academics. While their contacts with Turkish universities remain strained or non-existent and they count only a few non-dismissed academics, these have developed new relations with municipalities, professional organizations and civil society organizations, through informal networks, partnerships or dedicated training activities. Rights struggle and monitoring, gender, critical knowledge production and pedagogy are among the topics addressed by the ongoing projects. Young scholars, particularly women, who were graduate students and research assistants when they were dismissed are particularly active in these different initiatives. Fields such as social sciences and law are overrepresented, while it remains much more difficult for other disciplines to fit the frameworks imposed by calls for funding. The geographic distribution also reflect the opportunities and difficulties raised by local conditions: most of the solidarity academies are based in municipalities held by opposition parties, while institutionalizing alternative academic networks has remained difficult in Kurdish cities where elected municipalities have been suppressed and replaced by government-appointed trustees.

The existing initiatives face important challenges. First, while a few organizations have engaged in commercial activities, opening café or bookshop for instance, most of them depend on volunteers and funding by international donors supporting civil society initiatives in Turkey. In this respect, their financial sustainability is precarious. As the other civil society initiatives in Turkey, these groups are also fragilized by the tightening grip of the Turkish state on the civic space, symbolized by the new law on “Preventing Financing of Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction”, which open the way to blocking assets, appointing trustees and closing associations on the ground of an ambiguous definition of terrorism. In addition, while they have developed strong relations with civil society organizations and benefitted from the support of programs centred on human rights and democratization, these initiatives still struggle to be acknowledged as equal partners in the international academic sphere. Indeed, academic collaborations remain heavily dependent on academic affiliation and programmes supporting academics at risk are mostly based on individual support provided to academics in exile.

More collective forms of support for alternative initiatives based in Turkey and other countries where academic freedom is at threat appear thus vital to support scholars’ access to academic resources, integration into scientific networks and acknowledgment of the academic value of the teaching and research activities developed by solidarity academies. What is at stake is not only the sustainability of these groups and their activities. In a time when threats against academic freedom are on the rise, including in countries with strong democratic institutions and a tradition of academic autonomy, alternative academic initiatives in Turkey and elsewhere are a strong incentive to rethink the boundaries of academia and invent new forms of solidarity and cooperation to promote more inclusive networks and structures of knowledge production and dissemination.

The following contributions present a few solidarity academies in Turkey:

BİR-ARA_DA Association (Istanbul): 5 Questions to Sema Bayraktar

When and why did you decide to establish your organization? What are its aims and how would you define it (CSO, solidarity academy, alternative academic network…)?

Sema Bayraktar: BİR-ARA-DA Association was established on 1.8.2018. BİR-ARA-DA aims to produce and share knowledge with the dream of Alternative Academy outside of universities. Sharing the dream of an egalitarian and questioning academy, it creates communication and solidarity mechanisms between academicians, graduate students, independent researchers and academic solidarity groups.

Could you tell us about a particular project or activity conducted by your organization?

  • 2019 January – 2019 April, the “Translation of Decree-Law Stories Book from Academics” project between BİR-ARA-DA Association and CRD 
  • March 2019, the European Commission Civil Networks and Platforms Fund “Encouraging Gender Equality through the Network of Solidarity Academies” run by the Ankara Solidarity Academy Cooperative (ADA Cooperative), BIR-ARA-DA Association is included as a co-applicant
  • March 2020, “BIRARADA Academy Online Platform” project was carried out with CDPR (Center for Democracy and Peace Research), completed in May 2020
  • Workshops on the democratic, ecological and economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic in Turkey, with Heinrich Böll, completed in December 2020 and to be started in February funded by FES, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Turkey

What are the main challenges faced by your organization and its members?

SB: The association has over 170 members. Since making decisions without compromising the principles of participation and democracy is extremely important, it becomes slow to agree on the steps to be taken and progress. For example, it has taken us 9 Council Member Meetings to decide on the Strategy Document (Principles, Decision Mechanism and Activities Document)

Is your organization part of any international network? How could international solidarity and partnerships contribute to support your organization and its members?

SB: To be part of national and international Academic Solidarity Groups is part of our strategy but currently we are not a member of any network. 

Since the government in Turkey has decided to put Peace Academics in civil death position, dismissed academics cannot find academic positions in Turkish universities although they were acquitted. Thus, if BIRARADA can set-up partnership with international academic organizations and universities to offer academic courses, summer schools etc., that would create an environment for our members to continue their academic teaching and research activities. 

What future do you see for your organization? More broadly, do you think that alternative academic structures and networks have a potential to challenge the multiple obstacles faced by knowledge production/transmission in Turkey and at the global level?

SB: If we can solve our financial sustainability problem, we believe we have the capacity and motivation to set up an independent academic organization. That organization as an alternative academic structure would have a potential to challenge the existing academy in terms of production of critical and interdisciplinary knowledge.

Kültürhane (Mersin): 5 Questions to Ulaş Bayraktar

When and why did you decide to establish your organization? What are its aims and how would you define it (CSO, solidarity academy, alternative academic network…)?

Ulaş Bayraktar: Kültürhane was founded immediately in the aftermath of our expulsion from the university. Less than two weeks after the publication of the decree, we had signed the contract for the location of the place that would become our cafe-library.

The raison d’etre of our existence is a kind of resilience. The determination to keep up what we had been doing, albeit the titles, salaries, institutional affiliations that we had enjoyed until then. We wanted to show that we could continue in a different way to produce and share knowledge and experience.

Could you tell us about a particular project or activity conducted by your organization?

UB: Since the opening we have organised hundreds of talks in which politically stigmatised and isolated academicians, experts and activists have had the floor to share their knowledge. The series of Talks of Hope or Ecology of Peace Talks are examples of such activities. But we did not want these talks to adopt a purely scientific or political language. We wanted them to become actually popular gatherings. That is how we believe to have gone beyond the traditional environment of the university that consists mainly students and scholars.

What are the main challenges faced by your organization and its members?

UB: The main challenge has of course the financial sustainability of the activities most of which could be possible thanks to the projects realised by funder organisations. But as they are necessarily short-term. That is why we have to search and apply always for funding.

Is your organization part of any international network ?How could international solidarity and partnerships contribute to support your organization and its members?

UB: We enjoy the solidarity and support of many national and international networks. We realised many activities in cooperation with them. We would like to be seen as a potential partner for both social and scientific projects.

What future do you see for your organization? More broadly, do you think that alternative academic structures and networks have a potential to challenge the multiple obstacles faced by knowledge production/transmission in Turkey and at the global level?

UB: Our position is somewhat different from other solidarity academies as we do not claim to build an alternative academy. There has been always a gap between the campus and the society. We want to find and establish a new language and relationship with the public so that the academy goes beyond the boundaries. We do it by focusing on solidarity and co-production among societal actors and institutions.

Use of digital channels and adoption of more pedagogic methods seem to be an important tool to overcome the obstacles of the present difficulties of knowledge production and transmission. That is why instead of lectures and formations we try to organise talks and workshops that would address the general public.

An introduction to İzmir Solidarity Academy (IDA)

by Özer Yersüren

İzmir Solidarity Academy (ODA) is a solidarity platform established in 2016 in Izmir by academics who were faced with state repression for signing the Declaration for Peace and their supporters. In August 2019, the platform became an association and it now pursues its activities as Izmir Solidarity and Scientific Research Association.

IDA aims to respond to state authoritarian and repressive practices, to open a new academic space and to disseminate knowledge production and knowledge among a broad public. To fulfil these objectives, the association has organized numerous open seminars, workshops panels and meetings, which attempted to promote and share critical thinking and knowledge. Since 2019, the association has also conducted projects supported by international organizations. The first project, which aimed to develop the capacity of civil society organizations, was completed in 2020. Another project, conducted in partnership with the Centre for Democracy and Peace Research (CDPR), started in late 2020 and aims to establish a Centre for the Right to the City in Izmir to conduct fieldwork and research, provide public legal education and support community initiatives in relation with the right to the city. Finally, in January 2021, a new project was launched to disseminate knowledge produced by academics and civil society organizations among a broader audience through video contents diffused via new media.

The main challenges faced by IDA members are the illegal and repressive practices to which they have been subjected, and their impact on their lives and careers. As an association, IDA also has to deal with the criminalizing discourses and practices of the political power against critical organizations.

Since its creation, IDA has developed strong solidarities and partnerships with critical organizations and actors in Izmir and the rest of Turkey. It is also integrated in the broader network of solidarity academies and Academics for Peace in Turkey and other countries. At the international level, the relations with other organizations and actors have until now been based on their support to specific projects. In the long term, we hope to be more integrated in international networks, as a condition to open an alternative academic space. In countries such as Turkey, where critical knowledge production and dissemination have become almost impossible, rethinking academia and opening new spaces for discussion appear as the only way.

Part II of this contribution can be found here and part III here.

[1] On the first stage of the process, see Baser, B. , Akgönul, S. and Özturk, A. E. (2017) Academics for Peace’ on Turkey: a case of criminalizing dissent and critical thought via counterterrorism policy, Critical Studies of Terrorism , 10, 274–296. doi:10.1080/17539153.2017.1326559.

[2] A number of articles and studies have been devoted to solidarity academies in Turkey. See for instance Esra Erdem, Kamuran Akın, “Emergent Repertoires of Resistance and Commoning in Higher Education: The Solidarity Academies Movement in Turkey”, South Atlantic Quarterly (2019) 118 (1): 145–163, ; Aslı Odman, “Solidarity Academies : Make a virtue of necessity? ”, Jadaliyya, 14 September 2020,

Noémi Lévy-Aksu is a member of the “Memory and Peace Studies” team at Hafıza Merkezi in Istanbul. She was an assistant professor in history at Boğaziçi University (Istanbul) until 2017, when she was dismissed for signing the Declaration for Peace. In 2019-20, she was the coordinator of “Academia”, a project funded by the European Endowment for Democracy and led by the Centre for Democracy and Peace Research (CDPR), which aimed to strengthen the capacity of eight solidarity academies in Turkey. Noémi was a re:constitution Fellow 2019/20 at the Forum Transregionale Studien.

Ulaş Bayraktar (Kültürhane) was an associate professor of political science until being dismissed for signing the Declaration for Peace. He founded a cafe-library (Kültürhane) with other expelled scholars in Mersin, Turkey. Since then, they organise talks, meetings and social events to sustain their relationship with the public and continue to read, reflect, write and publish for the public good.

Özer Yersüren (İDA) was a MA student in sociology at Galatasaray University and a research assistant at Izmir Dokuz Eylül University until being dismissed for signing the Declaration for Peace. One of the members and founders of İDA, he works as a project coordinator and an advisor for the activities of the association.

Sema Bayraktar (BIRARADA) works on financial systems at Istanbul Bilgi University. One of the Academics for Peace, she served as the chairperson of BIRARADA Association, between 2019-21 . She is also one of the founders of the Green Party in Turkey.

Further articles in the Academic Freedom series on TRAFO:

Pascal Engel, Academic Freedom is the Freedom to Know, 24 February 2021

Gisèle Sapiro, Amr Hamzawy, and Başak Tuğ, Threats to Academic Freedom – Historical and Contemporary Remarks, 17 February 2021

Mitchell G. Ash, The Suppression and Misuses of Academic Freedom During the Nazi Regime, 3 March 2021

Sandra Richter, What Kind of Academic Freedom and for Whom? Karl Jaspers’ Idea of the University, 10 March 2021

Libora Oates-Indruchová, Academic Presses in Czechoslovakia and Hungary under Communist Regimes, 24 March 2021

Balázs Trencsényi, Notes from the Underground: Academic Freedom, (Un)Civil Society, and Kulturkampf in Hungary, 1 April 2021

Amr Hamzawy, The Long-lived “July Republic” and the Abolition of the Egyptian University’s Autonomy, 07 April 2021

Citation: Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (I), in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.04.2021,

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