It has been quite a week. While Turkish higher education is under serious threat once again, the greatest hope for academic freedom lies in the hands of university students head-banging on campus to Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.” Their generation points the way to a new style of protesting.
It all started when Melih Bulu was appointed head of Turkey’s prestigious Boğaziçi University. This is the second time an unelected rector has come to power on campus. This time, however, the man appointed by the government is not even a Boğaziçi professor. In fact, he is close to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), having been one of their parliamentary candidates in 2015.
Melih Bulu’s appointment as rector gave rise to immediate indignation. Boğaziçi students and faculty members decried the university’s takeover through a kayyum. While in English “trustee” or “caretaker” sounds innocent enough, the Turkish word brings to mind the 1980 military coup regime as well as the AKP’s practice of replacing elected municipalities (particularly in the Kurdish-majority southeast) with their own appointees. Since the coup attempt of 2016, the AKP has brought the kayyum back to campuses by directly appointing university rectors without elections.
And so when news of Bulu’s appointment broke earlier this week, students protested the decision on the grounds that it is undemocratic. They also objected to Bulu in particular, arguing that his appointment is based not on merit but cozy ties with the ruling party. Fuel was added to the flames when it came out that several of Bulu’s academic writings were plagiarized. These texts, including his dissertation, have long sections that appear to be copied word-for-word from other sources.
On Jan. 4, students began streaming onto campus to express their discontent. Yet they were blocked from entering by a massive crowd of police using tear gas and barricades. In a highly and symbolic moment, police closed the entrance to campus by locking the gate with handcuffs. Not only was academic freedom under threat, the university itself appeared to be under arrest. Undeterred, students continued to gather and protest.
In an attempt to calm the storm, Bulu gave an interview on live TV. He echoed pro-government media in describing the protests as a “provocation” by outside forces and distant from the “standard protest culture of Boğaziçi.” At the same time, Bulu tried to present himself as a relatable guy and a true Boğaziçili (he is a graduate of the university). “I am a rector who listens to hard rock, to Metallica,” he told viewers.
Despite Bulu’s insinuations, what the students did next perfectly exemplified the “protest culture” of their school. The following day, students continued their protests, this time to a heavy soundtrack of “Master of Puppets” and “Nothing Else Matters.” This is the moment where the protests began to feel lighter and more playful. Though the students faced fierce police repression, with at least 17 students taken into custody in dawn raids on January 5, they also brought humour into their struggle.
The heavy metal jokes quickly proliferated, one of the best being a re-design of the Metallica logo with the words “Resign, Melih” in the familiar lightening font. Another witty student showed up to the protest with a decal of Melih Bulu on her fingernail. This pun on the Turkish phrase for “in quotations” (“within the nail”) quickly went viral on social media.
The students also revealed their sense of history with a performance of composer and singer Ruhi Su’s 1977 song “Ellerinde Pankartlar.” The song was originally written to commemorate the “Bloody Sunday” of 16 February 1969. On that day, 76 student organizations partnered to protest the latest docking of the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet in Istanbul’s Bosphorus strait. The students protesting American imperialism and the Vietnam War were attacked by nationalist and religious groups, who chased the protesters with knives and swords. Two were killed.
By singing and dancing to this song, the Boğaziçi students placed their own struggle in the longer history of university activism in Turkey. They also showed that they know their history better than pro-government trolls, who falsely described Ruhi Su’s composition as the “anthem” of a banned left-wing militant organization.
Yet the references weren’t all as historical. During a particularly hilarious moment, students serenaded the rector with an acapella version of Spice Girl-esque mega-group Hepsi’s 2005 hit “Yalan,” or “Lie.” Facing the administration building, they sang: “Our love was so naive / Lie! / No one can separate us / Lie! / We’re together until death / Lie!”
All these jokes, jabs, puns, and allusions are perfectly characteristic of Boğaziçi’s student culture, which is fiercely independent and blazingly witty, but also the culture of best of Turkey’s students as a whole.
It also brings to mind the Gezi Park protests of 2013, which also combined lighthearted humour and viral lampooning with hard dedication and sacrifice on the streets.
We should be wary of hasty comparisons between today’s Boğaziçi protests and Gezi, for the latter happened when today’s university students were 11 or 12 years old. For many reasons, including ever-increasing tactics of repression, another Gezi is not possible. Yet there might still be hope that Generation Z will now have its moment in the sun, though it will of course do it in its own style.
If these protests are to coalesce into a movement, it is crucial that solidarity spread to other campuses. Voices of support have already come from Istanbul Technical University and Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. Yet students far beyond these more prestigious schools are dealing with the same problems and have similar anxieties about the state of their educational freedoms.
Meanwhile, another natural ally of the Boğaziçi struggle is those who are suffering from their own kayyums, particularly the People’s Democracy Party municipalities. While some commentators have accused “elite” university students of only protesting caretakerships when it affects them, this could be a moment for building alliances.
Finally, whilst managing all this, it is clear that today’s young protesters will preserve their own protest culture: ironic, playful, historical, and—when necessary—metal.