Canceled panel discussion at Columbia draws rebuff

A panel discussion that was scheduled to take place at the Columbia University on Thursday,
was unexpectedly canceled on Monday, allegedly over an objection from the Turkish government. The topic of the panel discussion was the rule of law in Turkey.

The discussion was to include speakers from Columbia University, Georgetown University,
PEN America, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Alliance for Shared Values (AfSV).

It has been alleged that the likely cause of Turkey’s interference, was the inclusion of the
AfSV, a New York-based umbrella organization for the Gulen Movement. The Gulen group,
led by US-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, is deemed a terrorist organization by Ankara
and is accused by Turkey of instigating the failed 2016 coup.

The AfSV’s chair, Dr. Alp Aslandogan, who was among the panelists, said that his participation
in similar events in the past have also been hampered by Turkish officials.

“In the past few years, I spoke at many venues, and in each venue, I think without exception
when the event was announced the organizers were pressured to cancel the event or
prevent me from speaking,” the Inside Higher Ed quoted Aslandogan as saying. “Basically,
any public venue where my speech is publicized, Turkish diplomats in that city contact
organizers try to cancel the event. They will use a carrot and stick approach to either cancel
the event or drop me as a speaker, so I’m not surprised that this happened here as well.”

On Wednesday, Steve Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for the Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the would-be moderator of the panel,
tweeted about the cancellation, also pointing to possible pressure from the Turkish

“Disappointed to learn that @Columbia’s Provost effectively canceled this
panel two days before the event, citing ‘academic standards’. One can only assume that the
university came under pressure from the gov’t of #Turkey and its supporters. Terrible

Sinan Ciddi, a Ph.D. from Georgetown University, endorsed Cook’s remarks with a post
reading, “@Columbia University canceled this panel at the 11th-hour w/no good reason
offered. I agree w/@stevenacook that this was likely due to pressure from Turkish
government-likely from NYC consulate/embassy.”

A statement from Columbia University spokesman read, “The decisions of several Columbia
faculty and sponsoring institutions to withdraw from Thursday’s panel discussion were a
direct consequence of irregularities in the planning that occurred, including a lack of
transparency concerning panel participants and insufficient consultation in the steps taken
to rectify imbalances in the makeup of the panel.”

The statement suggested that the allegations regarding the involvement of the Turkish government in the panel’s makeup are not true and that they will soon “announce a date later this month for a rescheduled event at Columbia addressing the important subject of
Turkey and the rule of law.”

Cook, however, deemed the postponement as “just an artful way of canceling the event”.

“The only conclusion that anybody can really draw is that Columbia came under significant
pressure from the Turkish government,” Cook was quoted as saying. “As someone who
works on Turkey, I’m not surprised that the Turkish government tried to bring this pressure
to bear. What I am surprised about is that Columbia said, ‘OK.’”

Garry Kasparov, an outspoken critic of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the chair of
the Human Rights Foundation involved in the organizing of the event posted a tweet denouncing the decision. “Terrible of @Columbia to cancel this suddenly. Do they think
human rights under Erdogan shouldn’t be discussed in America, as in Turkey? ‘Academic
standards’ suffer by putting politics & money over knowledge & debate. Requires a full explanation.”

PEN America also issued a statement on the cancellation of the event:

“As an organization dedicated to the defense of freedom of expression and one that has
been deeply involved in issues of free speech on university campuses, we are concerned that
the outreach from the Turkish government may have played any role at all in Columbia’s decision to cancel the panel,” read PEN America’s statement, underlining its concern regarding Ankara’s involvement.

It continued, “The government of Turkey is notorious for its relentless crackdown on
dissidents, writers, journalists, and scholars, including many who are university-affiliated.
Government intrusions in university decision-making of this nature violate academic
freedom and freedom of speech. Universities, scholars, and free speech defenders must be
vigilant in resisting such interference and avoiding even the perception that decisions may
be shaped by government pressure.”

Columbia University has a Turkish studies center that was established several years ago
with a $10 million gift from the family of a Turkish businessman, read the report of Inside
Higher Ed on the event, citing some panelists' views on the likely cause of cancellation.
Ciddi, one of the would-be panelists, stated that he doesn't see any other reason for
Columbia’s move other than pressure from the Turkish government, explaining his reasoning
with “Occam’s razor.”

Ankara initiated a crackdown on the Gulen movement following the failed 2016 coup, jailing
tens of thousands and dismissing more than 150 thousand civil servants from their jobs on
charges of alleged affiliation to the group.

Numerous rights organizations and international bodies condemned Turkey’s conduct, citing what they call as ensuing “severe” rights violations.

The European Parliament urged the EU to suspend membership negotiations with Turkey due to democratic backsliding

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