The Foreign Affairs Symposium (FAS) hosted former head of the Turkish military İlker Başbuğ as its second event this semester on Tuesday. The talk was co-hosted by European Horizons and moderated by Lisel Hintz, assistant professor of International Relations and European Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Protesters disrupted the event during Başbuğ’s talk and as a result the organizers cancelled the question and answer session.
The event was first interrupted by a Hopkins non-affiliate, who condemned the Turkish bombing of Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish district and city in northern Syria. The Kurds, an ethnic minority, have been pushing to create an independent state since the 1970s.
FAS staff and campus security escorted the protester into the lobby, where he continued to shout and repeatedly attempted to re-enter the auditorium.
Before the first protest, Başbuğ delivered opening remarks. He referred to a quote by former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt that “rules are not necessarily sacred — principles are.” Başbuğ said that he has applied this idea to his policy-making.
Başbuğ has been a controversial figure in Turkey. He was convicted during the Ergenekon trials in 2013, in which almost 300 high-profile individuals were accused of being members of Ergenekon, an alleged terrorist organization that was suspected of plotting to overthrow the Turkish government.
Though initially sentenced to life in prison, the Constitutional Court of Turkey overturned his conviction after he claimed that his freedoms had been violated. He was released after 26 months in prison.
Hintz acknowledged the sensitivity of the event and expressed her support for free expression. However, she criticized the way the protest was executed.
“This is a place where you can express dissent, but that’s not the appropriate way to go about it, and it’s not the appropriate time to do it in,” Hintz said.
Given the nature of the event, she was not surprised by the protest.
“We knew that this could be an event in which there could be potential disruptions,” she said. “It’s about an exchange of views; it’s about giving people the time to speak.”
Başbuğ called the protest an act of terrorism.
“What he did is 100 percent a terrorist action,” he said.
The talk then continued, despite the fact that about three-fourths of the audience had left during the first protest.
Hintz noted that the U.S. has previously supported the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a predominantly Kurdish militia group in Syria known for fighting against ISIS. This has caused some tensions in U.S. relations with Turkey.
Başbuğ addressed this and explained that he views YPG as a terrorist organization.
“Any organization that uses terror as a means to get its objectives is a terrorist organization in principle,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference what their object is.”
Three more protesters rose out of their seats and were escorted outside by members of campus security. FAS and European Horizons decided to end the event and evacuate audience members from the building due to security concerns.
Flint Arthur, one of the protesters and a member of Friends of Rojava in America, a Baltimore-based, pro-Kurdish organization, explained after the event that he attended to protest the Turkish government’s attacks on Kurdish people.
“We’re out here protesting that Hopkins is providing a panel for this general that’s been responsible for so much Kurdish death. And he is still justifying the attacks on Afrin,” he said.
According to Arthur, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, has limited free speech and fought Kurds in order to increase his chances at winning the 2019 elections.
“Erdoğan restarted the war with Kurds and destroyed the city of Caesarea and launched the campaign on Afrin to bolster his political position for the elections. They shut down any attempt at speech within Turkey. They just shut down the Women’s March in Turkey. They shut down Kurdish newspapers, television stations,” he said. “Any dissent against the Turkish state... is regarded as terrorism.”
Arthur also believes that the recent arrest of the Turkish regional director of human rights organization Amnesty International demonstrates Turkey’s suppression of free speech.
“They arrested the director of Amnesty International in Turkey. The director of Amnesty International is in jail in Turkey because everyone who disagrees with Turkey’s nationalist, genocidal, hegemonic process is a ‘terrorist,’” he said.
Arthur also said that the talk did not offer an equal opportunity for dissenting opinions and that the question and answer session would not have been sufficient.
“If they wanted to have a discussion, then they would have invited more than just one person to talk a Turkish nationalist position. They didn’t have a discussion. They provided him a platform uncontested to say whatever he wants,” Arthur said.
Seyid Riza Dersimi, who is Kurdish, also protested the event because of Başbuğ’s support of the bombing of the city of Afrin, in which many Kurdish civilians died. Dersimi criticized Hopkins for inviting Başbuğ to speak at FAS.
“Shame on Johns Hopkins bringing this fascist general,” he said. “He kills babies every day, every single day, and this is shameful, Johns Hopkins. They are killing innocent people, they are bombing every day.”
Dersimi also defended his choice to protest, saying that it was a peaceful demonstration.
“I’m very peaceful, I am not attacking no one,” he said. “This is my right. First amendment.”
In an email to The News-Letter, the executive directors of FAS and the executive board of European Horizons addressed the incident in a joint statement.
“While we respect the freedom of expression of every individual who attends our events, the way in which the protesters expressed themselves caused distress to audience members,” they wrote. “We made it clear that they would have an opportunity to voice their opinions during the Q&A segment of our event. However, when it became clear that an orderly discussion could no longer take place, we, along with the campus security on site, had the audience members leave the building due to security concerns.”
FAS and European Horizons acknowledged the role of today’s political climate in expressions of dissent.
“The Foreign Affairs Symposium and European Horizons are non-politically affiliated groups. The views held by our speakers do not necessarily reflect those of our organization, our moderators or our staff members,” they wrote. “With this in mind, we encourage diverse viewpoints at our events. We allot time at each event for a public question and answer session during which attendees may personally address our speakers.”
FAS and European Horizons also addressed concerns of audience safety at future events.
“Foreign Affairs Symposium and European Horizons takes the security of attendees very seriously and will take necessary precautions at our future events to ensure that all those present feel safe,” they wrote.
Senior Omer Kama attended the talk because he is Turkish and was interested in hearing Başbuğ speak.
“It was really exciting to come and see him, but [the protesters] didn’t let him speak, unfortunately,” he said.
Kama believed that the protests were disruptive to the event.
“You couldn’t hear anything [Başbuğ] said,” Kama said, “They should have protested by asking questions. This is America, this is supposed to be a civilized country. Why are they just interrupting the speech instead of asking what, in their minds, would be hard questions?”
Junior Stavros Atlamazoglou attended the talk because he is a member of European Horizons. He was disappointed that the talk ended early.
“He didn’t really talk that much. I would love to get his perspective on a wide variety of issues, but unfortunately we didn’t get the chance,” he said.
He believes that the protests were counterproductive.
“It’s an inefficient way to express your views, because you lose your voice by doing it,” he said.
Atlamazoglou went on to say that the protest resulted in confusion at the event.
“Other than knowing that they were protesting the Afrin operation, we didn’t know the reason why they were protesting, so it would have made more sense for them to just come up during the discussion section and point out particular issues in a peaceful manner,” he said.
Freshman Sofia Ruiz is also a member of European Horizons. She appreciated the protests because they offered her insight into the different views of audience members.
“I’m a big fan of protests,” she said. “I just wish we could’ve had the Q&A session as well.”
Eriza Stephen, a student at the College of William and Mary, also attended the talk. Like Ruiz, she wished she had been able to hear more of Başbuğ’s opinions.
“It really would’ve been interesting to hear more about General Başbuğ’s views on what terrorism is,” she said.
Stephen addressed the effects of the protests on the event and was also disappointed that there was no question and answer session.
“Protests are great. It would’ve been better if they happened outside instead of in the middle of the presentation,” she said, “I was a little disappointed that there was no question and answer period.”
David Saveliev contributed reporting.