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Erik-Jan Zürcher: from Turkey to LIAS and innovative learning

Erik-Jan Zürcher’s time as Professor of Turkish Studies has come to an end. He can look back on an illustrious career – he recently became a Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion – but as the Academic Director of LIAS (Leiden Institute for Area Studies), he is also looking ahead: because why, in fact, doesn’t Leiden have any non-teaching periods?

Zürcher has devoted his entire academic career to Turkey. His standard work on that country – Turkey: A Modern History, first published in 1993 – has been translated into ten languages, and the Turkish edition reprinted more than 25 times. With a smile, he agrees that it is his most important academic achievement. And as befits a true educationalist, he conjures up a mini-lecture as he tries to explain what he finds so enthralling about the country: “Turkey and the countries around it are a microcosm where transitions to the modern world can be seen in very clear focus. From the ashes of a 600-year-old Muslim empire, a new nation state emerged. That’s very interesting as a process, and makes Turkey tremendously fascinating.”

‘My thesis was like throwing a stone into the pond; now it’s generally accepted’ 

With his books, he has rewritten Turkish history. “Turkish people were saying: the Ottoman Empire ends after the First World War, the Republic begins, and we’ve carried over very little from the Empire. The founder Atatürk said that he had created the Republic himself, against the opposition of others. But I said that that was untrue. It’s a very sensitive issue, especially because all my books have been translated into Turkish.” As a result, Zürcher became part of the debate in Turkey. “It has some interesting aspects: you become relevant for debates between different people there.” 

Even though he also made enemies through this, he never had any problems with entering the country. He was constantly invited to give lectures, often by academics and journalists who were already critical, he says. “It can have advantages to ask an outsider to speak; then you can quote what they say, or have that work read to your students, because you didn’t write it yourself. The idea gradually spread. My thesis about continuity in Turkey – that the Turkish Republic wasn’t actually new, as Atatürk claimed – was like throwing a stone into the pond, back in 1984: very controversial. It has now become generally accepted by serious historians. I think it’s wonderful, because then you’re not only changing something among your colleagues, you’re also influencing how a country looks at its own history.” 

‘Erdogan is turning back modern culture’ 

He is very worried by the current developments in the country that he knows so well. Not only the world, but also the Turkish people themselves should be concerned, he warns. “The policy of the current president Erdogan is turning back the modern culture that Atatürk and his followers tried to disseminate, re-establishing a paternalistic, conservative culture. Turkey is distancing itself more and more from the European Union and the Transatlantic world, and seeking alliance with Russia and China, which creates tensions for Turkish people living in other countries.” 

The mass dismissal of more than 1500 Turkish academics who had signed a peace petition, and were then prosecuted or had to flee, was the last straw for Zürcher. After more than ten years, he gave back a medal awarded to him by the Turkish government in 2005. Was it because Turkey had disappointed him? “You could certainly see it that way. It was a protest against an attack on the university system, but also disappointment because it was originally awarded to me for my attempts to show why Turkey could become a member of the EU. I got it wrong. This Turkey, as it’s been designed by Erdogan and his circle, really can’t become a member.” 

 ‘I want a non-teaching block every year’ 

Last June, Zürcher was appointed for two years as the Academic Director of Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS). He shares his duties with Professor Nira Wickramasinghe (Modern South Asian Studies), who is responsible for the research profile. Zürcher is concentrating on how LIAS is organised. In addition to the Institute developing more research questions of its own, through collaboration between scholars from the various specialisations, Zürcher is arguing the case for non-teaching periods. They are not part of the current Dutch university system, and they would be good for researchers at Leiden: “In the Netherlands only 20 percent of your time is guaranteed research time. But if you want to do something larger-scale, you need to be able to immerse yourself in it. You never hear people complaining about too much research, but you do about too much teaching. I want a non-teaching block every year. We need to move towards a situation where people don’t feel that teaching is a burden; then they’ll be able to work more undisturbed and our performances will also improve." 

New learning module 

Zürcher demonstrates the importance of innovative learning on his mobile phone: a new study website based on his own standard work on Turkey. A gift from his colleagues at his farewell symposium, “because they know I think innovation in education is very important”. There are now dozens of self-study modules, and hopefully later hundreds, he says as he scrolls through the topics. “Everything’s based on a section from the book; it has videos, photographs and reports that you can view, and you’re given research questions. Fantastic! Colleagues or graduates can keep adding as many modules as they like; a dynamic learning environment that can be used anywhere.” 

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