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Prize Recipient for 2017: Hilal Alkan

Dr. Hilal Alkan
Photo: Reinhold Engel
Dr. Hilal Alkan signed a petition opposing the war in the Kurdish territories.

Dr. Hilal Alkan is receiving the “Voltaire Prize for Tolerance, International Understanding and Respect for Differences” in 2017. Alkan, a scholar from Turkey, signed a petition against the war in the Kurdish territories and denounced the actions committed by security forces against civilians. She was subsequently fired from her post. 

In early 2016, more than 2.0000 academics within one week signed a petition opposing the war in the Kurdish territories. They called for independent investigations into the violence in the destroyed cities and denounced the actions committed by security forces against civilians. Among the petition’s signatories was political scientist Dr. Hilal Alkan. Just two days after she signed the petition, she lost her job.

Alkan wrote her dissertation in the social sciences, and she taught and researched at a small private university in Istanbul with about 800 students. In her dissertation at the Open University in the British town of Milton Keynes, Alkan did research on charity organizations in her homeland and compared the work of volunteers. In Istanbul, she examined neighborhood initiatives that dealt with Syrian refugees.

A call for peace, followed by a termination notice

Alkan was aware that by signing the petition she was taking a risk: her job, her scholarly reputation, and her personal safety were on the line. But she did not let that intimidate her. What drove her forward: “If the regime actually manages to remove all of the critical voices from the universities, then students in two generations will no longer know what diversity of opinion or plurality mean.” She continues to watch the situation in Turkey with concern: “Critical minds are being bullied. The administration is trying to shut them up.

In the past months, more than 7,000 staffers at universities in Turkey have been dismissed. Fifteen universities were forced to close because they were suspected of supporting the Gülen movement. More than 450 scholars who, like Hilal Alkan, signed the appeal for peace that was directed at the Turkish government, are now unemployed.

Alkan came to Berlin, where she has lived with her two young children and her husband since October 2016. She is currently working at the Forum for Transregional Studies in Berlin as an EUME Fellow. In the summer she will begin researching at the Alice Salomon Hochschule in Berlin as an Alexander von Humboldt scholarship holder; she will return to the Leibniz Center for the Modern Orient in 2018.

An expert on human rights, herself in exile

In her scholarly work, Alkan remains true to her subject and her approach: She continues to observe real social conditions, developing new research questions based on what she sees. She is currently working on various projects in Berlin that focus on a sociological analysis of the motivations and structures of people who volunteer to help refugees. “These kinds of spontaneous networks are often underestimated, and the people who are actually opening doors are so important,” says Alkan. Without these aid workers, new arrivals would not have access to public health services, or to the school system.

It almost goes without saying that Alkan, as a young social scientist, always includes questions related to equal rights. She is a member of a women’s initiative for peace and is committed to sustainable solidarity in Turkish society, fighting violence against women and enforcing their rights. In order to achieve these aims, Alkan has worked on various projects in London and Turkey and started campaigns. “The ironic thing about the whole affair,” she says with clarity, “is that we, as experts on human rights, migration movements and border control, now have first-hand experience with these subjects.”

Jury decision unanimous

The chairman of the jury, Professor Oliver Günther, Ph.D., explained their choice as follows: “Hilal Alkan is a wonderful choice to be honored with the inaugural Voltaire Prize. She is a young scholar who is acting within an increasingly difficult political environment that cost her her academic position. Yet she has not been discouraged through all of it; she has continued with her work and has not allowed her voice to be silenced. The jury voted unanimously for Hilal Alkan. Their hope is that people like Alkan can serve as role models, upholding the ideals of the Enlightenment for which Voltaire’s name stands, both in the future and specifically in difficult political times.