Columbia University abruptly called off a panel scheduled for this evening on the collapse of the rule in law in Turkey in what several panelists say was likely a result of pressure from the Turkish government.
Columbia -- which under the leadership of President Lee Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar, has fashioned itself as a bastion for free speech protections and famously defended a speaking invitation in 2007 to the then Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- denied the decision was a result of outside pressure. University officials did not answer questions posed about the panel but said there were "irregularities" in the planning process for the event and that several Columbia faculty and institutes had withdrawn their support. The event was originally going to be co-hosted by Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute and Columbia's Global Freedom of Expression project, an academic initiative founded by Bollinger.
Panelists said the seeming source of the controversy was the inclusion on the panel of Y. Alp Aslandogan, the president of the Alliance for Shared Values, a New York-based umbrella organization for the Hizmet movement, which is led by Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric whom Turkey's government blames for a 2016 coup attempt (Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S., has denied involvement). The panel was organized with an outside institution, the Human Rights Foundation, and in addition to Aslandogan included speakers from Columbia and Georgetown Universities, PEN America, and the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Everything seemed fine, and they were going through the final preparations for everything," said Steven Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the would-be moderator of the panel. "Then Monday night the folks from Human Rights Foundation called me saying they had a letter from the provost saying they were postponing the event because there wasn't adequate consultation on the composition of the panel and it doesn't meet Columbia's academic standards and they look forward to working with them for another panel at another time. For me and everyone else, this was just an artful way of canceling the event."
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