Ekrem Mus headshot

Turkish scholar champions democracy

January 31, 2024

For Ekrem Mus, democracy is more than just a subject for scholarly study. It is deeply personal. 

Mus, who holds a doctorate in public policy and administration, was an associate professor at Harran University in Turkey when a failed 2016 military coup led to a government crackdown. During the ensuing two-year state of emergency declared by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s government changed from a parliamentary system to a presidential system that greatly expanded Erdoğan’s authority. 

Many media outlets were shuttered and press freedoms severely curtailed. The Turkish government fired more than 150,000 public sector workers, labeling them “traitors,” often without any proof, in what Amnesty International called a violation of human rights. After losing their jobs, many professors, doctors, police, teachers, parliamentarians, judges, lawyers, and others were consigned to poverty when blacklisting prevented them from seeking other employment. Mus was among those fired.  

Since then, Mus, who had previously served for two decades in the Turkish National Police, including as a chief, spent seven years as a senior research fellow at the London-based nonprofit Global Center for Security Studies. This academic year, he brings his expertise on challenges to democracy and security governance in developing countries to the Jepson School of Leadership Studies as the Cmelikova Visiting International Scholar in Leadership and Ethics.

“Nationalism and populism contribute to democratic backsliding,” he said. “Uneducated people can be easily persuaded by nativist arguments. Erdoğan used the foiled military coup as an excuse to get rid of his political opposition and consolidate his power. He has served as president of Turkey since 2014 and last year was elected to another five-year term.”

In 2023, the World Justice Project ranked Turkey 117 among 142 countries in its rule-of-law index, which measures accountability, just law, open government, and accessible and impartial justice. By comparison, the United States ranked 26.

“This is an early-warning indicator for the U.S.,” Mus said. “We need strong democratic institutions in the U.S. and around the world to reverse the trend of democratic backsliding.”

This semester, the Turkish scholar is teaching the leadership studies class Justice and Civil Society. “I am taking a comparative approach, so students can learn about justice in a global context,” he said. “I bring a criminal justice perspective, with a focus on terrorism and white-collar corruption issues.” 

The course includes three experiential-learning components: a ride-along with the city of Richmond police, volunteering with youth at the nearby Henrico Juvenile Detention Home, and participating in simulation exercises led by the University of Richmond Police Department.

“The URPD-training simulations will mirror real-world situations students could encounter in the criminal justice field,” Mus said. “The training aims to enhance students' decision-making skills, crisis-management capabilities, and overall situational awareness. By exposing students to a range of scenarios, I hope to instill a deeper, more practical understanding of the complexities inherent in law enforcement and social justice.” 

Eventually he wants to return to Turkey to work for a more just, democratic society, he said. But first, he must wait for a change in the country’s autocratic leadership. 

“You can be the best player, but if the coach doesn’t want you, you can’t play.”