Turkey: Mind numbing violence in a country where even “insulting President” is a crime

Photo: Courtesy Human Rights Watch

The violence unleashed against political opponents and civilians, and the crackdown on every form of dissent by Turkey’s ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) in the last 18 months is thought shattering

[This article is the introduction to a special supplement of Theory & Event, entitled Something Is Rotten in the State, devoted to the contemporary political context in Turkey. The table of contents and complete issue can be accessed here.]

The political everyday never ceases to be eventful for those who live in Turkey or who follow it closely: the consolation of a smooth veneer disguising the wretched operations of structural violence is a luxury rarely exported to the global south. But what has been unfolding in Turkey since the early summer of 2015 has gone far beyond the usual state of agitation. The violence that has been unleashed onto the political scene after the general elections of June 2015 in which the governing AKP (Justice and Development Party) lost its absolute majority has been immense beyond conception.

One sentence that had been uttered by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before the June elections takes on a particularly sinister significance in retrospect. Addressing a crowd in the southeast Anatolian town of Gaziantep in March 2015, Erdoğan had said: “Give us four hundred deputies and let this issue be resolved peacefully,” referring to the low-intensity war between the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the Turkish state that has lasted for almost forty years and taken more than forty thousand lives.

When the June elections only yielded 261 seats for the AKP, Erdoğan’s threat materialised in the form of a new bloody episode of the war against the PKK, as well as two potentially state-sponsored massacres — Suruç in July and Ankara in October. In the repeat elections of November 2015, the AKP increased its seats to 317. Yet the flood of violence they cynically unleashed is seemingly unstoppable: the war against the PKK rages on, subjecting civilian populations in various Kurdish towns and districts to open-ended and round-the-clock curfews for days, sometimes weeks on end, enforced by threat of summary execution by snipers: as of 5 February 2016, the civilian death toll of these curfews was at least 224, including forty-two children.

This intensification of violence has been complemented by the increasingly fierce crackdown on any form of dissent. Attacks against freedom of assembly have been partially formalized through a new security act passed in April 2015, which broadens police powers to use firearms against, search, and detain protesters, and stipulates lengthy prison terms for various protest related offences.[1] Attacks on freedom of expression take myriad forms: for example, ordinary citizens posting on social media about the president are hounded by a law that criminalizes “insulting” the president (more than 1300 have been prosecuted under this law during Erdoğan’s one-and-a-half-year term as president); and media workers unwilling or unable to toe the line risk losing their livelihood or liberty.[2]

No one is exactly exempt from this crackdown. As this special supplement of Theory & Event was being prepared, our contributor Haydar Darıcı, a PhD student at the University of Michigan, was detained by the police in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakır for participating in a protest that called for the lifting of the curfew in the city’s Sur district. Although eventually released, he is currently subject to a travel ban and awaiting trial on charges of membership of a terrorist organization, doing propaganda on behalf of a terrorist organization, and breaching the law of assembly. His academic work has been used to build the charges against him.

Further, several of the contributors to this issue are, at the time of writing, under a criminal investigation for having signed a “not in my name” petition concerning the war, potentially facing terrorism related charges, as well as charges of “insulting Turkishness.” Colleagues based in Turkish institutions who are among the signatories of this petition are particularly vulnerable. In addition to criminal charges, they are threatened with fascist hate campaigns and formal action by their institutions, including disciplinary proceedings, suspension, and dismissal.

While the petition affair has had a global profile, generating widespread outrage and numerous international petitions and statements of support,[3] its repercussions for individual signatories are likely to be long-lasting in a context where appointments and promotions are already highly politicised.

Thought inevitably attaches to what it already knows. A common trope in much of the oppositional political commentary in Turkey today is that of a “return.” The current regime of repressive authoritarianism is often discussed in terms of a return to, or the return of, the 1980s—the era of the coup d’état. On the other hand, the current state of extreme violence in Turkey’s Kurdistan is often cast in terms of a return to, or the return of, the 1990s—the most brutal years of the war against the PKK before the current episode. Figured as regression—“return to”—the trope indicates its origins in a linear conception of time, whereas “the return of” functions more like a revenant, signaling a cyclical understanding.

A more accurate figuration has been proposed by Zaytung, Turkey’s satirical news outlet, much like The Onion in the US. A recent headline in Zaytung reads: “AKP: Coming to terms with the coup era is best achieved by reliving it.”[4] The party spokespersons are “quoted” as saying: “If we learn by reliving those days, we won’t have to relive those days again.” Here, the ironic commentary implicitly refigures return as reenactment, playing havoc with the linear while reinserting agency into the cyclical. 

Indeed, one of the great ironies of the current moment is that the AKP government, which once promised a departure from Turkey’s entrenched state tradition, now seems to comfortably inhabit that very tradition, albeit with some new furniture. The old regime of military tutelage loyal to the interests of global capital has been replaced by a toxic combination of repressive majoritarianism and the police state, still serving similar interests. The specter of the “deep state” is back on the scene of everyday politics, and with some of the same old faces, despite having been purported to be “eliminated” in highly visible legal spectacles such as the Ergenekon trial.

One notable difference vis-à-vis the extrajudicial today is that the law itself has been rendered more accommodating to its own supersession, and here Turkey is no exception, as states have been empowered by the spectral threat of “terrorism” to reconsolidate raison d’état within the rule of law. President Erdoğan and other government spokespersons’ rhetoric around the current war has made it obvious that they have no qualms about stoking nationalist fervor to fascist effect, another essential resource for the old state tradition.

The one major update that the AKP introduced to this inherited and refortified tradition can be identified as the elimination of the old aggressive secularism that effectively excluded whole segments of the population, especially non-Kemalist devout Muslims, from access to political and economic power. But as Aslı Bâli discusses in her contribution to this issue, the current government has also to some extent seized the traditional articulation of secularism in Turkey, namely state control and regulation of religion, to impose its own vision of religious orthodoxy.

The recognition of such historical continuities does not always alleviate, and sometimes even aggravates, the despair of the moment. It is perhaps necessary to begin from the acknowledgement that the cumulative effect of the events of the past several months have been, literally, thought-shattering. The all too swift resumption of war rhetoric after years of peace talk, the particular intensities of the violence that we have been witnessing (carefully detailed in the contributions of Banu Bargu, Evren Savcı, and Haydar Darıcı in this issue), and the mere fact that the strategy of widespread blackmail between the two elections seems to have worked despite its blatant desperation, have not been easy to assimilate.

This supplementary issue of Theory & Event is in one sense an attempt to begin to pick up the pieces in the midst of these tumultuous times, to think again, to edge our way, collectively and individually, toward making sense from the senseless. It is also an effort to combine an historically informed understanding of this moment with the stray thoughts and affects it has engendered, seeking new horizons amidst the wreckage, while avoiding the commonplaces of the machinery of opinion-production vis-à-vis Turkey.

These reflections are offered in English and hosted by Theory & Event due to a felt necessity not only to rekindle international solidarity, but also to rethink the terms of solidarity. Insofar as the Turkish state continues to play up to international norms of national comportment, holding regular elections, decrying terrorism, speaking of law and order, and selling its gatekeeping services to Fortress Europe, it is critical to identify the wider transnational structures and processes of complicity, as well as the common grounds and horizons of resistance.

The first essay in this collection, Aslı Bâli’s “Shifting into Reverse: Turkish Constitutionalism Under the AKP,” provides a sober account of the AKP’s renegotiation of the Turkish state tradition during its thirteen years in government. Focusing on the trajectory of the party’s constitutional reform efforts allows Bâli both to acknowledge the potential if accidental promise of a more pluralistic agenda initially held out by the AKP, and to carefully trace the party’s gradual reconciliation with the legacy of Turkey’s statist tradition for the sake of consolidating its own power. Importantly, Bâli ends her account with a proposal for strategies of opposition in forthcoming processes of constitutional reform.

In “Another Necropolitics,” Banu Bargu trains her gaze on the spectacularised infliction of violence on dead bodies to make sense of the way that the Turkish state has come to resemble the very violence that it projects onto various enemies and “terrorists.” Bargu proposes that state violence against those who are already dead (for example by refusing them burial, leaving them naked and bloody on the street) indicates a particular form of necropolitics, an attempt to supplement ordinary state violence with a spectacular and calculated form of violence that extends beyond the realm of the living. Reconsidering the powers of mourning “in a political context whose contours are delineated by the politicisation of death, where mourning is already deeply implicated within the lines of demarcation already drawn by necropolitics,” Bargu instead calls for a political imaginary that seeks the basis for a common life in an affirmative conviviality.

In “Revolting Grief,” Evren Savcı also probes the limits and potentials of mourning as political practice. She shows that mourning can be reduced to a personal and apolitical response to state violence but it can also be used as a way to interrogate and interrupt the bases of such violence. The condition of possibility for such intervention is an attunement not only to collective precariousness, but also to forms of precarity and “structures that produce insecurity as a condition of life.” Only then can mourning serve to deeply challenge, rather than simply grieve the situation in contemporary Turkey.

In both Zerrin Özlem Biner and Eray Çaylı’s contributions, we see a less obvious aspect of statecraft: the techniques by which the state dissociates itself from its own violence, through inheritance law in Biner’s essay, and through new genres of official propaganda in Çaylı’s essay.

In “Haunted by Debt: Calculating the Cost of Loss and Violence in Turkey,” Zerrin Özlem Biner details a baffling legal instrument deployed by the government to “redress” the damages caused by the conflict between the PKK and the state. Her account allows insight into how the state recasts itself as arbiter of damages, while perpetuating its vengeance through producing schemes of unpayable debt for its enemies. Biner’s contribution serves as a crystallised account of the nexus between neo-liberalism and state violence.

In "Bear Witness: Embedded Coverage of Turkey's Urban Warfare and the Demarcation of Sovereignty against a Dynamic Exterior," Eray Çaylı analyses a recent vehicle of state propaganda, the TV series Şahit Olun [Bear Witness],which depicts the current conflict in Kurdish towns through a stylised mixing of the genres of embedded war reporting, true crime, citizen journalism, and drone videography. He traces the techniques through which the agency of the state and state agents are represented, with particular attention to the spatial dynamics that are produced as a result of visual representation. In Çaylı’s account, a cinematography of intimacy and identification reconfigures and reconsolidates sovereignty by interiorising the threat while exteriorising state violence.

The final two essays by Haydar Darıcı and Ali B. explore the struggle for stateless spaces and stateless politics in Kurdistan on two sides of the Turkish-Syrian border. In “Of Kurdish Youth and Ditches,” Darıcı draws on his ethnographic research on Kurdish youth politics in Cizre to trace the emergence of a new militant movement that has become the central actor in the current conflict with the Turkish state. Shunning the more traditional Kurdish politics of waiting (i.e. for the Turkish state to negotiate peace with) and victimhood (i.e. as articulated through the language of human rights), the Kurdish youth redefine “the space of politics as well as the meaning of the political” in their struggle for emancipation in the now. They do so not by seeking an alternative form of sovereignty but rather engaging in street politics of self-defense and democratic autonomy.

In “Eroding the State in Rojava,” Ali B details the work in Rojava in seeking to create alternative political forms in light of the patent failures of states and markets in the region (and the world). Rojava is a centre of experimentation with democratic autonomy. New political and economic forms are being produced here even as the communities involved face violence both from Turkey and from the Islamic State, which is literally at their door. As Ali B shows, Rojava is not a utopia by any means and the attempt to stave off state forms is not always successful; nevertheless, a remarkable experiment is underway.

That something is rotten in the state as a form of political organisation becomes particularly conspicuous in a context of unsustainably ruinous violence that is nevertheless sustained by the law, the market, the elections, the geopolitical, the diplomatic, the transnational, and so on. But such a situation also produces practices of resistance and critique that can inform beyond its own context.

This collection of essays draws on these practices of resistance and the work of critique not so much in the way of easy hope and reassurance, but rather as a way of facilitating judgments about what succeeds and what fails. In that sense, they can be read as a collective effort to begin to re-equip ourselves in the face of ruin. The equipment on offer ranges from strategies for negotiating the state in its current guises, to understanding its more insidious articulations and operations, and looking beyond the state to alternative political forms and imaginaries. All this so that we may begin again.

[1] Including, for example, two-and-a-half to four years for concealing one’s face partially or fully with a mask or a piece of cloth. Polis Vazife ve Salâhiyet Kanunu, Jandarma Teşkilat, Görev ve Yetkileri Kanunu ile Bazı Kanunlarda Değişiklik Yapılmasına dair Kanun, Kanun no. 6638, Resmi Gazete, 4 April 2015.

[2] The very high profile case of prominent journalist Can Dündar provides an indication of the threats under which all media workers operate: Can Dündar, “I Revealed the Truth About President Erdoğan and Syria. For That, He Had Me Jailed,” Guardian, 28 December 2015. 

[3] For a fraction of these, see, for example, the letter of concern issued by Scholars at Risk Network and endorsed by close to thirty international higher education networks and associations; the statement by the Modern Language Association; and the letter by the American Sociological Association.    

[4] We translate the headline loosely to better capture its effect: “12 Eylül’le Yüzleşmek Üzere Yola Çıkan Ak Parti: “Önce o dönemi bi’ tekrar yaşamamız gerekiyor…’”, Zaytung, 15 January 2016. 

(Courtesy: Jadaliyya)



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