Turkey at a suffocating intersection

The Violence Law can be seen as a site-specific implementation of intensifying methods to oversee the entire population: wholesale detentions and ex post facto indictments have emerged as the preferred method of intimidating, marginalising and criminalising dissenting groups en masse.

Karabekir Akkoyunlu Yağmur Nuhrat
16 October 2013

It may well be that neoliberal premises and practices dominate multiple domains of the globe. Yet, as in any discussion of a universalising discourse, neoliberalism too must be studied with particular attention to regional peculiarities, depending on historical and socio-political contingencies. In Turkey, this system is conjoined with a long-enduring patriarchal state tradition as well as the current government’s particular form of social conservatism. At this murky intersection we confront a Turkey where state policies increasingly control and regulate more and more facets of society. These include everything from aggressive urban planning manoeuvres and the use of new demographic and surveillance techniques to know and monitor the population, to top-down changes to the education system designed to raise a ‘religious youth’ and efforts to standardise gender relations, sexual reproduction and family life.

Bestowing democracy

Take the new ‘democracy package’ recently unveiled by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A number of observers such as Derya Lawrence here and Yavuz Baydar at Al Monitor have noted that while containing several positive albeit half-hearted and seriously delayed reforms – such as limited relaxations on the use of the Kurdish language, the lifting of the headscarf ban in public offices or the country’s first ever legislation against hate crimes – judged against pressing social demands and the government’s power to cater to them, the package fell short of expectations.

Equally revealing as the contents is the way in which the package was drafted, timed and presented: the ‘unveiling’ took place at the end of several weeks of carefully coordinated hype, during which government officials and pro-AKP media worked to embellish the ruling party’s reformist credentials, tarnished following its brutal handling of the Gezi protests this summer.

All the while, the contents of the package remained a mystery and public discussion on it limited to speculation, as it was prepared behind closed doors with no parliamentary or civil society participation. Only those journalists whom the government deems ‘acceptable’ were admitted to the lengthy press conference in which PM Erdoğan introduced ‘the package’, railed against his opponents and refused to take any questions. Pro-AKP media duly declared this a ‘democratic revolution’.

Indeed, the very notion of ‘democracy-in-a-package’ is a fitting symbol of the marriage between state patriarchy, which has long afflicted politics and society in Turkey, and neoliberalism. At this junction, rights belong to the state, not to the people. The state determines what to give, how much and when. It expects recipients to be satisfied with their lot and be thankful for this benevolent gift from the patriarch. The neoliberal twist comes with incessant self-promotion and the designation of the people as consumers with limited choice, rather than as subjects with no choice.

The catch is that while the subjects may become aware of their unfavourable status – and collectively oppose it – consumers, through relentless marketing, are led to believe that they do have limitless choice and are quite free to choose. It comes as no surprise, for instance, that this launch almost coincided with the kick-off for the  unofficial campaign for the March 2014 municipal elections, with billboards across major cities awash with images of PM Erdoğan and relevant AKP municipal heads boasting of past and future successes in improving urban transport networks. Pervasive propaganda effectively manufactures consent. 

Criminalising dissent

What happens to those who fail to show their appreciation for the patriarch’s benevolent gift? A comprehensive report by Amnesty International on the Turkish government’s response to the Gezi protests released days after the ‘democracy package’ offers  depressing testimony. Having recorded with graphic detail “the worst excesses of police violence, during the protests, the failure to bring these abuses to justice and the subsequent prosecution and harassment of those who took part”, the report accuses the Turkish government of “a string of human rights violations on a huge scale”, including, “the wholesale denial of the right to peaceful assembly and violations of the rights to life, liberty and the freedom from torture and ill-treatment.”

Dissent outside permissible forms and spaces is taken as a direct insult and punished harshly. ‘Space’ here must be understood in political as well as physical terms, as government attempted to regulate dissent in these two domains are interrelated. As Ömür Harmanşah explains, local community struggles against aggressive development projects are expressions of political ecology whereby space is politically engaged in an emancipatory fight against alliances of national governments and multinational corporations within neoliberal systems. Therefore, struggles over rights and freedoms are also struggles over space, which PM Erdoğan clearly also understands.

At the height of the Gezi protests, Erdoğan reprimanded demonstrators for disrupting daily life by occupying city centres instead of using the ‘designated demonstration zones’ – vast government-built and controlled spaces lying outside urban centres. “We’ll provide the security”, he even suggested. This was an attempt to literally displace dissent in form and content. And when these attempts failed, this is interpreted as the hissy fits of a small child or as the conspiracies of outside forces, trivialising civil society politics altogether. Indeed, as a number of sources with access to Erdoğan’s entourage have relayed, the prime minister was “personally insulted” by the Gezi protests, genuinely angered at the demonstrators’ ingratitude towards his and his government’s years of selfless service for the country.

It is no wonder then that his ‘democracy package’ bypasses the issues outlined in the Amnesty report. Against these accusations, the AKP government holds steadfast to the narrative that the security forces have performed their task with utmost restraint and professionalism against violent anarchists and terrorists backed by foreign and domestic conspirators. Prime Minister Erdoğan had even praised and rewarded the police for its “legendary heroism” and hinted at further expansion of its powers. His government is now reported to be working on a “police package” that would, among other things, give officers the authority to carry out “pre-emptive arrests” against “potential lawbreakers” and suspected members of illegal organisations, without recourse to a court order. In other words, should the package come before parliament (in which the AKP holds the majority) and become law, ‘suspects’ will be punished not only for past crimes, but for those they have yet to commit. Exempt from the necessity to obtain a court order, officers will act as de facto judges.


Supporters of three rival football teams, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas, unite during a mass anti-government demonstration in Istanbul. Demotix/Reporter#19616. All rights reserved

Towards a “control society”

This would make common practice what has so far been limited to the control and regulation of specific social sites, geographies and communities. Lengthy detention of journalists, students and political activists in Turkey has been noted in recent years, while Kurds have suffered arbitrary arrests and incarceration under draconian anti-terrorism laws for decades.

The prominence of football fans during the Gezi protests as well as the recent “fan group leader operation” that took place in Istanbul on 27 September prompt us to focus on yet another marginalised group in a lucrative and fast globalising sector here – football fans.

The year 2011 marks an important milestone in the regulation of the sphere of football in Turkey since this is when the Turkish parliament passed the “Law to Prevent Violence and Disorder in Sport” (aka the Violence Law) increasing considerably police and private security authority to monitor sporting sites and control fan behaviour.

The law brought into mandatory use a host of technological novelties from individually issued electronic fan cards with chips of information to advanced camera systems inside sports facilities, updated databanks on fan records and detention rooms in stadia for problematic fans. Ostensibly set out to eliminate violence in sports, and mainly in football, the law in effect has brought entire fan populations under the strict and continual control of various state authorities.

The law’s passage can be seen as a ‘housekeeping duty’ attached to and necessitated by the government’s desire to raise Turkey’s standing within the international order by boosting its marketability, profitability and competitiveness in diverse fields, including sports.

“Under our government,” declared Fikret Işık, a deputy from the ruling AKP and head of a parliamentary commission on education, youth and sports, in a 2010 speech, “Turkey has become a paradise for sports organisations.” That was the year when Istanbul was approved as the “World Sports Capital” for 2012, Turkish Airlines signed high profile sponsorship deals with Barcelona FC and Manchester United, and the government-funded, world-class stadium Türk Telekom Arena was inaugurated as the home ground of Galatasaray football club. In 2011, the AKP government launched an intensive and high profile campaign to bring the 2020 Olympics to Istanbul, under the unimaginative slogan “Bridge Together” and the personal direction of PM Erdoğan, ultimately losing out to Tokyo in the final.

Complementing these efforts, the Violence Law came into effect as a judicial practice in the Foucauldian sense, serving to delineate a discourse of security by inventing knowledge about violence and more importantly about ‘potentially violent’ subjects. It is also a formal apparatus, which authorises state policing of these potentially violent subjects both by mobilising actual police and by extensive techniques to monitor them. New stadium designs that promote all-seater sections, security fences, barriers and detention rooms may be reminiscent of Foucault’s denotation of the Panopticon as an “architectural apparatus” of power, but the linking of stadium seats to individual ID cards on which other information about fans is stored and shared with various parties (including police, security, club and football federation officials and the Ministry of Internal Affairs) carry us into a Deleuzian “control society.”

Bozbeyoğlu identifies this shift as a general trend implicating the entire Turkish society, which she demonstrates by discussing the 2010 pilot implementation of electronic ID cards for the whole population. She details the practices that contribute to the emergence of Turkey as a “giant databank” whereby citizens’ inclusion into a system of codes and passwords ensure their formal recognition both in the eyes of the state and the free market.

As such, the Violence Law may be interpreted as a site-specific implementation of intensifying methods to oversee the population. As part of this general trend, wholesale detentions and ex post facto indictments have emerged as the preferred method of intimidating, marginalising and criminalising en masse dissenting groups. This has been the observed pattern not only during the Gezi protests, but in the KCK case that has seen the arrest of thousands of Kurdish activists and politicians, the match-fixing scandal in football, and the Ergenekon trial against suspected coup plotters.

The most recent case in point is the rounding up of 62 fan group leaders of the three major Istanbul football clubs in yet another police raid at the crack of dawn, less than a week after the Beşiktaş versus Galatasaray derby where Beşiktaş fans raided the pitch.

Most were accused of buying and selling season tickets on the black market, and a few of involvement in blackmail, intentional wounding and instigating murder. At the time of writing, 36 of those detained have been released, 18 of them are to receive yearlong football attendance bans as well as travel bans for abroad and only three have been arrested. As released fans left the courthouse, fellow fans and friends greeted them chanting the slogan, “we are fans, not terrorists.”

The way in which these surveillance and policing techniques are legitimised is by continually referring to a discourse of security, anti-violence and in the case of ‘terrorism’, national safety.

Let us stress at this point that it is not our intention to deny or glorify the forms of violence that one may for instance see in football through fan clashes, or the criminality that is/may be involved in the other cases mentioned above. Rather, the specific construction of violence and threat described here creates subject positions for the ‘violent’ that are in turn occupied by further radicalised dissent. In other words, the government’s attempt to delegitimise dissent by marginalising and criminalising it radicalises it and this in turn is used to legitimise the discourse of security through building and reinforcing moral panic.

This is a discourse of security that creates and feeds on the perception of insecurity. Needless to say, this strategy utterly fails – or it never intends in the first place – to address the real causes of violence and criminality found at the shadowy juncture of the neoliberal system and the patriarchal state, with fans increasingly divided across political lines alongside club loyalties, and stadiums more susceptible to violence than ever. Turkish football is still run by the same mafia-like patronage networks that were implicated in the match-fixing scandal; and the culture of legal impunity within the security sector ostensibly targeted by the Ergenekon trials is very much alive, with the police having replaced the Kemalist military as the “regime’s guardians”.

Imposing a social morality

Neither the origins of Turkey’s decisive turn towards neoliberalism nor the roots of its state patriarchy lie with the country’s AKP government. The former can be traced to the 1980 military coup and the latter arguably predates the founding of the Turkish Republic. But Erdoğan’s ruling party has mixed these two formidably, while also adding a third component to the mix: the growing imposition of a social morality based on a conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam and a selective reconstruction of a glorified Ottoman past. Similar to the security discourse, a discourse of public morality permeates every aspect of life in Turkey, whereby the ruling party’s own definitions of accepted social mores are presented and gradually enforced as “society’s norms and values”.

Lifestyle choices and practices that lie outside of these permissible boundaries are shunned from the public’s view, marginalised and forced into shrinking private spaces. This happens both formally – through legal moves, such as tightening controls around the sale, consumption and promotion of alcoholic beverages, or the revised building code that bans the construction of studio apartments (deemed inappropriate for encouraging the ‘bachelor lifestyle’) – and informally, in the shape of comments and interventions by government officials. The recent firing of a female television host on a major private network (whose CEO is the prime minister’s son-in-law) after AKP spokesman Hüseyin Çelik criticised her dress as “too revealing” is a case in point. “We do not intervene against anybody,” Çelik declared, “but this is too extreme. It is unacceptable.”

Defending his comments, Çelik went on to argue that such an appearance would not be tolerated “even in the west.” Oddly enough, AKP officials routinely chastise ‘the west’ for its ‘immorality’ and democratic deficiencies, while also using these (often inaccurately) as yardsticks to justify Turkey’s own encroachments on civil rights and liberties.

Abortion laws in the USA and alcohol restrictions in northern Europe (where consumption rates far surpass those in Turkey) are used to rationalise restrictions here. Erdogan sought to defend the crackdown of Gezi protests by comparing it favourably to the New York City police officers’ treatment of Occupy Wall Street protestors, in which he falsely claimed 17 people were killed.

Meanwhile, Britain’s intrusive surveillance and crowd control techniques serve as an inspiration to those in charge of regulating Turkish football. These examples do not only reveal a superficial understanding of ‘the West’ in Turkey, including the historical and contemporary debates, controversies and crises presently afflicting western societies. They also fly in the face of the AKP’s claim that Turkey has emerged as a pivotal actor that sets its own standards independently and influences those of its neighbours.

The wider systemic trend that moulds the citizen into a ‘registered customer/potential suspect’, mixed with an enduring tradition that perceives state-society relations in a strictly hierarchical manner, plus the effort to re-engineer society on the basis of a restrictive moral worldview has resulted in a suffocating Turkish concoction which is fast evolving into a ‘police state’ and a ‘control society’. At the particular intersection of neoliberalism, state patriarchy and populist conservatism, Turkey’s crises are both globalised and local. Any solution must look to both these domains.    

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