Diyarbakır, the political and cultural center of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces, displays its beauty in springtime. The surrounding plains and mountains, dusty and barren during the summer months, shine in shades of green and the rainbow colors of alpine flowers and herbs. Around the walls of the old city, parks bustle with schoolchildren, unemployed young men and refugees who were uprooted from their villages during the Kurdish insurgency in the 1990s. The walls, neglected for decades, have been renovated by Diyarbakır’s mayor, Osman Baydemir of the Democratic Society Party, successor to a series of parties representing Kurdish interests.

Although Baydemir has restored that major symbol of local pride and Kurdish identity, the state has not yet addressed the underlying problems of the city, whose population is believed to have topped one million, and its environs. Unemployment in Diyarbakır is estimated at around 40 percent. The infrastructure is poor. A brief rainstorm can inundate even the relatively upscale shopping district of Ofis in the twinkling of an eye, transforming its streets into unpassable moats of muddy water. Refugees, squatting in buildings clinging to the hills or residing in the informal high-rise suburb of Bağlar, cram the busy streets and squares. Children of all ages and both sexes escape the constraints of their makeshift homes to hawk facial tissues, pens and erasers, or offer their services as shoeshine boys and porters. Even more youngsters, many in shabby school uniforms, others excluded from education for one reason or another, simply hang out, wary of the ubiquitous police with their machine guns.

“Kurdish Problem”

Such Kurdish youth have become the Turkish mainstream media’s new face for the “Kurdish problem,” especially after Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan declared that the “security forces will intervene against the pawns of terrorism, even if they are children or women. Everyone should realize that.” Erdoğan’s comments came in the wake of a week of rioting in Diyarbakır and other southeastern towns in late March and early April 2006, in protest of the killing of 14 combatants of the “People’s Defense Forces,” a group linked to the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK/Kongra-Gel), whose latest ceasefire with the government broke down in the fall of 2005. The April unrest left dead at least 14 other people in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Batman and Mardin. In Diyarbakır, 12 protesters, most of them young men, were shot dead by security forces, though three children, aged three to seven, and a man of 78 were also killed. Conservative estimates mention 400 wounded in Diyarbakır alone, with more than 500 detained for interrogation. The violence spread to Istanbul, where three women passing by a demonstration in a mostly Kurdish-populated suburb were killed by petrol bombs cast by rioters.

Human rights organizations in Diyarbakır speak of at least 200 children taken into police custody and severely beaten after the riots. The Diyarbakır Bar Association says that 80 children between 12 and 18 years of age remain behind bars, accused of “aiding and abetting” the PKK, a charge carrying a maximum jail sentence of 24 years.

Whether the protests were spontaneous or planned by the high command of the PKK/Kongra-Gel, as the Turkish government claims, is hard to establish. The fact that Internet and media outlets close to the PKK/Kongra-Gel immediately circulated the dead militants’ portraits and personal details, together with the highly inflammatory allegation that Turkish security forces had used chemical weapons, suggests some degree of planning. In any event, the ensuing riots in late March and early April reminded Diyarbakır residents and the country’s Kurdish population of the darkest days of the undeclared war in the southeast in the 1990s.

Following the riots, the government hardened its rhetoric toward the Democratic Society Party mayors of Kurdish-populated cities, and dozens of local party chairmen and members in the southeast were taken into custody and charged with “aiding and abetting terrorists.” A draconian draft Law for the Fight Against Terrorism is now being discussed in the relevant committee of Parliament. Once again, it appears, Turkey’s Kurdish question is framed as a national security issue, seemingly interrupting the government’s cautious attempts, under pressure to meet conditions for eventual membership in the European Union, to resolve Kurds’ political grievances. How have matters deteriorated so rapidly, less than two years after lawmakers, promising a “Kurdish spring,” paved the way for Kurdish-language TV and radio programs, even if limited and controlled? Is Turkey no longer a prime example of the moderating effects of the EU’s soft power?

Lethal Cocktail

Turkey’s mainstream media, along with many independent analysts, hailed the EU’s October 3, 2005 decision to start membership talks with Turkey as a historic turning point. The window of opportunity was opened by the commitment of the governing Justice and Development Party (in Turkish, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or the AKP) to legal reform and political liberalization in order to strengthen the democratic system and protections for human rights. Backing for the European project ran at a high 70 percent in Turkey. The emotive drive for a “clean” Turkey was powerfully unifying, allowing the “moderate Islamists” of the AKP, secularists, Kurdish nationalists and, haltingly, the military establishment to join in the chorus of support for the prospect of EU membership. Even if this convergence was a single-issue alliance rather than an ideological realignment, the gradual withdrawal of the military from the sphere of politics and a more inclusive state policy towards ethnic and religious minorities seemed to be at hand.

Within less than a year, however, this coincidence of positions regarding the country’s EU orientation has eroded. This erosion is due to a lethal cocktail of mutually reinforcing trends, each of which the AKP government has failed to contain. An aggressive nationalist discourse, steeped in anti-imperialist and anti-European sentiment, as well as barely veiled xenophobia, has reemerged. The set of actors and practices popularly known as the “deep state” (derin devlet) has reared its head. Finally, turmoil in Turkey’s Middle Eastern backyard has added yet more tension to the precarious domestic situation.


In the last few years, taboos about national history have been lifted in Turkey. Topics that once could not be openly discussed, such as the destruction of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian communities in 1915, the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, and the waves of discriminatory state policies toward non-Muslim minorities, are now in the public eye. There are myriads of new publications on the Armenian genocide, the persecution of Kurds and other minority groups, and a number of conferences and public discussions have been convened, leading portions of the public to rethink Turkish identity and the history of the Republic.

Almost simultaneously, a reactionary brand of Turkish nationalism, infused with Islamist, secularist and/or socialist themes, reinvaded the public sphere. Such a position had been propagated by the maverick ex-Communist leader Doğu Perinçek and his Workers’ Party for several years. More recently, however, this brand of nationalism has become acceptable in the mainstream media and in the public debate. Like most extreme nationalist discourses, it is based on the dual pathology of excessive regard for the “self” and hatred of the resulting multiple “others.” If, in this reading, the EU is reduced to a “club of Christian nations” trying to dismember the territorial unity of Turkey, Kurds appear as the most significant internal “other,” overshadowed only by what is usually referred to as the “Armenian diaspora.” In the new nationalist identity politics, denial of the destruction of Ottoman Armenians, in addition to the suspicion of Kurdish “separatists,” has become one of the central crystallization points of a reaction to the European project and the source of conspiratorial scenarios pertaining to the “dismemberment of the unitary republic.” An April survey conducted by Umut Özkirimli of Istanbul’s Bilgi University, and published in the Tempo weekly, shows that a majority of the public now shares the view that the EU process constitutes a threat to the country’s territorial integrity. Paradoxically, a majority—about 63 percent—also remains supportive of the distant goal of EU membership.

The nationalist-conspiratorial mindset is reproduced in a growing body of semi-factual bestsellers and films that celebrate the history of the Turkish people as a fight for survival against malignant European powers and the neo-colonial United States. Sales of such books easily reach 100,000 copies or more, with Turgut Özakman’s These Mad Turks, depicting the 1919-1923 Turkish war of independence as a heroic, almost supernatural struggle of good against evil, selling more than 700,000 official, and probably as many pirated, copies. If this retrospective response to current developments attempts to repair a “humiliated national pride” with reference to the “golden age” of the War of Independence, the box office hit Valley of the Wolves in Iraq deals with a much more immediate theme. The film, loosely based on a real story, follows a Turkish avenger on his mission to restore national pride after the humiliation of Turkish soldiers by US occupying forces. The protagonist operates outside the law, backed not by state agencies, but by patronage extending from mafia-like organizations, extreme nationalists and “patriotic” individuals within the state apparatus. The stress on “madness” in many of these publications is disconcerting, if not surprising—as is their celebration of violence and illegality as long as it defends the honor of “Turkishness.”

These pop culture manifestations of national pride and suspicion of the outside world might be read as indicators of a public disoriented by the “free market of ideas,” and frustrated by rejectionist and essentialist discourses on Turkey in Europe. The remedy proposed by these books, TV series and movies is the safe haven of familiar nationalist narratives of a past splendor waiting to be restored. As such, their extreme success might be explained, to some extent, by the workings of market forces.

Some commentators, however, argue that there is a concerted effort of “psychological warfare” behind this “retro-nationalist” cultural production. There once was a National Security Council organ actually named the Center for Psychological Warfare, responsible for spreading information and disinformation during the Kurdish insurgency. The center was officially disbanded, yet its structure and political objectives have been taken over by at least one office within the Interior Ministry, the Department for Public Relations. An undisclosed number of agencies within the military and security establishment, along with ultra-nationalist networks, are believed still to be operating in this field. According to an April 4 report in the Islamist newspaper Zaman, the Interior Ministry is concerned to instill in Kurdish schoolchildren a sense of ethnic and religious unity with the Turkish nation through the celebration of “collective victories” in World War I and the war of independence, hence discouraging identification with a “Kurdish cause.”

Many members of the AKP government might be sympathetic to some of this chauvinist rhetoric, especially after their hopes of lifting the headscarf ban in Turkish universities were crushed by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Yet the party’s current inability to set the tone of the debate, and its complete passivity regarding the outbreak of violence in the Kurdish provinces, evokes a more serious transformation: a reshuffling of the actors in the political sphere and their capabilities. There appears to be a creeping transfer of power from the democratically elected government back to the military and security establishments and their formal, semi-formal and extralegal extremities—in short, the “deep state.”

Return of the Deep State?

Signs of renewed PKK operations and clandestine counter-terrorist activities in the southeast have multiplied since November 2005, when a bomb exploded in a bookstore in Şemdinli, a town in the province of Hakkari, close to the Iraqi border. Locals witnessing the attack identified the culprits as three plainclothes gendarmerie intelligence officers. The incident evoked the series of counter-insurgency plots from the 1990s, when the state sought to contain PKK terror with extrajudicial killings carried out by semi-legal anti-terrorism units, the Kurdish Hizballah and paramilitary “village guards” on the state payroll. Although the AKP government promised a transparent investigation of the Şemdinli bombing, regional discontent soon descended into violence, most probably steered by the PKK/Kongra-Gel command. The riots resulted in several protesters being shot dead by security forces.

In a bold move, the chief prosecutor of the province of Van, Ferhat Sarıkaya, drafted an indictment that alluded to relations between the General Command of the Armed Forces and PKK informants, and to the involvement of gendarmerie officers in the Şemdinli incident. The indictment reached the press before court proceedings started, suggesting a political motive of exposing the army’s dealings. In spite of the seriousness of the allegations, the prosecutor was neutralized after the chief of the general staff, Gen. Hilmi Özkök, reportedly contacted Prime Minister Erdoğan and asked for “necessary steps to be taken,” as members of the military were accused. In due course, the Higher Council for Judges and Prosecutors dismissed Sarıkaya from his post and barred him from the legal profession, on the grounds that the indictment might lead to accusations against the army and other state offices. This move was met with widespread dismay from the country’s bar associations and even some senior judges, who declared it a disproportionate intervention at best, and a most serious breach of the judiciary’s independence at worst. Among many Kurds, Sarıkaya’s dismissal was understood as a lack of commitment to accountability for those in the state apparatus who act in a clearly provocative fashion to fuel tensions between Kurds and the state.

Tensions in southeastern towns and migrant quarters of western cities were left to simmer, even if Erdoğan attempted to diffuse anger by acknowledging the “Kurdish problem” and insisting on a “constitutional citizenship” uniting all inhabitants of the country, regardless of ethnic and religious background. With the rising numbers of PKK fighters and soldiers being killed in combat, however, a renewed eruption in the southeast seemed unavoidable, and in April, it occurred.

As a number of commentators put it, this descent into violence resembles comparable instances of social unrest in the late 1970s before the coup of September 12, 1980, and the decade of the Kurdish insurgency that reached its peak in the 1990s and triggered passage of the infamous Anti-Terrorism Law of 1991. The immediate response of the government to the April riots, in the form of the draft Law for the Fight Against Terrorism, evokes the limitations on human rights and personal freedoms facilitated by the 1991 law and administered brutally during the state of emergency in the southeast.

In its current version, the new draft law threatens to make obsolete most liberalizing reforms of the penal code undertaken in the last few years. The draft outlaws not only the “propagation of terrorist groups,” but also the “propagation of the goals of terrorist groups,” an ambiguous formulation that could be applied to penalize legitimate requests such as education in Kurdish, on the grounds that these demands are also advocated by the PKK. The new draft brings back prison sentences of one to three years for the publication of views that are deemed supportive of terrorist groups. In addition, the chief prosecutor of any province would be able to suspend publications, an action hitherto only possible with a court order. Many critics of this draft point to the extensive scope of the definition of terror, which could be used to charge independent journalists and Kurds engaging in legal politics. Furthermore, membership in organizations that advocate changing the constitutional order would be punished with heavy jail sentences, even if violence or incitement to violence is not on the group’s agenda.

The Middle Eastern Front

Developments on Turkey’s Middle Eastern front are further stirring the pot of recrudescent nationalism and assertiveness by the “deep state.” Northern Iraq, or Iraqi Kurdistan, closer than ever to formal independence, is a base for PKK units that continue to infiltrate Turkey across uncontrollable mountainous borders. Some analysts argue that most of the recent incidents would not have been possible without the logistical infrastructure supplied by the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. The unwillingness of US occupying forces to contain the movements of PKK units into Turkish territory is easy to comprehend, as the Kurdish entity in northern Iraq and its leaders remain Washington’s only reliable allies in Iraq. Turkish decision makers, however, are increasingly upset.

Along with PKK infiltration from Iraq, mounting tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and rumors of airstrikes have induced the Turkish military to deploy large army contingents to the Iraqi and Iranian borders and to the urban centers of the southeast. While army sources consistently deny allegations that the deployment is linked to imminent extra-territorial movements of army units, recent incursions into northern Iraq with the aim of targeting PKK positions suggest otherwise. (Websites close to the PKK/Kongra-Gel have documented a few of these raids.) Nevertheless, the relocation of army units to the Kurdish provinces almost certainly has the additional corollary of reestablishing a semi-state of emergency in those provinces, which had just begun to be demilitarized a few years ago.

The AKP’s Low Profile

In State of Exception, Giorgio Agamben refers to President George W. Bush after September 11, 2001 as attempting to produce a “situation in which the emergency becomes the rule, and the very distinction between peace and war (and between foreign and civil war) becomes impossible.” Reviewing the brief history of Turkish democracy since the 1950s, one could safely argue that the notion of “emergency as a rule” has been a structural determinant of Turkish politics, and even more so, the governance of the mostly Kurdish southeast. The hope that the AKP government would use the EU-induced reform process to extirpate the extralegal networks tying the security establishment to the international mafia and extreme nationalists appears to have been unfounded. Recent developments suggest that these networks have remained in place, and can now benefit from the interplay of rising Turkish nationalism, mounting inter-ethnic violence and a comeback of the armed forces to the sphere of politics. All of these phenomena reignite the Sèvres syndrome, the sense of a beleaguered Turkish nation on the verge of extinction, which in turn justifies the politics of exception, namely the suspension of human rights and individual liberties in the fight against “Kurdish terrorism.”

Under these conditions, the EU’s soft power will encounter further roadblocks in Turkey. Should Turkish units make regular sorties into Iraq, and persist in enforcing heavy-handed security measures to quell Kurdish protest in the southeast, Turkish-EU relations are likely to sour. With no PKK ceasefire on the horizon and the ongoing ostracism of elected Kurdish leaders on the one side, and growing inter-ethnic alienation and the threat of a new Kurdish insurgency on the other, the prospects for continuation of the government’s reform course seem bleak. This predicament of the AKP is aggravated by the fact that almost all opposition parties, including the centrist Republican People’s Party of Deniz Baykal, have chosen to attack the government from the right, reverting to the emotive language of an even more hawkish nationalist position. Baykal caused an uproar in Parliament when he alleged that the government intends to pardon the jailed leader of the PKK/Kongra-Gel, Abdullah Öcalan.

Trapped in the power play of multi-party politics, the AKP appears to have chosen to keep a low profile until the presidential elections and possible early elections for Parliament in 2007. Party strategists may believe that mounting tensions over the erosion of the principle of secularism will ultimately strengthen the party’s appeal to its pious core constituents, and help its reelection.

Yet that strategy entails obvious risks, as seen in the aftermath of the May 18 shooting of a senior judge by the far-right lawyer Alparslan Arslan, who was angered by the court’s ruling banning the headscarf for public-sector employees and university students. Though Arslan’s ideology is quite distant from the AKP’s, demonstrators blamed the governing party (which bitterly criticized the court’s ruling) for the shooting, some going so far as to call Erdoğan “a murderer.” If the AKP merely leaves the field to their political opponents, such tensions could intensify, and there could also be a vacuum in policy toward northern Iraq and probably Cyprus, as well as in the southeastern provinces. The security establishment would soon fill such a vacuum, prone as it is to extralegal action in domestic matters and brusqueness in international politics. Should this occur, EU accession talks would be in jeopardy, as would social and economic stability.

An alternative scenario would be possible if the governing AKP regained the political initiative by reestablishing an EU-oriented reformist consensus. Regaining the initiative would mean addressing Kurdish grievances, softening the requirement that parties win 10 percent of the national vote to be seated in Parliament, a rule that effectively excludes Kurdish parties, engaging the Cyprus question in good faith, and resuscitating the process of legal reform. Another important step would be to withdraw or substantially revise the anti-terrorism bill, which in its current iteration is likely to be overruled by the Constitutional Court. This scenario would, however, also require the EU to reach out to Turkey on issues such as Cyprus, which currently appears rather far-fetched.

Grim Prognostications

Angry young men and children in the streets of Diyarbakır say they do not desire to return to the undeclared war of the 1990s, which left more than 35,000 dead, thousands of villages burned and destroyed, and more than a million people displaced from their villages into the packed cities of the southeast as well as metropolises in the west. They also affirm, however, that if “nothing changes,” a “civil war will break out” for which they believe themselves to be “well-prepared.” In the absence of job opportunities, decent living conditions, parliamentary representation for parties sensitive to Kurdish concerns and government recognition of Kurdish grievances, these grim prognostications deserve to be taken seriously.

What can be said with some degree of certainty is that the great expectations vested in the AKP government and in the dream of a shortcut to EU membership were illusory indeed. The government would take a considerable political risk if it committed itself sincerely to clearing the swamp of extralegal ultra-nationalist and mafia organizations, nurtured during the decade of violent conflict in the 1990s, and their mentors in the state apparatus. Without such resolve, a further escalation of violence in the southeast and an increase in hostility between Turkish and Kurdish communities is inescapable. What may happen even in the worst-case scenario is a more realistic evaluation of Turkey’s capacity for and interest in joining the EU. In the words of Philip Robins, Turkey is a “double-gravity state,” condemned by geography and history to exist between and within the state systems of the Middle East and Europe. In any case, before spring turns into summer in Diyarbakır and the rest of Turkey, there will be many cold days.

CORRECTION: Due to an editor’s error, the initial version of this article misleadingly stated that the High Court judge was killed by an “Islamist youth.” The murderer is connected to a fascist-Islamist organization quite far ideologically from the ruling AKP.

How to cite this article:

Kerem Öktem "Return of the Turkish “State of Exception”," Middle East Report Online, June 03, 2006.

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