Photo: Özkan Öztaş / Twitter
State and Society in Turkey after the Earthquakes: Initial Reflections
In PerspectiveIn this two-part essay, I want to lay out my initial observations and reflections about the state and society’s responses in the aftermath of the massive disaster in Turkey. The first part below focuses on the question of “where is this state” [nerde bu devlet], which is an everyday rhetorical phrase in Turkish society. The emotional baggage behind this question is complex, context-specific, and most of the time ambivalent. Here, it is sufficient to note that it is an ironical inquiry pointing out the absence of the state along with implicating the futility of asking this question. The second part will tackle civil society, self-organizations, and solidarity efforts around the question of “will a people united never be defeated”, inspired by Pueblo Unido, the popular Chilean song by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún, which is one of the most powerful anthems of popular movements and leftist groups across the world including Turkey.
1st Part: Where is This State? A country under the rubble
Two massive earthquakes on Monday, February 6, 2023, shattered Turkey. The official death toll is announced to be over 30 thousand as I am writing this. It is excruciating that rescue missions failed to reach out to many affected areas during the critical 72 hours after the earthquakes. The quakes hit a dozen of cities in Southern and South Eastern parts of Turkey which host a population of over 13 million, along with affecting large areas in the north of Syria and Rojava. Most of us, the people of Turkey, have little trust in the numbers announced by public authorities. This parallels our broken trust in the Turkish state’s capacity, coordination, and intention to help its citizens during a massive disaster situation, at least those without personal connections to state officials, which practically means the AKP government and the party’s parliament members.
On the morning of the first earthquake, people outside the disaster zone began to think about how to help. AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency) is the central state agency, that is responsible for coordinating and conducting search and rescue missions, and holds the prerogative to collect financial aid from citizens for disaster relief. However, many people preferred to donate to AHBAP (Anadolu Halk ve Barış Platformu/ Anatolian People and Peace Platform), a voluntary organization active in issues such as humanitarian emergencies and social assistance. Ironically, the founder and public face of AHBAP, Haluk Levent is a rock musician who was trialed in more than one fraud cases in the 2000s. In the last years, he has maintained a wholesome image with the humanitarian solidarity campaigns which he initiated and become a beloved public figure that is broadly appreciated in the heavily polarized Turkish society. Levent comes from a left-wing social background as an Arab Alawite from Adana and the name of his organization, whose acronym means “friend” in colloquial speech, involves the terms that are part of the vernacular left-wing culture in Turkey. Levent carefully refrains from antagonizing the AKP officials and cooperates with public authorities, which has enabled him to raise huge amounts of donations from celebrities and pro-government companies so far, which he announces on his social media accounts.
It tells a lot about the last decade in Turkey under the authoritarian rule of the AKP, that people put more trust in Haluk Levent’s AHBAP rather than the state’s AFAD, even before this lack of trust was quickly validated during the critical first few days after the earthquakes. AFAD buildings in the quake zones, which store valuable equipment for search and rescue operations, collapsed, and due to a lack of proper organization, the AFAD teams failed to reach out to many locations that are severely affected. Even after they arrived, they did not have the necessary machinery for rescue operations. The earthquake tax, which was put in action for rebuilding after the 1999 quake in the Marmara region, was prolonged by the AKP government in 2003 for an unlimited time and amounts to almost 4.5 billion euros as of 2023. Expecting any transparency and reliable public or civic monitoring on how this money was spent is superfluous considering the co-option of the entire state apparatus by the AKP in the last decade and the heavy repression of independent civil society. Given the failure of the AFAD and other state departments to coordinate the search and rescue missions and relief action, there was news that some state officials propose calling in the United Nations for the coordination of disaster relief efforts. On the other hand, AFAD teams and security forces are expropriating relief assistance goods that reach the quake zones and obstructing the rescue and relief operations of local civil organizations.
Where is the state?
Tens of thousands of people are still under the rubble as I am writing this and considering the cold weather and the loss of much critical time, what could have been saved was lost. Despite survivors’ voices still being heard in many sites, authorities decided to stop the rescue operations and initiated rubble removal. Cases of looting and severe issues with the safety of survivors were reported in several locations, including the town Antakya, which hosts the Arab Alewite population of Turkey, and the Syrian migrants. In return, there was news about agitated people trying to guard their collapsed buildings, violent conflicts among groups, and attacks against migrants, who are seen as the culprit of looting under the boiling anti-migrant sentiments in Turkish society.
As most of the mainstream media, meaning the TV channels and newspapers, are strictly controlled by the government and serve as its propaganda tool, people have resorted to social media for “reliable” news along with sharing their calls for help. “Where is this state?”, many citizens cried in front of their collapsed buildings when they saw cameras around. However, any words that could slightly condemn the public officials or hint at the failure of the state’s rescue and relief operations, were censored by interrupting the speakers or cutting the live stream.
On the third day of the disaster, Twitter was restricted in Turkey, which is a chronic response of the government when there is a national crisis and large numbers of people share information that contradicts AKP’s “official” version of events and pose criticisms to any public officials, far and foremost president and the AKP leader Tayyip Erdoğan. The Twitter block, which was implemented in the most critical hours after the disaster, stopped communication with the outside world of the people under the rubble and their relatives, most of whom managed to get out of the collapsed buildings on their own or with the help of local rescue groups. We probably will never know how many lives were lost because of the Twitter restriction. Furthermore, independent media sources reported that government officials negotiated with the Twitter office in Turkey for the shutting down of several influential accounts, which was rejected.
On the fourth day, the government declared state of emergency rule for three months in the ten cities affected by the quakes. The nationwide state of emergency rule after the coup attempt lasted for three years and was primarily utilized to extend the AKP’s control over the state including the judiciary and the armed forces and to consolidate Erdoğan’s one-man rule along with suppressing the independent civil society and incarcerating important opposition figures. Hence, many people are concerned that the AKP will try to postpone the general election, which is supposed to take place until 18 June 2023, deriving force from the state of emergency rule in order to avoid a much possible defeat.
This very instance is where the state becomes present along with many: Where Erdoğan, in his first public speech after the disaster, threatens that state prosecutors will start legal action against the social media users who spread “fake” news. Where Twitter is banned during the most critical hours for survival, causing the deaths of many. Where the AFAD teams are removed from the collapsed buildings under which there are “ordinary” citizens and dispatched to rescue the relatives and recover the possessions of government officials instead. Where pro-government media begins to target AHBAP, as it is an organization relatively autonomous from the state, because of the large amount of donations and widespread public appreciation it receives. Where the state of emergency is declared but the emergent needs of the people are painfully neglected. Where government officials decides to stop the rescue operations early because they fail to conduct life-saving excavations in the rubble areas where they have to locate the survivors, which is now causing serious public health issues due to a lack of proper sanitation measures.
Trust in the double lives of the state
State is a curious matter of dubious feelings, especially in Turkey. Here, I return to the issue that I raised in the beginning, namely trust in the state. Philip Abrams (1988) proposes a distinction between state-system and state-idea, wherein the former refers to the institutional materiality of the state and the latter is its ideational aspect as an ideological project, a mask that legitimizes subjection and obscures “the institutionalization of political power in the state system” by misrepresenting “the actual disunity and incoherence of the workings of political power and government practices” (Sharma & Gupta, 2006, p. 46). Trust in these double lives of the state, as an idea and as an institution of governance and a set of material everyday practices, can work in opposite ways. I argue that this is the case for a broad section of society in Turkey, specifically but not only the right-wing voters which make up around 60 percent of the population. That is, while people have lesser trust in the everyday goodness and impartiality of the state as a body that can protect and provide for its citizens, they can still enthusiastically exalt the idea of the state as a precious entity to be defended. I should note that this deficiency of trust was already present before the AKP government, however, it has been aggravated by the virtual evaporation of the separation of powers and the erosion of independent judiciary and freedom of speech in the last decade. In this landscape, people habitually navigate the brokenness of the everyday state via investing in clientelist networks and pleading with their influential relatives, or patrons, to get things done in the state bureaucracy or to ask for privileges and favors.
When it comes to the trust in state-idea, mainstream media for years has pumped up an omnipresent, omnipotent image of the Turkish state under the AKP rule as the unyielding protector of Muslims against the morally corrupt and scheming West and a decisive actor in world politics that always possesses a master plan. This representation is built upon contemporary jingoistic conspiracy theories as well as the past popular imaginaries of nationalist right-wing politics in Turkey, which is termed the Turkish-Islamic synthesis (Açıkel, 1996; Sağlam, 2022). What has been new in this representation during the last decade is the centrality of Tayyip Erdoğan as the leader figure, a holy sultan, the patrimonial authority. Erdoğan has been identified with the state while the state has been turned into a mechanism that sustains and reproduces his absolute rule and prosperity through the political machinery of the AKP government.
I claim that understanding the dynamics and particularities of trust in the everyday material existence of the state and the state as an idea in Turkey is an essential consideration. It is critical for researchers of contemporary Turkey along with the political movements which intend to fight against, create influence over, capture, or dismantle the state apparatus for the well-being of the many. The disaster that Turkey experiences now appears to be altering the coordinates of trust in the state, given the horrendous failure of public authorities which gives away the “true” nature of the state. The people of Turkey are in tremendous mobilization for disaster relief now. Self-organizations and political activism for healing the wounds of the millions affected by the earthquakes and bringing the responsible actors, such as the public authorities who allowed the construction of buildings in high-risk areas, to justice will definitely shape how the future of Turkey unfolds.
Abrams, P. 1988. Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State. Journal of Historical Sociology 1(1):58–89.
Açıkel, F. 1996. Kutsal Mazlumluğun Psikopatolojisi. Toplum ve Bilim 70: 153-198
Saglam, E. 2022. Subjectivity, Mobilization, and Everyday Politics: Insights from Reconfigurations of Conspiracy Theories in Turkey. Social Research: An International Quarterly, 89(3), 831-857.
Sharma, A. & Gupta, A. 2006. Introduction. In The Anthropology of the State: A Reader (eds. A. Sharma and A. Gupta), Blackwell. pp. 1-48.