Where every man is enemy to every man … continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. … To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent, that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place.
Hobbes, the Leviathan
Dan Slater’s Ordering Power holds a particularly succinct explanation of what it takes for authoritarian rulers to obtain and exercise power: “Their goal is to convince social forces that they have more to fear from each other than from the state, nipping potential cross-class democratic coalitions in the bud”. If people “associate authoritarianism with order and democracy with disorder, authoritarian rule can become so consolidated as to appear utterly permanent”
His conclusions about the staying-power of authoritarian systems seem like common sense at first sight. However, Slater shows through the examples of infamous Southeast Asian regimes that authoritarian leviathans are meticulous in how they organise political and social power to undermine democracy. Democracy is closest to destruction when “every man is enemy to every man,” because it is only then that it becomes possible to appropriate state institutions and social fields through establishing irrefutable power. It is exactly this enmity between citizens, the mutual mistrust and unwillingness to live together in diversity, that describes social relations in today’s Turkey.
Turkey is fast becoming a country where political and social polarization spirals into self-destruction. A survey conducted by the Association of Corporate Social Responsibility and German Marshall Fund’s (GMF) office in Ankara on the “Dimensions of Polarization in Turkey” revealed that partisan polarisation extended far beyond the political realm into neighbourhoods, business relations, friendships and even extended families, creating bitter divides at every level of daily life. People do not want to conduct business or become friends with those who support parties they feel isolated by or distanced from.
The survey results are almost dystopian in their reach: “83 percent of the respondents do not want their daughter to marry someone voting for the party they feel distant to; 78 percent reject the idea of doing business with someone voting for the “other” party; and perhaps most dramatically, 74 percent reject the idea of his or her children playing with the children of someone who votes for the other party”.
What is really shocking is that reactions to social and ethical issues are also informed by this deep social polarisation; people abstain from reacting to an ethically and morally wrong course of action if it is seen to be against their party line. Even common social problems like child abuse, violence against women and discrimination receive partisan reactions.
For instance, AKP voters did not desert the party, although the majority of them believed that four ministers and Erdoğan’s family were involved in the 2013 corruption scandal. They even turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of 45 children in the dormitories of Ensar Vakfı, a charity organisation close to the government. On the other hand, adding to this disturbing trend of partisan reactions, several far right and Islamist groups affiliated themselves with the AKP whilst openly called for attacks to LGBTI pride 2016 “to prevent perverts to carry out their fantasies on this land” recalling Islamic and traditional values of Turkey.
In pluralist democracies, diversity is woven together through tolerance and mutual will to live together. In deeply polarised societies like Turkey however, social cohesion and democratic culture – essentially based on seeking reconciliation between groups – cannot be guaranteed.
The anti-pluralism of the AKP has long capitalised on a continuous sense of crisis and denial of legitimacy to the parliamentary opposition and any displays of civic dissidence. This form of reactionary despotism would not be possible without securitising every aspect of daily life and entrenching social polarization by creating imagined internal and external enemies who conspire against Turkey: ‘üst akıl’ as Erdoğan recently labelled it, conspiratorially referring to a superior foreign enemy that controls all other enemies of the country and nation.
Of course, in this game of securitisation, what is defined as threat and security takes many forms. The government pits people against each other along social-economic, ethnic and religious lines. The polarisation of society was so visible in the narrative told of Gezi protesters conspiring with ‘foreign lobby’ against the ‘advanced democracy’ and economic growth brought to Turkey by the AKP. Then, just a few months later, the Kurdish issue was redefined from ‘normality’ of peace process to being an ‘emergency’ and security threat. The renewal of conflict has fuelled fear, curtailed freedoms and justified exceptional measures, police violence and human rights violations in several southeastern provinces.
The southeast’s increased securitisation
Since the start of round-the-clock curfews in Turkey’s southeast in the summer of 2015, special forces and the police have carried out operations in residential areas with heavy weapons, especially in Cizre, Sur, Silopi and Yüksekova. The government persistently claimed that the security forces targeted PKK militants and explosives hidden in the cities, and not the civilian population. Yet, the level of civilian harm the curfews incurred was revealed once journalists, human rights organisations, and HDP and CHP were allowed into the region.
Reports showed that civilians, including children, were among the dead. According to the recent data provided by Human Rights Foundation, from August 16th, 2015, the date the curfew was declared, until February 2016, “at least 224 civilians (42 children, 31 women, 30 people over the age 60) lost their lives”. Based on interviews with locals in the region, Human Rights Watch confirmed that during the extended curfews in late 2015, wounded people were denied access to medical treatment, the local population was deprived of water, electricity and food, and were forced to leave their homes to escape the heavy fighting.
There are now more than 350,000 internally displaced people. In Sur alone, the population fell from 24,000 to just 2,000 according to a report by the CHP. Recent photos published from the region once again proved the level of destruction to urban and residential areas, as well as sites of cultural heritage.
When the residents of Cizre were finally able to return to the destroyed city, they found their houses plundered, destroyed and burnt. Personal belongings from people’s bedrooms were intentionally exposed, such as women’s underwear were left next to sexist writings on the walls. People found ‘letters’ from the occupiers offering them ‘symbolic payments’ of 5 Turkish liras (1.5 euros) in return for using their houses – another way of telling residents that they, and their homes, are worthless.
If not the military itself, then factions within the Special Forces were out to wage a psychological war against civilians due to their Kurdish ethnicity. Few people in Turkey questioned the humanitarian and legal dimensions of the destruction done by the state in the region.
The state response to Kilis
Not only has the state failed to ensure the integrity and dignity of its Kurdish citizens, it has also so far failed to respond adequately to the Syrian civil war. The price of Turkey’s power play is high, as what is at stake is not only democracy but also human security within Turkey.
Suicide bombings and destruction of border cities by ISIS shellfire has become the new norm for citizens living in border regions. In early 2016, the border town of Kilis came under rocket fire which left 21 people dead and more than 100 injured. Attacks have ended as silently as they started. Yet, it is curious why ISIS attacks in the region have not attracted even meager attention from the pro-AKP media, despite the city being a government stronghold. In its November 2015 elections, the AKP received 65% of votes, while the closest competitor, the MHP, got only 18%.
There was almost no discussion about the reason for the attacks or the security measures undertaken by the government to protect citizens as any discussion would likely to trigger a public criticism of Turkey’s policy in Syria and reignite allegations of direct links to ISIS.
The government’s response – to pay a lump sum to the families of the deceased – provoked much anger and resentment among the local population however. Subsequently worsened as the amount was much less than what is paid to families of soldiers killed by PKK. Yet on the quickly shifting terrain of Turkish politics, the attacks were soon forgotten.
The anxiety and fear in Kilis continues however, one month on from the attacks. Houses and public buildings targeted by ISIS rockets are still waiting to be repaired as the local authorities do not make upfront payments to citizens whose houses were damaged, but reimburse the costs for those who can prove the expenses.
With the arrival of Syrian refugees, the population of Kilis has more than doubled, causing a boom in housing demand. Residents tell of how they repaired old buildings and rented them out to Syrians for a minimum of 300 Turkish liras per month, a valuable new source of income given the low cost of living in the area.
Now, as a considerable part of the local population – including some refugees – have left the city, economic hardship has become a pressing issue on the remaining locals, adding to the weight of their troubles. And yet, despite what they have experienced in the past few months, people are unwilling to openly criticise the government for fear of arrest or exclusion from government aid. Where people would speak, resentment was expressed only on condition of anonymity from municipality and local governorship workers as most of them are either elected by the AKP or voted for the party.
Conflict with the PKK and a potential for direct clashes with ISIS resurrected familiar national security fears in Turkey, displacing the chance for much needed social cohesion and reconciliation. In the midst of the chaos and anxiety, the AKP presents itself as the only force strong enough to protect ‘the nation’. Where an authoritarian government is seen to be people’s best bet in a deeply polarised society, human security and dignity can be easily discarded.
In Turkey, it is from their own state that people’s greatest threat comes, not from one another or some external foe. But Turkey’s main problem may no longer be the AKP. The deep polarisation that has penetrated every aspect of life is often overshadowed by aggressive and intimidating political discourse and conspiracies.
Even if the AKP were to disappear from the political scene tomorrow, any government replacing it, left or right-wing, single party or coalition, would face a huge challenge in trying to reconcile the deep divides and break the vicious cycle of mistrust which continually fuels conflict and discontent in Turkey’s fragile patchwork society.
Note: The author would like to thank Usame Yabancı, a volunteer and humanitarian aid worker in Kilis and the broader region, for the extensive and first-hand coverage and photos on the recent situation in Kilis after the rocket attacks by ISIS.