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“Cleaning out the Ghettos” - Urban Governance and the Remaking of Kurdistan

[Sur district in Diyarbakır, 14 March 2016. Image by Mahmut Bozarslan.] [Sur district in Diyarbakır, 14 March 2016. Image by Mahmut Bozarslan.]

Over the last couple of weeks, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the ruling AKP government have started to lay out the details of the government’s master plan for urban renewal in Turkey’s conflict-ridden Kurdish region in Southeast Anatolia. Though the government announced on 9 March that military operations in Sur had been completed, many of the aspects of the plans remain ambiguous. Nonetheless, it is evident that the government’s aim is to achieve a dramatic spatial and socio-economic reconfiguration of the region. For example, Davutoğlu announced a ten-point “master plan” for Kurdish cities in Turkey that ties notions of terrorism to economic underdevelopment and the languishing nature of urban life in the region. In the announcement, he rebuked HDP municipal leaders in the region for “supporting terrorism instead of making investments,” promising to “fortify” the region’s economy by deferring debts for tradesmen, artists, and farmers, and by offering new loans. And he promised to rebuild Diyarbakır’s historical Sur district “so well that humanity will come back to life” (“Sur'u öyle bir inşa edeceğiz ki insanlık ihya olacak”). In early March, similarly, Davutoğlu announced a “great reconstruction...through which the state will demonstrate its constructive capacity” (“Devlet inşa kudretini de gösterecektir”) to begin in Silopi—a district in the Southeastern city of Şırnak that was set under curfew for over a month until mid-January.

In this article, we discuss how these ideas of revitalization and urban transformation fit into the larger war that the Turkish government has been waging in Kurdistan for the past several months. We examine how the discourses of public housing and ghettoization intersect in order to understand the connections between the capitalization and governmentalization of urban space in Kurdistan. In Turkey, public housing has long been a tool for reorganizing urban spaces and the people who inhabit them. The urban transformation and gentrification of Istanbul, for example, has been the subject of countless academic articles as well as of the acclaimed documentary Ekümenopolis. Conversely, the notion of Kurdish city centers as “ghettos” constitutes a unique discursive turn worth exploring. By forcibly displacing whatever “innocent” civilians may have inhabited these urban spaces and consequently pathologizing these spaces as blighted by terrorism, the Turkish government has legitimized the wholesale liquidation of anyone who did not (or could not) flee from the military occupation. And it has set the stage for long-term forms of structural and economic violence aimed at stamping out oppositional Kurdish lifeworlds.

At bare minimum, what we have witnessed over the past weeks and months in Kurdish cities is the total unmaking of everyday life at the hands of the Turkish government. As a consequence, it is important to be skeptical of the Turkish government’s promises to revitalize and rebuild. Through our examination of public housing and ghettoization within the context of the military occupation, we argue that the Turkish government’s efforts to “sanitize” the space of city centers like Sur, Yüksekova, Silopi and Cizre are ultimately efforts at making them governable and forcing their populations into long-term compliance.

A Brief History of Public Housing in Turkey

The first debate around the AKP’s plans to spatially and socioeconomically reorganize the Kurdish region erupted when the pro-government newspaper Star reported in late December last year that the Public Mass Housing Administration (Toplu Konut İdaresi Başkanlığı, or TOKİ for short) will rebuild the historical Sur district in Diyarbakır one of the centers of conflict. According to the report, TOKİ plans to replace damaged and destroyed buildings with modern, “luxurious” ones.

Before demonstrating how TOKİ figures into the current transformation of urban space in Turkish Kurdistan, we will first explicate its institutional politics to examine how it became the primary—if not sole—regulator of the urban land market.[1] In some ways, the emergence of TOKİ is not an unfamiliar story, following similar trends in global real estate. TOKİ was established in 1984 as the Mass Housing and Public Partnership Administration, four years after the 1980 military coup that is often understood as setting the stage for Turkey’s neoliberal transformation. Initially, TOKİ was primarily responsible for disbursing credit and government monies for housing cooperatives. In 1989, TOKİ’s mission was rearticulated as a program for providing housing to the poor with an emphasis on redressing the ills of informal housing—in particular, the exponential rise in squats and shanties (known in Turkish as gecekondu). With budget cuts and poor management over the course of the 1990s, TOKİ slowly gave up administering public funds for its housing projects, and its public housing capabilities dwindled (the fund it had been drawing from was dissolved in 2001). Though it still held significant swathes of well-located, public, urban land, the Administration lacked the capacity to develop or build upon them. [2]

In 2002, the AKP was elected on a platform that promised economic stability in the wake of the economic crash of 2001. Less than a year later, in 2003, TOKİ was revitalized when the legislature passed a law that opened up significantly more opportunities for partnerships with the private sector. Additionally, government restructuring in 2002 and 2008 outsourced and privatized certain industries (such as tobacco, most notably) and simultaneously granted TOKİ control over much of this land. Simultaneously, the legislation passed a bill that granted sole authority for zoning regulation to TOKİ and sold virtually all state-owned urban land—the sole exception being land owned by the military—to TOKİ. A law passed in 2011 expanded TOKİ’s authority to dispossess inhabitants of gecekondus—an authority most famously deployed in the Ayazma region of Istanbul, in which gecekondus were destroyed for a luxury housing development, leaving poor families entirely homeless. [3] TOKİ, in short, has gained an unprecedented amount of control over rights to very significant portions of urban land.

At the same time, TOKİ’s partnerships with private contractors and construction companies transformed its institutional mandate from emphasizing state-subsidized housing for needy populations to generating sites for financial speculation and capital accumulation. Work by the Networks of Dispossession project shows the degree to which these partnerships are padding the pockets of private contractors as well as state officials. TOKİ’s ascent to the top of the real-estate market in Turkey, therefore, was accomplished through significant changes to existing laws about state property, through the structural reorganization inherent in the AKP-led transformation of the government’s roles and responsibilities, and through the government’s consequent efforts to induct capital into every realm of social life in Turkey.

TOKİ today is a public authority directly under the supervision of the Office of the Prime Minister, but it is also a self-proclaimed advocate for the poor, and it is also a financial institution in dogged pursuit of domestic and international capital investment. It is, in Jean-Françoise Pérouse’s terms, “public as well as private, employer as well as contractor… investor-oriented project developer as well as housing manager, a Robin Hood as well as an unrivaled, unaccountable monarch.”[4] Under the AKP government, TOKİ’s leaders have prided themselves on touting urban revitalization as a technique of enfranchising poor and marginalized communities and populations. In this regard, they offer mortgages of up to twenty-five years that allow low-income populations to become homeowners. Homeownership, they claim, offers financial stability and upward class mobility that is supposed to alleviate divisions among different social groups and contribute to more harmonious urban communities. However, due to the AKP’s private-public partnerships, the process of urban transformation has generated further inequality, rather than mitigating it, disproportionately affecting the very poor and marginalized communities it claims to empower. Under the banner of resolving the housing crisis of Turkey’s city centers, the government has destroyed gecekondus and other informal housing, rendering many occupants homeless, while turning any potential real estate into a site for speculation and rent extraction. As Duygu Parmaksızoğlu explains in an interview with İmre Azem, director of the documentary Ekümenopolis, the process of urban transformation “tears the city apart, splitting it into pieces and turning each of these pieces into potential vehicles for profit, turning them into commodities. In every street, every building, every neighborhood [urban transformation] comes upon, it creates ‘investments’ instead of living spaces.” The emphasis on investments in the case of Istanbul’s urban transformation resonates with Prime Minister Davutoğlu’s promises for the city centers of Kurdistan.

Mortgage Debt as Governmental Technology

In the past, the government has shown on many occasions how effectively it can use TOKİ as an instrument to displace poor residents from potentially valuable areas—not only in the east but also in Istanbul and elsewhere in the country. This displacement has not only a class but also an important ethnic and racial component since many of those neighborhoods and districts targeted are home to large shares of ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual minorities, including Kurds, Alevis, Romani people, and LGBTIQ people. Popular examples from Istanbul are neighborhoods such as Küçükarmutlu in Sarıyer or Okmeydanı in Beyoğlu - both neighborhoods are strongholds of left political activism and mostly inhabited by Alevis. Transforming these areas in favor of middle- and upper-class use while relocating their populations to TOKİ buildings at Istanbul’s periphery will hence not only bring economic benefits but also smash AKP opposition. TOKİ, accordingly, serves not only as a profit-making state agency but also as a governing instrument to ensure political compliance.

A particular story of how this mechanism of compliance works in practice has been recently published in the pro-labor newspaper Evrensel in the form of a letter from an anonymous factory worker in the western industrial city of Gebze who also lives in a TOKİ home under mortgage. The worker lives in a low-income TOKİ home on a fifteen-year mortgage, for which he still has thirteen years of repayment left, at a rate of 530 lira per month. In the lead-up to the most recent elections on November 1, he explains that residents were threatened by TOKİ management: if the ruling AKP government did not win the election, residents’ interest rates would skyrocket and they would lose their homes. He concludes, “In the 1 November election, I was forced to vote for the AKP not as a worker, but as a person paying off a fifteen-year loan on a TOKİ home.”

As the case of this worker shows, long-term mortgage debt operates as a governmental technology, exercising power over the social and political decisions of mortgagors. Threatened by TOKİ officials with a rise in his interest rate, this worker was posed with the choice of voting for the AKP—at the expense of his social, economic, and moral objections—or voting against them, putting his whole family’s economic and housing security in jeopardy. Indebted homeownership, in other words, governed his political participation in a manner that benefits the AKP’s ongoing efforts to consolidate power. Given the scale of TOKİ’s contemporary megaprojects—a housing complex in Gaziantep, for example, intended to house 350,000 people over the next seven years, and more on the way throughout the southeast region—it is easy to see how the proliferation of citizens indebted to long-term mortgages under the control of a state institution would render those citizens dependent upon the state’s continued benevolence, thereby exerting pressures on their everyday lives and political decisions. Indentured to TOKİ by virtue of their mortgages, indebted citizens living in public housing give up the power of political resistance when it risks losing everything.

A similar strategy will most likely be applied in Sur and the other conflict-ridden areas of Kurdistan. In the wake of the controversies surrounding the report in Star mentioned above, the government clarified that it will not erect TOKİ apartments in Sur but instead rebuilt the district after its historical image in the 1930 and 1940s and turn it into a touristic center. Prime Minister Davutoğlu has now also added that they envision Sur to look like Toledo in Spain. The comparison is deeply ironic, given that Toledo is the capital of the Castilla-La Mancha region, which declared limited autonomy from the Spanish government, while the AKP government has ardently rejected discussions of any form of autonomy. Nonetheless, because Sur is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, a major intervention in the built environment is not possible—though the demographics of the area can be altered considerably. This is where TOKİ comes in: TOKİ apartments have already been built outside the historical center of Sur on the peripheries of Diyarbakır. Some of the families living in Sur were resettled as early as 2011. With the ongoing war in the region and the 24-hour curfews, and with hundreds of buildings either entirely destroyed or damaged, Sur’s urban “renewal” may now be easier to realize, given that almost all of Sur’s population has already left the district. While the government has claimed that all original residents will be able to return to Sur, it is likely that at least some who have fled will not come back. If this is the case, this will open the way for a dramatic change of Sur’s social and economic composition without encountering further resistance.

Diyarbakır, Şırnak, and Hakkarı, where the military occupation has been most protracted and intense, are also the regions that gave the most votes to the HDP in the 1 November election. If the case of the aforementioned worker is any indication, then it is likely that the AKP hopes to put significant portions of the HDP-supporting urban Kurdish populations into long-term mortgage debt in TOKİ housing—and in so doing, achieve long-term political submission through enduring forms of structural violence.

In another statement from the beginning of the year, Davutoğlu added that there are plans to move the administrative apparatus from the centers of the cities of Şırnak and Hakkarı to their outer districts. The “ghetto, slum-like” (“getto, varoş şekline dönüşmüş”) settings in the outer districts—namely Yüksekova in Hakkari and Cizre in Şırnak—according to Davutoğlu, will in this course be restructured. It was again the pro-government Star newspaper that headlined Davutoğlu’s statement with the words “the ghettos will be cleaned out.” It seems that the usage of the term “ghetto’ is another important component in the AKP’s current urban political discourse regarding the Southeast.

Constructing—and Destroying—the Kurdish Ghetto

While in academic discourse the question of whether Kurdish ghettos have emerged in some of the urban centers in the west of Turkey has been discussed at length,[5]  and their existence is every now and then suggested in the media, the usage of the term ‘ghetto’ (getto in Turkish) to describe poor neighborhoods in Kurdistan is rather rare. In Turkey, poverty-ridden neighborhoods can be found all over the country and are typically referred to either as gecekondu (shanties) or varoş, which actually means suburb or banlieue, but is used to describe marginalized areas in general.

Historically speaking, the ghetto has been first and foremost characterized by racial or ethnic segregation—rather than explicitly economic segregation. The notion of the ghetto dates back to 16th century Venice, when Jews were forced to live within certain quarters. These Jewish-Venetian ghettos were not necessarily poor but rather characterized by quite lively niche economies. During World War II, the Nazis built ghettos throughout Europe that were intended to round up and sequester Jews, forcing them to work in hard labor and killing them—as in the Warsaw ghetto. The logic of Nazi ghettoization culminated, of course, in the form of concentration and extermination camps. From the 1960s onwards the term “ghetto” gained currency in describing residential segregation of black Americans, particularly in big cities such as New York and Chicago. Today, “ghetto” is typically used to describe relatively marginalized areas inhabited by large shares of ethnic and racial minorities and/or immigrants in the United States and sometimes in Western Europe, though its usage in the European context has been subject to a highly critical debate. [6]

Given the historical context, Davutoğlu’s usage of the term “ghetto” is not a coincidental conflation or a simple replacement of the in Turkey more common terms gecekondu or varoş, but a significant discursive turn that warrants our attention. Particularly because just last year, in April 2015, at the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, Prime Minister Davutoğlu argued, “we do not have ghettos. Ghettos are a European artifact. Where there are ghettos, ethnic discrimination will occur and then genocide.”

The government, therefore, seems to be changing its mind over whether ghettos exist in Turkey or not and also on who is to blame for their existence: according to AKP spokesperson Ömer Çelik, the fact that ghettos have emerged in the largely Kurdish-inhabited southeast of the country is not a sign of ethnic exclusion or a result of racist state politics, but rather is the result of the PKK’s influence in the region and—more recently—the digging of trenches and building of barricades.

This relatively new “ghetto discourse” must of course be understood in relation to the planned urban transformation of the Kurdish region. As the late urban geographer Neil Smith maintained, the perception of crisis and threat is an important part of the gentrification process. Discourses of urban decline, what Smith has famously called the “frontier myth,” construct certain parts of the city (often inhabited by ethnic/racial minorities) as frontier to be (re)conquered by the (white or de-racialized) middle class in the form of an “urban revanchism.”[7] Neoliberal urban policies are hence, according to Smith, supported by non-dialectical—often binary—epistemologies of space such as marking certain neighborhoods as “ghettos.”

This revanchist strategy has been used in other forms in Istanbul as well: in 2007, former TOKİ President Erdoğan Bayraktar stated that the Beyoğlu neighborhood of Tarlabaşı—home to an ethnically diverse group of working-class rural and international immigrants and refugees as well as Roma and LGBTIQ individuals—is the “hearth of terrorism, drugs and a crooked view of the state” ("terörün, uyuşturucunun, devlete çarpık bakmanın yuvası"). The area is currently undergoing one of the most comprehensive urban transformation projects in the city aiming at a more or less complete exchange of the population.[8] The fact that Davutoğlu and other AKP officials now have used the term “ghetto” for the Southeast, of course adds a more clear ethnic/racial dimension to this discourse of urban decline. The discursive construction of the ghetto, then—verging on discrimination and ethnic cleansing, by Davutoğlu’s own logic—is a precondition for the Turkish military’s wholesale destruction of these spaces.

Disaster Capitalism

With the destruction of Southeast Anatolia’s built environment, the “twenty-four hour martial lockdowns” and the constitution of the region as a “frontier” to be conquered, along with the celebratory announcement of urban renewal plans by the AKP government, it seems that the war on the Kurds aims to generate political compliance as well as to inject capital into the region. After the AKP came to power in 2002 the country has undergone a series of drastic neoliberal reforms that were followed by uneven but significant economic growth. Since 2007 this growth has languished. Particularly in the last few years, the AKP has deployed its all-encompassing capacities as the state to build partnerships with the private sector, and has thus sought new ways of encouraging international and national investment. Urban renewal and the construction sector constitute the centerpiece of these attempts.

While the Kurdish region has historically been governed through underdevelopment leaving the population relatively poor and isolated from state services,[9] it seems that we are currently witnessing the dawn of a new form of neoliberal governance. Just as the AKP has been unwilling and unable to continue peace negotiation talks with Kurdish representatives, it has also been unable to push for urban renewal and reinvestment in the Southeast, as the example of Sur and the resistance on part of its residents to relocate is proof of. The destruction of the region’s urban areas—including infrastructure that provides basic needs like electricity and water—and the prolonged curfews that are forcing residents out of their homes have shown to be an effective technique for pushing the AKP’s agenda. Destruction and reconstruction here are two sides of the same neoliberal coin.

This form of “disaster capitalism” has obviously not been invented by the AKP. Canadian journalist Naomi Klein has famously described the relation between natural and man-made catastrophes and capitalist development  in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Klein shows how the continued growth of the free market necessarily depends on the production of crises and disasters as well as on the perpetual mobilization of shock and awe campaigns against terrorists and other sources of moral panic. There is a tautological relationship, she argues, between the increasing securitization of the state and its actors, and the privatization of whatever is left behind in the wake of its destruction. She describes, for example, recently observed big investments by construction companies after the war in Iraq, quoting a contractor who says, “the best time to invest is when there is still blood on the ground.” [10]

What is striking about the Turkish case is how urban renewal plans are gleefully unveiled one by one by the government and pro-government media while the war itself continues, with news of more and more civil casualties on a daily basis. In this sense, the connection between warfare and economic opportunism has probably never been so clearly articulated.

Inhabitants of Kurdish cities have mounted resistance and opposition to the government’s shock and awe campaign for urban transformation. Hakan Sandal and Serhat Arslan argue that the trenches that have been dug in the streets of these Kurdish cities articulate borders for Kurdish autonomy against the Turkish nation-state even as they simultaneously offer protection against state violence and disrupt the military’s mobility. And as one woman in the Sur district of Diyarbakır told journalist Ceyda Karan, “May the ban be lifted; we will come back. They can’t dupe us with TOKİ. We’ll die but we’ll never give up our Sur.”

Not surprisingly, then, as soon as Minister of Interior Efkan Ala announced on 9 March that military operations had come to an end after 103 days (the curfew, however, has not been lifted), many current and former residents began to gather at the barricades. While the government is already waiting in the wings to realize its urban renewal plans, it thus seems that the residents of Sur will not be easily pushed into compliance: against the public-private partnerships that plan to inject capital as a form of governance into Kurdistan’s cities, and in the wake of extraordinary violence, the people are resolved.

[1] Jean-François Pérouse, “Kentsel dönüşüm uygulamalarında belirleyici bir rol üstlenen Toplu Konut İdaresi’nin (TOKİ) belirsiz kimliği üzerinde birkaç saptama,” In İstanbul: Müstesna Şehrin İstisna Hali (Istanbul: Sel Yayınları, 2013), 81-96. See also Tuna Kuyucu and Özlem Ünsal, “‘Urban’ Transformation’ as State-Led Property Transfer: An Analysis of Two Cases of Urban Renewal in Istanbul,” Urban Studies, 47/7 (2010): 1479-1499.

[2] Pérouse, “Kentsel dönüşüm…” See also Ayşe Buğra, “The Immoral Economy of Housing in Turkey,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 22/2 (1998): 303-317.

[3] İmre Azem, Ecumenopolis: City without Limits (Istanbul: Kibrit Films, 2012).

[4] Pérouse, “Kentsel dönüşüm…” 90.

[5] Osman Alacahan and Betül Duman, “Getto tartışmasına bi metropolden bakmak,” International Journal of Social Science, 5/2 (2012): 55-74. See also Ayşe Alican Şen and Bülent Şen “İstanbul'un öteki yüzü ve araftakiler: Suriçi İstanbul’da göç, yoksulluk ve göçmen mekanları,” Süleyman Demirel Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Dergisi 1/21 (2015), 31-58.

[6] Loïc Wacquant, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (London: Polity Books, 2008).

[7] Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (New York: Routledge, 1996).

[8] Tuna Kuyucu and Özlem Ünsal. “Neoliberal Kent Rejimiyle Mücadele: Başıbüyük ve Tarlabaşı’nda Kentsel Dönüşüm ve Direniş,” In İstanbul Nereye?: Küresel Kent, Kültür, Avrupa (Istanbul: Metis, 2011) 85-106.

[9] İsmail Beşikçi, Devletlerarası Sömürge Kürdistan (Paris: Institut Kurd de Paris, 1990), 130-133. For a detailed explanation of the history and political economy that led up to Kurdistan’s uneven development and practices of underdevelopment as governance, see chapter three in İsmail Beşikçi, Doğu Anadolu’nun Düzeni: Sosyo-Ekonomik ve Etnik Temeller (Ankara: E Yayınları, 1970).

[10] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2008), 326.

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