Tahir Elçi, the president of the bar association in southeastern Diyarbakır province and a determined Kurdish human rights lawyer, was shot dead on Saturday, 28 November, during a press statement he had delivered in Diyarbakır. Photos of Elçi’s dead body lying on the ground quickly overwhelmed social media accounts, symbolizing the deadly difficulty of talking about and fighting for peace at this critical juncture that Turkey, and the region at large, are going through. Despite the fact that Turkey is known for its long history of unsolved political crimes and political violence, Elçi’s assassination is an alarming turning point in the final phase, after the electoral victory of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in the 1 November elections, of consolidating an authoritarian and sectarian police state.
In this essay, I argue that the “new Turkey” the AKP government is forcefully imposing on its citizens goes beyond a mere ideological transformation. It includes a full reorganization of the state’s security apparatus to consolidate an authoritarian and sectarian police state, thoroughly controlled by the AKP government under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The institutionalization of this police state is made possible through a physical war against Kurds that is legitimized by a war of discourse, the complete suppression of dissidence, and the manipulation of regional dynamics. In the rest of the essay, I will elaborate this argument by focusing on three disparate events that happened last week: the assassination of Tahir Elçi; the arrest of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, two journalists at Cumhuriyet daily; and Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military jet with the claim that it violated Turkish airspace. Although these events are independent of one another and thus there is no seemingly causal relationship among them, they come together as pieces of a rather discomforting, and even alarming, puzzle, indicating the deeper transformation toward building the “new Turkey.”
The Physical War against Kurds and the War of Discourse
The country is at war. It is a war of discourse through the constant and willful reproduction by state elites of the infamous friend-enemy binary. But also, it is an actual physical war brutally carried out through a state of emergency in the Kurdish southeastern and eastern Anatolia. The AKP government legitimizes this physical war against its Kurdish citizens through expansively launching a war of discourse against any form of dissidence. In other words, the AKP government has been strategically manipulating, since the 7 June elections, ethnic cleavages and societal fears, leading up to its electoral victory in the re-elections on 1 November.
Following the suicide bombing in Suruç on 20 July that killed thirty-three and injured 104 people, and the killing of two policemen in Șanlıurfa (which was at first claimed by the PKK, although the group then denied responsibility for it), the ceasefire between the Turkish army and the PKK came to an abrupt end. Extensive and intensive securitization policies in what are defined as “special security zones” were quickly put to work in most of the cities and towns of the Kurdish southeast and east, directly targeting life itself. It is important to emphasize here that the state of emergency and curfews continue today.
The death toll increased rapidly during the period between 7 June and 1 November. A total of 229 civilians died and about 595 were injured in incidents not related to the armed struggle. Among these, 101 died and about four hundred were injured in the Ankara suicide bombing. A total of 150 soldiers, policemen, and village guards died and forty-two were injured during the armed struggle, while at the same time, 181 armed guerrilla members died and nineteen were injured. In addition, nine civilians died and 101 were injured as a result of the armed struggle.
Despite the fact that state violence has been a common practice in Turkey since the establishment of the republic in 1923 (and even preceding the founding of the republic), this particular moment is distinctively different, mainly because of the changes made to the security apparatus of the state. Among these are the reorganization of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) under the Council of Ministers and the expansion of the MIT’s access to personal and private information; the expansion of power given to government-appointed mayors over the deployment of security measures, particularly at the local level; and the reorganization of the police force. In other words, the governance of violence has been reorganized in ways toward institutionalizing a police state.
The war of discourse around the constant re-evocation of the friend-enemy binary that has brutally accompanied this physical war against Kurds since 7 June is only possible in this context of hyper-securitization. Such a war of discourse significantly confines the contours of any conversation about, and any political action for, peace, by effectively de-sanctifying any attempt to reason and mobilize. As such, the war of discourse has the ideological capacity to turn anything and everything that is considered a threat to the status quo of the party into an enemy of national unity and security, into a spy against the state. As loyalty to the party—and thus the state—has now become the overt doctrine of the AKP government in the name of assembling the nation together, the search for truth and justice is under severe attack.
Suppression of Dissidence
It is exactly in this context that Elçi became a prominent target, as someone who violated this desired and imagined state of loyalty of the citizen/subject to the party/state. In the aftermath of his remarks as part of a television discussion about the PKK not being a terrorist organization but rather an organization of Kurdish resistance, he became the target of a public verbal lynching and death threats. There was also a court order banning Elçi from international travel. As a symbol of “out-of-the-box” thinking who had the political ability to mediate between different positions through reason and a powerful language of peace, Elçi was systematically turned into a public enemy. His assassination therefore came as no surprise to many, as was painstakingly expressed by Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-leader of the HDP, at Elçi’s funeral.
A total of 5,713 people, the majority of whom are supporters of the Kurdish resistance movement, were taken into custody during the period between 7 June and 9 November. Of these, 1,004 were arrested. There were also attacks on party buildings of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party), as well as lynchings of HDP supporters and Kurdish citizens. In other words, as the most vocal oppositional fraction and the most adamant supporter of freedoms in the Turkish public sphere today, the Kurdish movement and its supporters, Kurdish and Turkish alike, were at the center of this full-fledged attack on dissidence since the 7 June elections.
The arrest of Can Dündar, the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet daily, and Erdem Gül, the paper’s Ankara bureau chief, on 27 November came within this larger context of suppressing dissidence. The two journalists were charged with “spying” and “helping a terrorist organization without being active members of it” after alleging, through photos and video footage published at the newspaper, that Turkey’s intelligence agency sent arms to Islamist rebels in Syria. President Erdoğan personally filed charges against the newspaper, also threatening Dündar in an interview aired on the national television channel right before the November elections.
Regional Dynamics: Rojava and Re-Mapping the Borders
The charges filed against Dündar and Gül—that is, “spying” and “helping a terrorist organization”—demonstrate the highly expansive reach that the war of discourse has over dissidence in Turkey today. These terms have now become the legitimizing grounds for any (arbitrary) attack on freedom of expression. Turkey is ranked number 149 in press freedom out of 180 countries, according to Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 Press Freedom Index. The state of exception that was confined to the Kurdish southeastern and eastern Anatolia during the 1990s has now extended into the entire country.
Besides the actual physical war that the government has launched against its Kurdish citizens, the civil war taking place in Syria, which involves myriad international and regional actors with competing and conflicting interests, contributes to the government’s excessive suppression of dissidence. In fact, the government’s response to the allegations made by the daily Cumhuriyet was that the ammunition had been sent to Turkmens, instead of Islamist groups, fighting in Northern Syria.
There are two important factors that raise the AKP government’s stakes in the war in Syria. One is driven by the sectarian concern to establish a strong Sunni hand in the changing power order in Syria. The second is the government’s discomfort with the rising Kurdish power in Northern Syria, especially following the Rojava revolution. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) is one of the most prominent factions powerfully fighting on the ground against the Islamist rebels, and particularly ISIS. The shooting down of a Russian jet by the Turkish army on 24 November should be interpreted in this context. Although the dynamics and factors behind Turkey’s decision to shoot down the plane are likely to be much more complicated than what appears in public, there are two implications of the decision.
First, it is a declaration—a rather too ambitious one—meant to re-position Turkey in the politico-military field beside the West as an imperial/powerful actor along the Cold War nexus. Bashar Al-Assad still remains in power despite Turkey’s staunch criticism of him since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, and the support Turkey has been giving to the quite heterogeneous and ambiguous mix of Syrian opposition groups that includes Islamist rebels of all factions. Moreover, Russia’s actual military involvement in Syria since September 2015 came as a significant challenge to Turkey’s attempt to limit the rising Kurdish power in Northern Syria, on one hand, and its support to Islamist rebels, on the other. Therefore, Turkey’s decision to shoot down the Russian military jet was part of an attempt to regain power in Syria.
Second, it is also a subtle declaration aimed to position Turkey in the politico-religious field as the legitimate hegemonic actor vis-à-vis the Islamist rebels fighting in Syria. Putin immediately said that the shooting down of the plane “represents a stab in the back by the terrorists,” implying Turkey’s relationship with ISIS. Since then, allegations of Turkey’s relations with ISIS have been at the center of the catfight between Turkey and Russia. It would be naïve to think that Turkey acted without knowing that this action would heat up such a discussion. The dangerous pragmatism of the West (the most recent example of which is the agreement between Turkey and the EU to control the migrant and refugee flow) and the rise of Salafi jihadism across the world provide the AKP government the opportunity to attempt to position itself as the legitimate Sunni actor in the politico-religious field.
What Is Our Political Imaginary for the Future?
We are living through dark times, not only in Turkey, but also across the world. In the particular case of Turkey, what makes this juncture critical is that it underlines a deeper transformation of the state, but also of the nation. The state is being consolidated as an authoritarian police state, while at the same time the nation is reengineered based on a sectarian imagination.
At this critical juncture, we should all earnestly ask ourselves the following questions: What is our political imaginary for the future? What kind of a country do we want to live in? What do we need to do to build such a future? Debating and answering these questions is much more pressing than ever. It is a time that urgently calls for an honest self-reflection about our societal fears. This requires a confrontation with historical injustices.
If the state is significantly failing to protect its citizens’ right to have rights—and thus the right to have a life—as equals, we are left with the political and moral responsibility of demanding it begin to do so, in full solidarity with one another despite our differences. Politics is not a kind of magic that happens to us tomorrow by some visible hand or power. Politics happens today through our deliberate choices to act or not to. Through silence and dismissal, we contribute to every death, to every bit of suffering, and to every other catastrophe.
I would like to thank the Turkey Page editors for their useful comments in revising this essay.
 For a discussion of political parties’ strategic deployment of ethnic, racial, and religious cleavages toward political articulation, see Cihan Tugal, Cedric de Leon, and Manali Desai, “Political Articulation: Parties and the Constitution of Cleavages in the United States, India, and Turkey,” Sociological Theory 27:3 (2009): 193-219.
 See this report by the Human Rights Association (IHD).
 See this report by the Human Rights Association (IHD).
 See this essay by Metin Gurcan for an analysis of the incident.