chapter  4
25 Pages

State sovereignty and the politics of fear: Ethnography of political violence and the Kurdish struggle in Turkey


As an (ir)resistible phenomenon and an inherent facet of the modern nation-state, fear of the state has become an instrument to secure state sovereignty and maintain control in society through myriad state-sponsored acts of violence. In the modern era, the ‘state of exception’ (Agamben 2005) has become the new rule under which a state’s diverse interventions and violent operations are legitimized. The use of fear and violence by the state has turned these phenomena into powerful determining factors in the making of everyday life and in one’s world(s). Following Sara Ahmed (2003), I use the concept of ‘world(s)’ here to refer to both epistemological and ontological being and life itself. Here, I am mostly interested in the ways in which fear of the state reshapes our lives. The modern state as a sovereign power and fundamental object of fear has gained an ability to operate deeply and intervene in every aspect of personal life and thesocial body by utilizing diverse strategies and techniques such that juridical laws are discarded and human life is transformed into ‘bare life’. The repressive and brutal policies of the state create a ‘culture of fear’ and terror (Sluka 1995, 2000; Carmack 1988; Corradi, Fagen, and Garreton 1992) in which the emotion of fear becomes ‘a way of life’ (Green 1994, 1995, 1999). In its standard definition, the emotion of fear is a response to material or

metaphysical objects or conditions that are perceived as dangerous by subjects (Bourke 2006), who experience fear subjectively and collectively in various ways under diverse conditions. Fear is experienced as a chronic human condition with pervasive and insidious effects on individuals, community, and social memory, through which fear destabilizes social relations and divides communities through the creation of distrust, suspicion, ambiguity, intimidation, and apprehension (Green 1994). In this chapter, I am talking about the lived experiences of fear that derive from state violence, terror, and the counter-violence of an oppositional group. The fact that living with ‘the daily reality of violence’ (De Certeau 1986) in wars and conflicts has become a very common phenomenon requires an investigation into the different objects and forms of fear. On the one hand, the state has its self-manufactured fears toward any rival power or oppositional groups/movements that are also constructed by the state as enemies. The state’s need for internal and external enemies, and its self-construction as an ‘endangered’ entity in relation to its opponents, eventually becomes an instrument for the legitimization of violence and the suppression and elimination of those oppositional powers. On the other hand, the state, which operates with its own manufactured fears, constructs itself as the object of fear through terror and performing various forms of violence against its own citizens who are considered a threat. In other words, the state creates its own internal fears in order to legitimize its illegitimate acts, and then creates and uses fear against the constructed ‘other’ and ‘imagined enemies’ in and beyond national borders. Thus, the state becomes both the subject and the object of fear through its diverse practices. The origins of Kurds’ ‘fear of the state’ can be traced back to the 1920s

and 1930s when the Kurdish struggle erupted due to the violence and

assimilationist policies of the modern Turkish nation-state. The violent suppression of rebellions by state forces were followed by state-sponsored massacres, the execution of rebels and their supporters, and the forced resettlement of family members, which deepened the fear of the state among many Kurds. The civilian population was terrorized by the executions of hundreds of rebels and their supporters on the gallows in town and city squares in the Kurdish region (Kaya 2003; Diken 2005; Yücel 2006; Özsoy and Eris¸ 2007). In many cases, the pictures of executed rebels and their bodies hanging on the gallows were displayed on the front pages of national newspapers. The capital punishment of rebels, their supporters, and families by the state evokes Michel Foucault’s analyses of the display of torture in eighteenth-century France, where Foucault argues that these acts were constantly shown as a means of perpetuating the power of the King (Foucault 1979: 50). State authorities systematically used the construction of gallows at central squares, and left the bodies of executed rebels hanging for days, as a way of intimidating and pacifying the Kurdish people. The state’s act of displaying the dead bodies of executed ‘enemies’ was seen again in the 1990s as sign of continuity and the unchanged policies of the state toward Kurds. The bloody and sometimes mutilated bodies of slain guerrillas were displayed in many town and city squares in the Kurdish region as a strategy of threatening, terrorizing, and humiliating the families of killed guerillas and the local population.2 Therefore, in this article, the life stories and testimonies of Kurdish subjects not only document the atrocities of the state in the war, they also portray various fragments of fear, humiliation, terror, and violence that affected local people in the region. At the beginning of the 1990s, fear of the state intensified due to an

increase in armed clashes, arrests, murders, disappearances, village evacuations, and other atrocities that exacerbated the circumstances in the region.3