Two men lie on their sides on the cobblestone, looking sideways toward the car’s tires. A heavy winter boot bears down on the right cheek of one of these men. From behind we hear voices: “Get the uniforms, come,” and then, from whoever is wearing that boot, something indistinct, like a curse, and then the boot kicks the man in the face: quick, a brush with the cheek and forehead, it seems, just to scare him. These are the plunderers, and now they’ve been caught. The video has been shared 1,220 times; there are others in this vein. Justice has been served.
Next in my Twitter feed: the response. Two young men appear, with round faces, scraggly beards, and bruises and bleeding around the eyes. “We are the youths you have seen in the video that has been making the rounds. . . . We are not plunderers. We went downtown, my cousin and I, to get the medicine that our family urgently needed. On our way back, members of the security forces, seeing my backpack and the medicine in our hands, treated us like plunderers, took us behind a building and beat us, innocent earthquake victims, mercilessly. . . . We are not plunderers. We are Turkish youth who love our country and were there to take care of our needs.”
Three days after two earthquakes, 7.7 and 7.6 on the Richter scale, rippled across ten Turkish provinces and a swath of northwestern Syria, displacing as many as thirteen million people on the Turkish side alone, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared a state of exception in the affected region. This measure, he said, would give him the powers needed to combat “plunderers” (yağmacılar) who take advantage of the chaos to rob upstanding citizens.
No one really knows who the plunderers are meant to be. Some seem to think they are Syrian refugees. Thus Selahattin Demirtaş, imprisoned leader of the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), which will soon be banned, calls on us to dismiss rumors of refugees “plundering” collapsed buildings. Others, friends of mine, say that the plunderers are real. They have some friends in Kahramanmaraş who now live in a car. A man came and knocked on the window, said that the governor had announced that the local dam had broken, the place would soon be flooded. Having no passable streets before them, rubble blocking the car, they got out and ran for their lives, and were robbed.
The current death toll of the two Kahramanmaraş earthquakes—over forty thousand—is over one hundred times the human cost of the failed military coup of 2016, and is steadily approaching the number of people who have died in four decades of guerilla war between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It is a catastrophe that is sadly not without precedent.
Slow violence is not slow in Turkey. Anyone living here over the past decade has witnessed a long train of disasters, some partly “natural” and others wholly human in origin. Fires, floods, train crashes, terrorist attacks and collapsing mines have flickered across the screen of public attention, a string of massacres uniformly brought on by negligence if not active malice on the part of a state that reacts by burnishing its own emergency powers, cracking down on critical scrutiny, and punishing the victims. Death comes quickly, in large numbers, and without accountability on the part of those in power. On the contrary: the culprits keep winning elections, and not even necessarily by cheating.
For the first several days after the earthquake on February 6, the government’s primary focus was not on relieving suffering but on punishing dissent. In the quake’s immediate aftermath, Erdoğan was quick to complain that “a campaign is being run against [his] person.” Social media users took issue with the way Erdoğan had called the mayors of municipalities affected—but only the ones in his own party. Once the president got around to calling the others, one critic writes, his local prosecutor contacted him. He would now face legal action for making a claim that had retrospectively become slanderous. When a lawyer tweeted “where is the state?” after searching in vain for his own relatives amid the rubble, prosecutors opened an investigation against him on charges of “insulting the state.”
Five days later after the earthquake, the authorities began to confront the crisis in earnest. On Saturday, Erdoğan declared that public university dorms would house refugees from the earthquakes while students would be sent home for a semester of distance learning. The day the president’s announcement was made, a video appeared of officials forcing students out of dormitories, including one young woman who lost her own parents in the earthquake. The step has drawn criticism from academics discouraged by the decline in learning standards during the Covid-19 era, and one prominent economist has called for the state to house survivors on military bases instead. But of all the institutions that the government could disrupt for the good of the earthquake victims, academia is an opportune one, as campuses are bastions of opposition.
The country’s disaster relief apparatus, the Disaster and Relief Management Presidency (AFAD), is one of several government bodies to see its share of the state budget decline in recent years, as funds are redirected to the Presidential Directorate of Religious Affairs. Initially established in 1924 to channel Sunni Muslim piety into paths compatible with the authority of the secular state, the Directorate has ballooned under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, becoming its main propaganda organ and an instrument of its agenda of “raising a religious generation.” Alongside its traditional duties of maintaining mosques, employing imams, and publishing devotional literature, the Directorate now makes its voice heard in the religion classes that Erdoğan has spread to all educational levels and in televised advertisements for anti-LGBT rallies.
From 2022 to 2023, the government shrank AFAD’s budget by one third, from 12.1 billion to 8 billion Turkish liras (TL), while expanding the Directorate’s funding by 56 percent, from just under 23 billion to almost 36 billion TL: more than the Foreign and Culture Ministries combined. The Directorate’s budget is projected to rise by another 60 percent of its current level by 2025, reaching 49.8 billion TL, while AFAD’s will be just over ten billion: still lower than its budget for 2022.
What relatively little money is spent on AFAD does not necessarily go toward disaster relief. Though Turkish citizens pay a telecommunications tax officially meant for solidifying buildings to withstand earthquakes, Erdoğan and his ministers have revealed on multiple occasions that the money has largely been spent on infrastructure projects and paying back an IMF loan. At the request of oppositional parliamentarians, the state’s court of accounts reported that some 7.7 million TL of the agency’s 10.7 million TL budget for 2021 had been spent on “capital transfer.” In response to the parliamentarians’ questions, AFAD claimed that it had passed the money on to the state’s Mass Housing Development Administration (TOKİ) “for building housing.”
Religion in Turkey is a state monopoly, a fact that the government’s response to the earthquakes has clarified. AFAD’s “general director of disaster intervention,” Ismail Palakoğlu, is a theologian who had no career experience in disaster relief before being appointed to the position in 2018. The staffing of the agency with people chosen according to their proximity to the ruling party, not professional qualifications, has not escaped notice. In an internal document that reached BirGün newspaper on February 3, AFAD employees even alluded to this weakness in criticizing their own agency’s response to a much smaller earthquake near the Black Sea cost in November 2022, noting that “instead of civil engineers, we have assembled teams of teachers and imams.”
In the critical first forty hours of rescue efforts this time around, AFAD was clearly overstretched, reportedly sending 9,000 people to a part of the region where five million needed help. Social media and the few remaining oppositional newspapers swam with reports from locations where people were trapped under rubble and AFAD personnel had not been seen. Yet the state has not been passive. Within four days of the earthquake, the Directorate announced that it had mobilized 2,500 “spiritual advisors” to console the victims. Pictures of “mobile prayer rooms” sent to the region inspired mockery from the irreverent, who thought they looked like port-a-potties, while an acute shortage of actual toilets made life even more difficult for survivors, an untold number of whom froze to death in the winter night.
As the death toll grew, AKP leaders’ response went from ineffective to actively harmful. Noting that AFAD had not yet appeared at sites where relatives were buried under the remains of their homes, people in the region turned quickly to Twitter to organize relief on their own. As desperate survivors posted the coordinates of their lost friends and relatives, makeshift rescue and aid instructions mixed with criticism of the state response. On the third day of the crisis, the authorities blocked access to Twitter in Turkey.
Not wanting to see AFAD upstaged, government spokesmen have mounted a propaganda campaign against private charities. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said that donating to any organization but AFAD was a “provocation,” a word customarily used in reference to political gestures that threaten public security. A particular target is the nationally famous aging rocker Haluk Levent, whose charity Ahbap (“Buddy”) has mobilized hundreds of millions of lira to collect supplies for survivors, and to repair damaged schools and medical facilities.
From the first day of the crisis, the question “AFAD or Ahbap?” became a popular entry on Turkish wiki sites. Under the rhetorical onslaught of AKP media, Levent has assured the government that he means no harm to AFAD, pleading with his owns supporters to say that “both AFAD and Ahbap are ours,” and underlining that he had already signed a protocol of cooperation with AFAD. This was not enough for Soylu, who threatened legal action against “those who think they can go step for step with the state.”
While Erdoğan’s opponents noted survivors’ complaints about AFAD’s absence at sites where their relatives had gone missing, his supporters hounded rescuers who do not enjoy an AKP-sanctioned identity. When an Israeli rescue team that had saved nineteen lives abandoned their work upon receiving an intelligence report of a threat to their lives, the pro-government Yeni Akit newspaper made the forcible removal of the “spies in search-and-rescue disguise” sound like heroic resistance to Zionism. When Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, a star of the oppositional Republican People’s Party (CHP), announced the municipality’s own relief efforts in an outdoor speech, a former AKP parliamentarian heckled him as a “lacky of the British.”
In spite of the government’s attitude, the Turkish population has shown a heroic readiness to help the afflicted. The student council building of a university where I donated supplies was floor-to-ceiling full of boxes within hours of opening its relief effort, and many students were leaving their studies to volunteer full-time. On the initiative of both local governments and hotel management, hundreds of hotels in the tourist centers of the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts are opening their doors to earthquake victims. Volunteering for service in the thousands, miners have put their lives at risk and their skills at work by digging under the wreckage to extract survivors.
The miners’ intervention is especially meaningful, as it comes from a part of the population already peculiarly exposed to this kind of disaster. Part of the neoliberal program that won the AKP accolades from the world business press after its rise to power in 2002 was an aggressive sell-off of state-owned enterprises, including mines. As a result, the already grievous problem of fatal “work accidents” in the country’s mines got a lot worse.
The worst of several such cases was a fire that broke out in Soma on the Aegean coast in 2014, in a lignite mine whose owner had boasted that “due to the methods of the private sector,” he had been able to cut operating costs by 80 percent. In a mine, operating costs are largely safety costs, and when the fire broke out, the emergency doors inside the mine were locked shut, consigning three hundred and one miners to what a pro-government talking head called “a sweet death” by carbon monoxide. CHP parliamentarians recalled the complaints they had lodged months before on behalf of Soma miners protesting the lack of safety, and which the government had ignored.
When Erdoğan and his entourage visited Soma, his advisor kicked a man who was protesting the death of his relatives. Erdoğan commented that the miners’ death was part of the fıtrat (divinely sanctioned lot) of “this job,” just as, in similar mine disasters elsewhere, he has said that it was their “fate,” and forwarded further questions to his Director of Religious Affairs.
In the mandatory religion classes first imposed on Turkish schools by the military junta that also launched Turkey’s turn to neoliberalism in the early 1980’s, every Muslim child learns that fate (kader) is a pillar of Islam, one of the few non-negotiable articles of faith. In the popular mind, the concept is strongly linked with the moment of death. One pious former student of mine told me that kader was etymologically connected to kadar, a word meaning “until,” as in “until that date,” and illustrated the concept of fate by way of the Greek figure Atropos cutting the strings of life. Only through such associations can one make sense of the much publicized claim, by a physicist (!), that those who died in the earthquake were fated to do so, and would have died at that moment even if they had been “on Mars.”
Whether or not Erdoğan’s appeals to “fate” corresponds to authentic Islam, I am not qualified to say, and I have met several sincere Muslims who have stopped attending Friday prayer sessions out of disgust with the way the Directorate has turned every sermon into AKP propaganda. In any case, fate is very useful to the ruling party. Because it counts as religious doctrine, criticism of its rhetorical deployment can be considered hate speech; police are now investigating journalists Merdan Yanardağ and Enver Aysever for commentary that allegedly stirs hatred against the faithful.
Turkey’s physical location and topography render it rich in renewable resources like wind and water power, agriculture, and the coal that features prominently in the AKP’s extractivist policies, but it also makes the country vulnerable to a wide range of natural disasters. The Anatolian peninsula—what the ancients called Asia Minor—is surrounded on three sides by seas and not coincidentally is the meeting place of several major fault lines running along the coasts.
Turkey is no stranger to massive earthquakes. In 1999 one shook the eastern part of metropolitan Istanbul from its epicenter in the town of Yalova, killing over eighteen thousand people. To say that its lessons have not been learned is both an understatement and an oversimplification. Some people have learned the lesson that safety standards in construction are capital; dire warnings by Turkish geologists are not hard to come by, and fears of “the big one” hitting Istanbul are enough of a subterranean premise in Turkish popular culture to furnish the plot of a widely circulated gothic movie. To understand why Turkish officialdom has not implemented this underground awareness, one must grasp what is at stake in taming the lawless construction sector.
On one hand, there is the desire to appeal to a population that relies on cheap and unsafe housing. In the intense urbanization of the last several decades of Turkish development, many small contractors put up houses literally overnight on public land, generally on steep hillsides or on the fringes of cities, for families fleeing failed farms and dying villages in favor of an uncertain life of urban wage labor. The custom is to let these houses “built at night” (gecekondu) stand, though the state does have the right to demolish them and periodically does so. On the other hand, large-scale construction has been a mammoth industry in the last twenty years and a staple of the AKP’s political economy, both in the private sector and through huge public works projects put up by the state.
The AKP’s first decade in power was a favorable time for Turkish capitalism. With interest rates at historic lows in the West, capital flowed into high-risk “emerging markets,” stimulating what economist Erinç Yeldan calls “speculation-led growth.” Portfolio accounts seeking higher rates invested foreign exchange in Turkish banks, making funds available for lending to business and inflating the TL enough to make import goods affordable to Turkish consumers.
Amid the resulting retail and credit boom, the construction sector was poised to absorb the lion’s share of an economic growth funded largely by short-term loans. The state pursued infrastructure and housing improvements, aiming to enhance real estate values further. The way this growth was financed resulted in growing current-account deficits and private-sector debt, but even now that the bubble has burst, new contracts continue to enrich businesses with AKP ties. Many of these new buildings now lie in ruins, including multiple public hospitals; in the province of Hatay, not one hospital was operating at full capacity in the two days after the earthquakes.
The unthinkable death toll—as of February 19, official sources list 41,456 dead and over 100,000 injured in Turkey, and at least 5,800 dead in Syria—still falls far short of the 200,000 people whom geophysicist Ahmet Ercan estimated to be caught under the rubble of over six thousand collapsed buildings a week ago. As days pass, survival under the rubble becomes ever more unlikely, though successful rescues by AFAD personnel continue to appear on television over subtitles announcing a “miracle” (mucize). On February 8 Dr. Ercan called on the authorities to release a full list of all the missing, but a response was not forthcoming. If his calculations are correct, then the final count is likely to be significantly higher.
Of these dead, how many could have been rescued had AFAD been better funded, or alternative rescue efforts not blocked by the state? What would the earthquake-stricken landscape look like if the AKP-connected construction industry had had to abide by building codes?
On February 16, authorities counted 61,722 buildings either heavily damaged or in urgent need of demolition. Yet the presence of sound buildings standing firm in some of the hardest-hit areas demonstrates that the destruction could have been far less severe. In one district of the Hatay province, not one building collapsed and no one died in the earthquake, though on all sides the neighboring districts were ravaged. The exceptional district’s mayor, who had been both admired and mocked for his extreme punctiliousness, told journalists that in all his time in office, he had never permitted anyone to build anything off the record.
With its sermons on fate, the government tried to discredit even the most perfunctory calculation of cause and effect behind so many avoidable deaths. Yet it has had to make concessions. After five days of oppositional voices calling for the arrest of contractors who had flouted the building codes, the police finally apprehended one such businessman trying to leave the country. Author of an expensive complex of luxury apartment blocks in Antakya that the earthquake immediately pulverized, he had made himself conspicuous by flippantly denying responsibility for his brainchild not being up to snuff. The next day, the police started nabbing more contractors.
Yet taking a handful of men into custody does not constitute an acknowledgment of the party-state’s systemic refusal to enforce public safety requirements when its clientelist political economy was at stake. As a Turkish colleague put it to me in conversation, the culprits will not be held to account when the culprits and those holding to account are the same people.
On February 13 journalist Eray Görgülü uncovered a speech that Erdoğan had given in Kahramanmaraş in 2019 touting his most recent “construction amnesty.” There, the president boasted of having “solved the problems of 144,556 citizens of Maraş” by forgiving the unlicensed structures built in their name. In the last twenty years the government has announced nine such “amnesties,” one more than previous governments had promulgated in the previous forty-seven. In a thesis completed in 2021, Görgülü reports, Ankara University researcher Mahmut Şeydanlıoğlu concluded that from 2017 onwards, more than half of Turkey’s building stock was unlicensed.
In this lawless environment dominated by unscrupulous contractors, building often proceeds with little or no input from architects. To the detriment of Turkish urban planning, the architects are also a target of the AKP’s ongoing war on professional organizations, long a vital organ of civil society. Until 2018, the architects’ bureau had the official responsibility to monitor new construction, and could delay new projects for years in the courts if the plans did not pass muster on safety, or even on aesthetic, grounds. Erdoğan cancelled this right in retaliation for bureau leader Mücella Yapıcı’s political criticism and role and co-organizing the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations, for which she is now serving an eighteen-year sentence.
The Gezi Park conflict, of course, also had to do with building: the plan was to clear a public park to make room for a shopping mall in the form of a reconstructed Ottoman barracks. After months of the largest protest movement in Turkish history, Erdoğan opted to let a court ruling take the issue out of his hands. Preserving the park was a rare victory in the resistance to the AKP drive to close public spaces not devoted to either commerce or religion.
Turkey’s illegal buildings include the biggest house of all, a complex thirty times the size of the White House, home to a certain Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Financed out of a secret fund never recorded in parliament, the thousand-room home erected for the leader even before he made the move from the Prime Minister’s office to the Presidency in 2015 was built despite a court order to halt construction. He has had the National Library moved onto the palace’s “campus,” and now worships in a huge mosque on his own grounds, the Directorate’s similarly grandiose mosque being not private enough for him.
One way of reading the AKP’s progress is as a two-step process of privatization. In its first two terms, the AKP government privatized a large portion of Turkey’s state assets, on its way to make the state itself the private property of one man and his friends. The first phase—standard neoliberalism—won the AKP applause from the western establishment, which is now aghast at the second phase, which looks more like Putin than Thatcher. (Come to think of it, Putin himself came out of Yeltsin, imperial grandeur following on the shock doctrine.)
The road leading from neoliberalism to state capture must be understood better if we in the US and elsewhere are to prevent our own societies from traveling it. There are more than merely economic factors involved. One clue to the Turkish case is available in the aforementioned Erdoğan speech, in which the president praised himself for what now looks like a grave mistake, if not a crime. In 2019, Erdoğan gave his audience the good news that he was releasing them from the rules—the same rules he would later flout in a grand style himself. A large part of the appeal of authoritarian leaders is their promise to free us from the burden of law. They do not follow it themselves, and we love them for it, wanting to be like them. When Donald Trump said he could shoot someone in the middle of the day on Broadway and get away with it, that won him votes.
Erdoğan is set to face the voters again in May, in a general election that may or may not be postponed. His opponents face an uphill battle. The crackdown on opposition since the July 2016 coup attempt and the collapse of the peace process between the state and the PKK has landed major figures from the Kurdish and center-left secularist oppositions in prison. Having his courts convict oppositional politicians of promoting terrorism, Erdoğan has taken to deposing elected mayors and replacing them with his own flunkies, known as “caretakers” (kayyum). In this way, he has removed the HDP from local office, while launching a series of court cases to unseat and jail HDP parliamentarians; soon the party will likely be banned.
Some CHP mayors have also seen their municipalities stolen, and now all eyes are on the prize: Ekrem İmamoğlu’s Istanbul. The old imperial capital is of immense material and symbolic importance. Since a young Tayyip Erdoğan was elected its mayor in 1994, it had served first his Welfare Party and the subsequent AKP as a rich source of both revenue and votes. Connecting conservative businessmen with the non-unionized, informal-sector workers in networks involving both public welfare programs and private charities, the Islamists could pin workers’ welfare to the specific personnel involved in alleviating their plight, thus winning their support without enabling class politics to disadvantage capital at the point of production.1
When the AKP lost Istanbul to İmamoğlu in 2019, it lost the base for this clientelist system. But two months ago, a court sentenced İmamoğlu to two years in prison for “insulting” some judges—he called them “fools”—during his election campaign. Once upheld on appeal, this sentence will suffice to oust the mayor from his post and ban him from politics for life.
We do not know whether the court will act in time to block İmamoğlu from participating in the election. Many supporters still want to see him as the candidate of the main oppositional block, a cluster of six parties centered on Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP. Popularly called “the table of six,” it includes three tiny ex-AKP splinter parties and one (formerly?) ultraconservative Islamist party that claims to represent the legacy of Erdoğan’s mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, and whose leader, rather strangely, supports Kılıçdaroğlu as candidate. The only one of the six that rivals the CHP is Meral Akşener’s Good Party, which broke off from the MHP when the latter embraced Erdoğan, and owes its name to a play on words involving a pre-Islamic Turkic rune.
That this oddball coalition has still not managed to name a candidate tells you everything you need to know about how effectually the mainstream opposition operates under CHP leadership. It does not help that the ruling party has commandeered more than 90 percent of the media by volume, sidelined journalists by forcing them into jail or exile, and in some cases seized media companies by court order and handed them over to crony businessmen. The result is a media swimming with tales of foreign conspiracy, vengeful memories of past eras of secularist dominance, and an emphasis on any issue likely to exacerbate the internal divisions of an opposition whose different groups, until recently, had more against each other than they had against the AKP.
Since first coming to power in 2002, the ruling party has ramped up inequality while granting symbolic gifts to formerly marginalized populations. It has canceled civil servants’ privileges in the health system and legalized the hijab in public buildings. In the “peace process” era, it opened public television channels in Kurdish and Arabic. It projects a face and voice with which groups displaced by Turkish modernization feel at home. Some proletarians seem not to think they deserve more than this, or can get it from the opposition parties. It remains to be seen whether the latter can make a more persuasive pitch at a time when material want will sharpen.
In this time of mourning and chaos, people whose differences over religion, Turkish and Kurdish nationalism, and other issues going back over a century will have to work together to prioritize the end of AKP rule. The unity with which civil society confronted the earthquake is needed on the political front. Otherwise the plunderers will get away with it again.
See Berk Esen and Şebnem Gümüşçü, “Why did Turkish democracy collapse? A political economy account of AKP’s authoritarianism.” Party Politics, Vol. 27 (no. 6), 1075-1091. ↩