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This Is Not a Case Study: Situating the Politics of the 6 February Earthquakes within Long-Standing Injustices

May 9, 2023

The disaster that has been unfolding in Turkey since the earthquakes of 6 February is a material-spatial legacy of the country’s histories of state violence. Contextualizing the disaster as such obliges us to focus it on deep-seated injustices and struggles for justice they have been met with.

This is precisely the focus of the special issue that the Istanbul-based Center for Spatial Justice invited me to guest-edit in 2021.[1] Published in May 2022 and themed “Spatial Justice and Earthquakes,” the special issue pushes against the limits of the mantra that all disasters are political. As I argue in my introduction, the idea that disasters are political is no longer a radical one. The twenty-first century has seen it become the stuff of disaster risk and resilience policies in the modern liberal mode. Specifically, Turkey has since 2012 had a law called the Disaster Law that promises to disaster-proof the country. And, since 2009, it has had AFAD—a special state agency dedicated to disaster and emergency management. The state’s National Earthquake Strategy and Action Plan for 2023, finalized in 2013, avowedly aims “to create a society that is resilient to and prepared for earthquake risk” and to use “participatory” methods that engage “multiple social actors.” These emphases on society and participation demonstrate that now the state itself approaches earthquakes as social and political.

In an age where disaster preparedness itself has become a realm for shaping politics and society, disasters are social and political even before they take place. Put differently, the politics of disasters is constituted already in disaster preparedness discourses and practices that take place in the most literal sense: in situated and embodied ways, at specific sites, and for or against specific communities.  This observation obliges us to reconsider a tendency that has become prevalent among critics in the wake of the 6 February earthquakes to subsume the disaster under one large-scale process or another—by arguing, for example, that Turkey has no disaster preparedness policies in place (often considered a symptom of the current regime’s disrespect for meritocracy and for science) or that the urban renewal programs pursued under the Disaster Law are simply the latest phase in the country’s integration into the neoliberal global rentier economy. Instead of reducing Turkey to just another case study of underdevelopment or neoliberal development, critique must, I argue, take mechanisms like the Disaster Law and AFAD seriously as instruments of doing politics in socially and spatially specific ways.

Consider for example the current iteration of the Disaster Law which includes an amendment passed in 2016—in the context of a martial campaign that the state was then conducting in Kurdish towns and cities in the name of counterinsurgency. The government amended the Disaster Law to be able to use it for what they called the “reconstruction” of urban theatres of war or what is better termed the displacement of residents. The Disaster Law’s original iteration had avoided defining what “disaster” may entail. This amendment in 2016 introduced a new clause to the effect of such a definition, if indirectly. Disaster risk areas could now be declared “where public order and security have been disturbed to the extent of interrupting ordinary life.” When the fighting subsided, the government began to use this clause for designating racialized neighborhoods as “disaster risk areas” including those in Turkey’s Kurdistan, which had not seen war, or even those elsewhere in Turkey—for example, in Istanbul.

The problem, then, is not that there are no disaster preparedness policies in place but that the policies that are in place treat disaster preparedness as a national security imperative that marks racialized communities as threats to this security. In this context where national security and disaster preparedness overlap, the lives and livelihoods of racialized communities are themselves marked as disasters. Therefore, the question is not simply a local case study of how global capitalism and/or the rentier economy operate through the construction sector today. The question, rather, is what context-specific histories of violence condition the established political order that continues to racialize certain communities as threats to national security.

Noteworthy in this respect is not just this April 2016 amendment but also the original iteration of the Disaster Law whose emphasis on urban renewal builds on a legislative precedent from 2005: the so-called “Law for the Protection of Dilapidated Historical and Cultural Real Estate through Renewal.” This law was implemented in urban areas like Istanbul’s Sulukule and Tarlabaşı then inhabited by racialized communities such as the Roma or Kurds who had fled various kinds of precarity and insecurity by moving into and repurposing those buildings the law now deemed “dilapidated.”[2] Of course, the particular use of the adjective “dilapidated” in this context obfuscates the fact that these buildings were once inhabited by non-Muslims but emptied out as a result of violent policies like the Armenian genocide and subsequently the Wealth Tax or anti-non-Muslim pogroms that picked up from where the genocide left off.[3] This experience in the late 2000s of precisely where and against whom to implement “urban renewal” then informed the crafting of the Disaster Law in the early 2010s.

Following the recent earthquakes, it is this national-security-inflected approach to disaster preparedness that has exacerbated already existing injustices. The worst-hit areas are not only home to a significant Alevi and Kurdish population but also epicenters of state-endorsed racialized violence. The question of where the earthquake has had the worst effects cannot be considered independently of places central to the history of the Armenian genocide for example, ranging from Musa Dagh in Antakya to Zeitun in Marash. Neither is the question independent of the late 1960s and 1970s anti-Alevi massacres and pogroms that took place in the very places that are among the worst-hit today, such as Malatya, Elbistan, or central Marash, or the fact that many of the victims of police violence during the Gezi Park protests were Alevis from Antakya—not to mention the connection to the war in Kurdistan that I have already mentioned above. It is due exactly to these kinds of historical connections that the fallout from the earthquake has been taking place the way it has. Consider the predominantly Kurdish-Alevi town of Bazarcix/Pazarcık in Marash where the state has expropriated donations collected by community organizations. There is no drive for speculative rent here but a national-security reflex that dovetails with decades of state-endorsed and racialized violence whose epicenters include exactly this region. Examples abound since day one of the 6 February earthquakes. One of the first measures that the authorities took within hours of the earthquakes was to prevent dissent by reducing bandwidth, a measure that cost lives at a time when people trapped under the rubble were still trying to make their voices heard. Following the start of debris removal work, the rubble has been dumped in Kurdish-Alevi villages. Fields farmed by landless peasants in Adıyaman have been expropriated for emergency housing under a new law. Widowed women and orphaned children rescued from under the rubble have gone missing; they are rumored to have been abducted by sex-trafficking and organ-trafficking gangs that allegedly involve members of the police and the armed forces.[4]

If focusing the disaster’s politics on rant (Turkish for speculative “rent” as in the rentier economy) obscures these context-specific injustices by subsuming them under global processes and portraying them as out of the reach of political work on the ground, emphases on lack of liyakat (Turkish for “merit” as in meritocracy) and on disrespect for bilim (Turkish for “science”) do so by confining the problem to the past two decades.[5] Identifying the current regime as unmeritocratic exceptionalizes Erdoğan and the AKP, thus absolving longer-standing systemic dynamics including the predecessors and any potential successors of the current regime. Ultimately, it preserves the idea that power and agency rest solely with the governing authorities and justice can be delivered top-down, rather than granting communities organizing against injustice this kind of power and agency. Emphases on science evade the question of whether and how science can serve justice in a context where institutional academia is in the grip of state and market forces with thousands of academics deprived of their livelihoods in Turkey alone. To return to the abovementioned special issue on “Spatial Justice and Earthquakes” published last May, the publication sought to problematize precisely such emphases on science and meritocracy. The special issue included the voices of those doing the political work on the ground such as members of the Neighbourhood Disaster Volunteers network, Earthquake Victims Solidarity Association, Homeless Tenants Association, and Union of Neighbourhoods targeted by urban renewal, to name a few. It featured the work of an association called Yer Çizenler Derneği whose name translates as Drawers of the Earth—a group of cartographers in Turkey who came together in the aftermath of the 2017 Aegean Sea earthquake to create an open-source cartography platform with the kind of geological and geographical information that is crucial in the context of disaster prevention. Theirs is a technoscientific expertise that relies not on an unquestioning faith in science but rather on a self-reflexive awareness of how their own field’s conventions and methods might be implicated in the question of justice and injustice. It is such collective organizing work already existing on the ground both among experts and among urban residents that is the antidote to establishment-preserving references to science or meritocracy. Highlighting this already existing work and building on it must be the starting point for anyone who wishes to grasp the 6 February disasters as a question of justice and injustice.

The latest example that has followed from the 6 February earthquakes illustrates how a depoliticized (and indeed actively depoliticizing) veneration of science and meritocracy permeates discourse and practice across a much wider spectrum than just Erdoğan or the AKP: the Earthquake Mobilization Plan that Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (run by a member of the main opposition party CHP or Republican People’s Party) announced within weeks of the 6 February earthquakes. While full details of the plan have yet to be published, its ethos as presented publicly by Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu echoes the idea that science and technology are above and beyond politics even as it seems to rethink top-down resilience by engaging urban residents at the neighborhood level. The plan does propose various ways in which to use science and technology for enhancing earthquake resilience but without much elaboration on socio-political implications especially as regards the question of epistemic justice. The one welcome point made in the plan concerns the mobilization of residents at the street and neighborhood level but even here there is no mention of how already existing cases of community organizing and mobilizing will be engaged. Hence the plan running the risk of becoming a classic case of resilience in the modern liberal mode that places unquestioning faith in the supposedly inherently progressive potential of science and technology and that organizes the socio-politics of resilience top-down rather than from the ground up.

State-endorsed violence has time and again attempted to objectify racialized communities as an exploitable resource for cheap labor and the places they inhabit as the stuff of touristic entertainment. Communities that have survived these attempts have done so by self-organizing. In turn, the establishment has marked these forms of organizing as a disaster to be prevented. Efforts to grasp what makes disasters political must focus on the context-specific tensions between these practices of inflicting injustice and struggling for justice.



[1] During the production of the special issue, the in-house publications team at the Center for Spatial Justice—especially, editor-in-chief Bahar Bayhan—offered extensive input and support, for which I am grateful to them. The special issue is free to download via this link.


[2] A recently published volume that I co-edited is dedicated to grasping these processes. See Eray Çaylı, Pınar Aykaç, and Sevcan Ercan, eds., Architectures of Emergency in Turkey: Heritage, Displacement and Catastrophe (London: Bloomsbury/I.B.Tauris, 2021).


[3] My problematization of “dilapidation” here echoes Ekin Kurtiç’s recent work on the environmental politics of decay and repair and Anoush Tamar Suni’s on ruination in the context of the Armenian genocide. See Ekin Kurtiç, “Infrastructural Decay: Maintenance Ecologies and Labor in the Çoruh Basin,” Cultural Anthropology 38 (2023): 142-170; Anoush Tamar Suni, “Palimpsests of Violence: Ruination and the Afterlives of Genocide in Anatolia,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 65, vol.1 (2023): 192-218. On the Wealth Tax, see Kerem Öktem and İpek Kocaömer Yosmaoğlu, “Introduction: Turkish-Jewish Entanglements from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic,” in Kerem Öktem and İpek Kocaömer Yosmaoğlu (eds.) Turkish Jews and Their Diasporas: Entanglements and Separations (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), p.17.


[4] I use the words “rumored” and “alleged” advisedly here. Those suffering from injustice and/or struggling for justice often have to rely on rumors and allegations (as seen in a criminal complaint regarding the missing women and children that was filed some ten days after the earthquakes) in contexts such as this one where access to conventional evidentiary mechanisms is curtailed.


[5] See for example the main opposition party CHP’s report on the 6 February earthquakes. Its Foreword by the party’s leader Kılıçdaroğlu states that the chief lesson to be drawn from the disaster is Turkey’s need for “a mindset shift” towards “bilim and “liyakat.”

 

Teaser photo credit: Rescue workers in Osmaniye. By Onur Erdoğan – https://www.voaturkce.com/a/osmaniyede-depremzedeler-cadir-kente-sigindi/6955102.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128558942

Eray Çaylı

Eray Çaylı is Professor of Human Geography with a Focus on Violence and Security in the Anthropocene at University of Hamburg. His work interweaves geography, anthropology, and material/visual culture. Eray currently teaches the racialized, classed, and gendered politics of the Anthropocene, and urban geographies of marginalization. His major publications include the monograph Victims of Commemoration: The Architecture and Violence of Confronting the Past in Turkey(Syracuse University Press, 2022). Eray’s ongoing research explores the ways in which histories of political violence bear upon discourses and practices surrounding climate change, environmental disaster and resilience in Turkey, its environs, and their diasporas. Alongside working in Anglophone academia, he is committed to making his research accessible to his interlocutors and collaborators in Turkey—hence his recent publications in Turkish such as the special issue on Spatial Justice and Earthquakes and a collection of his essays published as a book titled İklimin Estetiği (Climate Aesthetics).

Tags: injustice, Turkey, Turkey-Syria 2023 earthquake