The new security bill and the military ethos of policing in Turkey

A new domestic security bill giving draconian powers to the police has recently been put into force in Turkey. Expanding police power enormously and granting the police some extrajudicial authority, the bill does not allow citizens appropriate measures with which to protect themselves from abuse of this power. Widely criticised by the opposition both within and outside Parliament, the new bill grants wider search powers to the police, gives them extrajudicial authority to detain, and expands their control over the use of firearms, while defining new crimes for protestors such as covering the face or using slingshots - with prison sentences up to 4 years.1 While –unsurprisingly- the government defended the bill as a guarantee for maintaining public order, the opposition declared it a manifestation of the ruling party's ‘police state’. I will argue here that whereas the content of the bill may be new, the ethos behind it is long-established in Turkish politics; that is the ‘military ethos’. Furthermore, I will contend that each and every piece of legislation increasing police powers should be understood as part of another form of the militarisation that characterises AKP rule, police militarisation. To clarify this point, I will start with a brief description of the relationship between these terms.

The Militarisation of the Police

Militarism, to briefly use Enloe’s terms, is about “see[ing] the world as a dangerous place best approached with militaristic attitudes,” which are based on a belief in hierarchy, obedience, and the use of force.2 Although the military as an institution plays a central role in this process, state instruments reproducing this mindset extend well beyond the barracks. The police, as a non-military state institution with the capacity to utilise physical force in the regulation of interpersonal relations on a daily basis, become highly instrumental in this process. This is particularly so in the context of liberal democratic states where the military’s capacity to intervene in citizens’ daily life is exceptionally restricted, and thus the police’s instrumental value in the normalisation of the ‘military ethos’ beyond the barracks deserves particular attention. Police militarisation in this context has huge implications for the militarisation of society in general.

 

What exactly is meant by the term ‘militarisation of the police’? According to Costa and Medeiros, it takes two forms: internal and external militarisation. While the former refers to “the degree to which a police force adopts a militaristic ideology and organisational structure”, the latter refers to “the extent to which the military exerts influence over police organisations.”3 In addition, police militarisation also refers to the adoption of a ‘military ethos’ in its operations. The term connotes the police’s increasing reliance on ‘effectiveness’ and ‘efficiency’ rather than ‘proportionality’ in using force.4 With the relaxing of controls on police operations together with widening police powers over the use of force, the Turkish case provides a good example of this process. Having established this framework, we can now focus on the Turkish case in practice.

Police Militarisation in Turkey

Recent research on the subculture of the Turkish police reveals that ‘nationalist-conservatism’, which amounts to “fervent endorsement of Turkishness and Sunni Islam,” is the dominant political orientation among the members of the organisation.5 It is in relation to this ideological affiliation that many segments of society, such as the Left, the Kurds or the Alevi, are ‘enemised’ in police practice and discourse.6 Dissidents are reduced to ‘internal enemies’ plotting against the state and considered undeserving of the rights enjoyed by ‘proper citizens’. The Turkish police’s notorious record of disproportionate use of force is a manifestation of this situation where protestors can be deprived of their most basic rights –including their right to life-7 in the interests of protecting public order. This ‘dehumanises’ dissident subjects, reducing them to enemies to be defeated, similar to a battlefield atmosphere where one’s constitutional rights no longer apply.

Alongside this ideological background, the practice of military ethos can also be traced in the organisational structure of the Turkish police. Rapid Action Units (RAU – Çevik Kuvvet) and the Special Operation Teams (SOTs – Özel Harekat Timleri) are two of the most obvious examples of this organisational militarisation. Established by the military government following the 1980 coup, RAU have given legal powers to take reactive and proactive measures in response to demonstrations and illegal acts in public spaces; they are equipped with advanced weapons such as tear gas bombs, machine guns and water cannons and have certain discretionary powers over the use of force, which were widened even further with the new security bill.8 The SOTs - equipped with heavy arms and acting in collaboration with the military - were established by this same 1980 government, for the specific purpose of fighting against Kurdish rebels in the south eastern provinces. 9

As the formation of these two new units shows, the ‘ethos’ of the police in Turkey is organically related to the military influence. Indeed, according to Biriz Berksoy, it was following the military coup of 1980 that "the police entered a phase of expansion and militarisation, during which it was structurally and legally strengthened with the help of the military, and it began to apply violence more frequently and intensively via newly established paramilitary units."10

I would argue that in highlighting these deep-rooted organic relations between the military and the police, I am also revealing the current state of militarisation in the country. After more than a decade of government by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, one can hardly deny the fact that the military elite’s power over Parliament and civil bureaucracy has been eliminated. However, this does not necessarily mean that we can now celebrate the victory of democracy and individual liberties in the country, as many conservatives and liberals have been claiming. Can we really conclude that the retreat of the military as an institution from the political sphere has created a nonviolent ‘militarism-free’ zone for politics? The notorious human rights record of the 13 year-old AKP government gives little cause for optimism in this regard. During its period in power, AKP has made some far-reaching changes in the law, expanding the police’s extrajudicial power, loosening controls over its use of force and making it less accountable to judicial scrutiny. It initiated the Law of Misdemeanour in 2004, which increased police powers of intervention in citizens’ daily lives via certain ‘crime prevention’ measures. In 2006, it made important changes to the Anti-Terror Law which allowed state authorities further rights leading to violations and restrictions on liberties. Finally it enacted the new Domestic Security Bill which significantly expanded the police’s extrajudicial powers, by means of legislation more consistent with a military authoritarian regime. Given all the changes introduced by this government then, what can one conclude about AKP’s so-called success in terms of demilitarising Turkish politics?

I would argue there has been no demilitarisation, simply another form of militarisation disguised by an institutional power game between the military elites on the one side, and a neoliberal-conservative government ready to appropriate the legacy of the military coup, namely the police force, on the other. The latter has won the game, at least for the time being. It seems like now it is AKP’s turn to create its own ‘national security state’ which it is accomplishing by using the police whose ethos and organisational structure is inherited from the 1980 military coup. With this in mind, the ultimate winner in my view has not been any particular group or political party but – maybe more pessimistically - the mindset brought in by the military coup in 1980.

 

Notes

2 Enloe, C. 2007: Globalization and Militarism: Feminists Make the Link Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., p.4

3 Costa, A.; Medeiros, M. 2002: “Police demilitarisation: cops, soldiers and democracy” Conflict, Security & Development 2:2 2002, p.27.

4 Costa, A.; Medeiros, M. 2002, p.28.

5 Berksoy, B. 2010: “The Police Organization in Turkey in the Post-1980 Period adn the Re-Construction of the Social Formation” in Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion (eds.) Khalili, L.;J. Schwedler London: Hurst and Company, p.148.

6 Ibid

7 See Amnesty International report on Gezi Park Protests on its first anniversary: http://www.amnesty.nl/sites/default/files/public/final_en_30_may_2014.p…

8 Gonen, Z., Berksoy, B., Baser, Z., Ucum, M. 2013: Polis Yasalarinin Ruhu: Mevzuatta Soylemler, Araclar ve Zihniyet [The Spirit of the Police Laws in Turkey: Legislative Discourses, Instruments and Mentality]Istanbul: Tesev Yayinlari.

9 Ibid.

10 Berksoy, B. 2010, p.137.

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