The Turkish State is building a series of reservoirs alongside the Turkish-Iraqi border, not to produce electricity or to irrigate farms, but to prevent “terrorists” infiltrating from Iraq. At the same time, the state is installing military fortresses, called kalekol in Turkish, within Kurdish towns as a way to assert its powerful existence. And, in a similar fashion as these tactically situated militarized structures, the Erdogan regime is erecting mosques in mostly secular neighborhoods as monuments of its Sunni supremacy. All three of these structures share something sinister in common. Similar to Trump’s wall, or the US prison system as a whole, they are all being built in defiance of any rational economic, religious, or security justification. Instead, as symbols of neoliberal statecraft, they are positioned to attack and to overwhelm Turkish minorities, specifically Kurds, Alevis, and secular Turks.

From “Sceneries” series, Duratrans Digital Prints, Benaki Museum, Athens, 2013.


Monuments of the Sunni Supremacy

Faith matters. In Turkey, religion has always been a prevailing sociological force that defined political partnerships, cultural groupings, and subjective enunciations. Islamists use the power of faith to contaminate docile souls from within – erasing, formatting, and installing their political programs inside vulnerable subjects. Contrary to its claims about the nature of God – yet similar to other religions – Islam is a multiplicity. It is composed of a diverse, heterodox, often contradictory set of practices and beliefs with no fundamental substance or core. Take the problematic word “jihad” for instance, similar to the word “crusade”, it may mean either “war” or “search for peace”; “helping people” or “killing infidels”. Islamists exploit this speculative character of Qur’anic hermeneutics by pushing Islam towards an exceptionally inflexible interpretation, skillfully mixing Sunni orthodoxy with a localized version of authoritarian neoliberalism.

The words “Islamist” and “Islamism” are particularly important here. This is because, unlike many heterodox forms of Islam, Islamism is not about having a compassionate relationship with others. Indeed, it has little to nothing to do with the religious tradition of Islam itself. Islamism, a loosely aggregated, ideologically neoconservative movement, emerged as a powerful political force in the 1980’s throughout the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and within the immigrant populations of Europe. It is a social, political and cultural assemblage combining nativism, nationalism, mercantalism, and western neoconservative morality. Its self-serving, moralistic guidelines are about increased social control through the appropriation of the modern state apparatus in order to occupy, govern, and exploit the public sphere.

For Islamists, faith is an engine which turns the sacred into a commercial enterprise. For instance, the Erdogan regime uses phantasmal visions of Turkish Ottoman heritage as a display of kitschy sentimentalism for their new palaces, as well as their shopping malls, mosques, and condominiums. None of this heritage pays respect to any local traditions, archaeological sites or artifacts, neighborhoods or ecology. Instead, under this aesthetic, Turkish cities become a patchwork filled with gated communities and condominiums. Gecekondus, low-cost squat houses once used as decent housing alternatives by newcomers, are replaced by new public housing projects that are unfriendly, cheaply built, and much less social. These social engineering programs effect every aspect of public life: from public housing projects to increasingly-religious education, from historical restorations to universities – kitsch and philistinism spreads across the country corrupting society from within.

Kocatepe Mosque, Ankara, Digital C-print, 2005.

An early exemplar of such neoconservative kitsch is Ankara’s Kocatepe Mosque. This structure sits on top of a hill in Ankara and characterizes the first wave of neoliberal transformation and the ugly-development extravaganza. The 1980’s marked an era of illegal land grabbing through the construction of religious buildings, and the Kocatepe was at the forefront of such. As the largest mosque in Ankara, Kocatepe has been used for state ceremonies since its construction in the late 1980’s, specifically for “martyrs” who were killed during the war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê), the PKK.

Similarly, an atrocious new mosque, commissioned by President Erdogan, is currently under construction at Çamlica Tepesi in Istanbul. This new building overlooks Istanbul as if it competes with Sinan, an architect who carefully and respectfully engaged with Istanbul and its history. Sinan, who was born c. 1490 to either Armenian or Greek parents and was himself a Christian convert, appreciated and learned from the Orthodox Christian architecture of Byzantium. He took Hagia Sophia, the great church, as a challenge and surpassed it both in terms of engineering and design. His buildings, such as the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Istanbul or the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, can be considered as architectural and engineering marvels for their times. The new Çamlica Mosque is different however, because even beyond its tasteless-replica construction in concrete, its moral compass points to the very mediocrity of the regime constructing it.

This narcissistic exercise aside, many newly built mosques serve a unique function in the Turkish urban milieu, because as soon as one is built, nearby “amoral” establishments are prohibited from serving alcohol and many entertainment activities are prohibited. However, these new mosques often incorporate markets and other commercial enterprises underneath them. Some built by TOKI – the Turkish Housing Development Administration responsible for large-scale urban revitalization projects – hardly establish any formal or ethical relationship with their locale. As sites of social discrimination, they are usually ugly imitations of old mosques. These sorts of simulacra, erected as monumental expressions of Islamists’ philistinism, are frequently seen elsewhere in the contemporary Arab world, particularly in and around Mecca as can be seen in the recent exhibit by Ahmed Mater at the Brooklyn Museum.

The Basin

Southeast Turkey (or Northwestern Kurdistan) is an area four times the size of the Netherlands. Populated by Kurdish speakers, the mountains of this rough terrain encircle the fertile crescent that has been home to civilization since 7000 BC. This rich cultural landscape presents ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity, layered side-by-side and on-top of each other. Consequent wars and political unrest left this terrain with abandoned towns, burned villages, and overpopulated cities. And the forbidding history of the region has led to a desire for quick economic development.

Many politicians have argued that fixing the long-standing poverty and economic stagnation of the region will lead to the resolution of the social problems that plague it as well. The project that attempted to enact this argument, the GAP (or South Eastern Anatolian Project), was mainly implemented by conservative politicians and grew into a full-throttle regional project in the 1980’s. Over the last 40 years, the project constructed a series of dams and irrigation channels that now bring water to dry, but otherwise fertile, lands. Today, these dams allow Turkey to have total control of the water discharge into Syria and Iraq – and although the Turkish State has made assurances that the GAP is a peaceful project, it is perceived as a security threat by both the Iraqi and Syrian governments (Jongerden 2010). Considering that, particularly in this region, water is perhaps the most valuable asset in the world, it is clear that by controlling seasonal agricultural discharge Turkey occasionally uses water to further its strategic military advantage (Oktav 2003).

Beyond water politics, the economic, political, and social layering in the vast territory of the Southeast requires full recognition of Turkey’s large dam projects. It can be argued that the GAP has brought some prosperity to the cities in the region. And yet the overall effect of the GAP on social justice can be disputed, especially because it has displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their hometowns, erased rich cultural and archeological heritage sites, and wreaked massive ecological harm (Tsakalidou 2013). In any case, the GAP project, which has constructed over 20 large-scale hydro-electrical dams, has activated the region through direct public investment.

Conversely, since the early 2000’s the narrative of economic development for the Southeast – as for much of Turkey – has changed. Specifically, after Turkey’s 2001 financial crisis, a ruthless process of privatization began, one that aimed at a neoliberal transfer of wealth. This transformation of society, started in the 1980’s by Prime Minister Turgut Özal and his aids, entailed strategic assets and significant public monopolies being sold undervalue to multinational and local finance-capital operations (Bedirhanoğlu 2012). Many projects that were financed by public money were merely channeled into the private sector. While liberal media intellectuals shamelessly celebrated this coercive transformation, promising that an ascendant Islamist bourgeoisie would bring democracy and prosperity hand-in-hand to the country through crony capitalist development, the true effects are more complicated (Bonzon 2014). As sociologist Cihan Tugal accurately puts it:

What this narrative neglects is double-fold: the repression of Alevis, striking workers, environmentalists, socialists, and occasionally the Kurds during the AKP’s first two terms; and the western world’s and Turkish liberals’ occasional support for this repression. All of these had already culminated in a soft totalitarianism, where all kinds of anti-systemic politics came to be perceived as irrational and ‘anti-democratic’ (and silently ‘dealt with’). (Tugal, “In Turkey, the Regime Slides from Soft to Hard Totalitarianism” 2016).

At this point, we all know how the AKP’s pseudo-democratization story has unraveled: the AKP’s three terms in government has overseen a constant erosion of the rule of law, relentless assaults on freedom of expression, everyday human rights violations, an unprecedented decline in women’s rights, and the massive liquidation of state assets (including precious forests, rivers, and national parks). This last occurs when areas are green-lit for complete exploitation, especially for the kinds of hydroelectric dam and mining projects discussed above.

In these shady deals, public projects were consistently routed to businessmen close to the AKP government. Their “Yap-İşlet-Devret” (or “Build-Operate-Turn It Over”) model has been used as an underhanded way of transferring public properties to the private sector, mainly to large conglomerates. Long term leasing (usually for a time-span of 25, 50, or 100 years) of the hydro-electric dam and mining projects began as a way to bypass the Turkish constitution, which explicitly prohibits selling off such public assets. Since the Turkish constitution did not allow outright privatization, water and land grabbing is skillfully executed by two state institutions that have been instrumental in this transformation. While the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works (the Devlet Su İşleri , or DSİ) deals with water resources, hydroelectric power plants, and irrigation channels, the Housing Development Administration (the above mentioned TOKI) is responsible for real estate development projects for small and medium income housing. DSI and TOKI are two institutions originally designed to play a central role in public development, but during the AKP’s rule, both institutions have been reimagined and weaponized as an integral part of an illegal seizure of resources – seizures that have amounted to a relentless attack on urban neighborhoods and ecological habitats.

DSI’s controversial new dam project, called the Hidro Elektrik Santrali (HES), was introduced to provide diversification of Turkey’s energy reserves. And compared to fossil fuels hydroelectric power is often considered a “clean energy.” However, the deployment of these private hydropower plants has had devastating effects on both ecological life and archeological contexts. This disregard for the surrounding area stems from the HES developments being put forward primarily as a ferocious means of land-grabbing rather than as ecological power sources.

The DSI’s reservoirs along the Turkish-Iraqi border are different stories altogether. These have not been developed to produce electricity or irrigate farms but to prevent “terrorists” from infiltrating the country from Iraq. Government officials justify these investments by arguing that these waterways form “natural walls” against the PKK (Ayboga 2013). Eleven of these security dams are strategically positioned between the towns of Şırnak and Hakkari, where the PKK is believed to be. Unlike HES projects, these security dams double as military infrastructures, and are designed like trenches that create territorial bottlenecks along military checkpoints in the Şırnak-Hakkari corridor.

Since these security dams transform large segments of agricultural land into military infrastructure they provide new tools for the government to systematically reimagine the demographic composition of villages, towns and cities. The result is akin to social engineering accomplished primarily through the large-scale displacement and relocation of local populations. Furthermore, the infrastructures open up the region for future land and water grabbing.

From TMMOB Diyarbakır: Sınır/Güvenlik Barajları Ön Raporu, 2009

Similar to the security dams built by DSI, TOKI (the Housing Development Administration) has been building numerous military fortresses, or kalekol. Considering the long history of state terror, torture, and humiliation, these structures are the reminders of a long civil war between the PKK and the Turkish State. As opposed to the GAP (the South Eastern Anatolian Project), which intends to bring prosperity to the region, both security dams and kalekolsrepresent an entirely different governmental strategy, one aimed at regulating the movement of the Kurdish population.

From Still Life (2012-16) Research Project, Şırnak – Yüksekova Road, August 2012.

In the early summer of 2015 the fragile peace process between the Kurdish guerrilla group PKK and the Turkish State ended. In order to preserve his power, President Erdogan and his allies began what many consider to be a war against the Kurdish people, a war that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Entire neighborhoods in the cities of Diyarbakir, Sirnak, and Cizre were erased from the map and nearly half a million people forced to evacuate their homes. It is not surprising that during a particularly intense battle in the historical city of Sur, Erdogan’s propagandistic newspaper Star called in “TOKI for duty” – urging them to essentially redevelop the Sur neighborhood as a military strategy.

In conclusion, the peculiar Turkish combination of neoliberal authoritarianism and religious neo-conservatism has produced a strange mixture. One the one hand we see a decline in civic services and the elimination of public commons through privatization, the rise of a penal state and the excessive use of police violence. And on the other hand, almost paradoxically, this has created an absolute dependency on the state apparatus by transforming the idea of social security into some form of a charity (Wacquant 2010). In this regard, and similar to Trump’s proposed border wall, the Turkish security dams, kalekols, and mosques may seem to be absolutely redundant investments. But they are not. Instead, they function as formal/aesthetic manifestations of a penal state whose aim is to regulate and contain the Turkish population in a limited territory. There a single logic that makes these three disparate projects comprehensible: the logic of outright occupation. The Sunni supremacist’s aim is to dominate the public sphere and to restrict “enemy” movement. Their “jihad” is against all minorities, including Kurds, Alevis, and secular Turks, who need to be subsumed under their moralistic order.

All over the world, from Poland to India, from the U.S. to Hungary, nationalists and religious fundamentalists are seething. They are seeking a neoconservative revenge against the progressive ideas of equality, liberty, justice, and secularity. This is a form of territorial war over the commons, over liberal education and over the rights of women and minorities. As I have attempted to show in the above examples of the urban mosque, the kalekol, and the security dam, the aim of Turkish Islamists is to suffocate the democratic public. Instead of negotiating a surrender, as extreme-centrists keep telling us, it is time to imagine new strategies. This is a war that we do not have the luxury of losing.

Hakan Topal (born in Turkey) received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the New School for Social Research with a concentration in urban sociology and sociology of arts. He is currently an Assistant Professor of New Media and Art + Design at Purchase College, State University New York. For more information click here.


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