Counterinsurgency and the Police: Perspectives from Istanbul

By Deniz Yonucu

3 March, 2022

The puzzle addressed by Police, Provocation, Politics was sparked by the coexistence since the mid-2000s in Istanbul’s racialized and dissident working-class neighborhoods of intense police surveillance and militarized spatial control alongside armed and masked revolutionary vigilante activities and gang activities. In this book, I ask, what are the conditions that have made this conflictual and yet long-enduring coexistence possible? Such curious coexistence is, indeed, not unique to Turkey. For many decades now, vigilantes, militarized police, and large- and small-scale drug gangs have been integral to urban spaces inhabited by the racialized and dispossessed urban poor, both in the Global North and South. Ranging from the banlieues of Paris to the favelas of São Paulo, from the ghettos of Chicago to the occupied territories of Palestine, the urban spaces populated by racialized, colonized, and dispossessed populations have been transformed into places of permanent conflict, crime, and violence over the last several decades. At the same time, militarized spatial control and intrusive state surveillance have become essential parts of the everyday urban experience in these areas.

In Police, Provocation, Politics, I argue that this seemingly paradoxical coexistence can only be understood within the context of policing and counterinsurgency strategies that are informed by the colonial school of warfare and Cold-War/decolonial era counterinsurgencies. These strategies have worked not merely to violently repress actual or potential dissident populations (i.e., the working-classes, colonized, and racialized populations) but also to violently refashion the existing or emerging forms of dissent against the state. Combining archival work and oral history narratives with more than four years of ethnographic research in Istanbul’s dissident working-class neighborhoods that are predominantly populated by Alevis and Kurds, and illustrating how Turkish counterinsurgency has been informed by global counterinsurgencies—most specifically by British counterinsurgencies in Malaya and Northern Ireland, French counterinsurgency in Algeria, and the US counterinsurgencies at home and abroad—I present a counter-intuitive analysis of contemporary policing practices, focusing particularly on the incitement of counter-state violence and perpetual conflict by the state security apparatus. I illustrate the complex and mutually constitutive relationship between the maintenance of social order and, in defense of that social order, the creation of the conditions for permanent conflict, disorder, and criminal activity. I suggest that provocations of violence and conflict and their containment in the places of racialized and dissident populations by the state security apparatus cannot be considered disruptions of political order. Instead, they can only be conceptualized as forms of governance and policing designed to manage dissent.

Attempts by the police to maintain social order by generating and managing violence and conflict are in fact an enduring legacy of the Cold War counterinsurgency doctrine of low-intensity conflict, itself informed by colonial warfare. As archival works on Cold-War/decolonial era counterinsurgencies demonstrate, security agents are known to have provoked counter-state violence within dissident groups, incited ethnosectarian conflict among and between dissident communities, encouraged rivalries among and within dissident organizations, and mobilized pro-state paramilitary forces and anti-state groups against one another.[1] These interventions have been effective in marginalizing dissident groups by militarizing and transforming them into security threats against society (including their constituency), dividing dissident communities from within, exhausting them by inciting them to fight against one another and other non-state adversary forces, demoralizing and frustrating them, and rendering a justified political cause meaningless. 

I call such state security interventions provocative counterorganization: provocation of conflict, violence, and ideological, ethnic, and religious divergences and rivalries both among and within dissident communities by national security states[2] with the aim of countering and reorganizing a population’s dissent against the state. I argue that as a policing strategy, provocative counterorganization is not only a Foucauldian project of docility-producing governance, but also a Schmittian project[3] of animosity-production that actively promotes enmity among diverse populations. Hence, rather than focusing on counterinsurgency strategies for producing docile and compliant citizens, I focus on their provocative, affect- and emotion-generating, divisive techniques and urban dimensions.

If the population is the main target of counterinsurgency, its two main axes are space and the psyche. Security is a two-way sociospatial phenomenon that is at once produced and reproduced in and through sociospatial relations, processes, and practices, and also itself produces, shapes, and transforms space (Glück and Low 2017). As Eyel Weizmann (2012) has demonstrated in his work on the Israeli security state, rather than destroying a “hostile space,” counterinsurgency reorganizes it in line with its counterorganization aims. At the same time and in relation to this reorganization, it transforms political subjectivities and practices within the targeted space.

In Police, Provocation, Politics, I show how provocative counterorganization operates on the ground in Istanbul’s predominantly Alevi and Kurdish populated working-class neighborhoods. Known as the centers of the revolutionary left since the 1960s, these urban spaces have been one of the primary targets of Turkish urban counterinsurgency. But this is not only because they are centers of the dissident left. Also, and perhaps even more importantly, these communities have been targeted by counterinsurgency because they have been significant “spaces of intervention” (Dikeç 2006) for a bottom-up refashioning of leftist dissent in Turkey and its estrangement from the Kurdish liberation movement, which has been waging an anticolonial struggle against the Turkish state for several decades. Local counterinsurgency interventions in these dissident urban spaces have had an impact on much broader segments of society, quickly stirring up tensions across the country and paving the way for the partitioning of leftist dissent along class, ethnosectarian, and spatial lines. Within this frame, the case of these dissident urban spaces of Istanbul offers important insight into how counterinsurgency intervenes in lived spaces so as to inform, transform, and counter dissident activities and subjectivities and partition otherwise allied dissident forces.

Police, Provocation, Politics says as much about policing as it does about politics by providing an ethnographically grounded analysis of the tension between repression and resistance. Despite their use of overt violence and covert counterinsurgency techniques since the 1970s, the Turkish ruling elite has managed to quench neither revolutionary militancy, nor the Kurdish struggle for liberation, nor the alignment between them.  Many of my interlocutors refuse docility and complicity, fill the streets to express their rage against the system and the security state and manifest their commitment to the revolutionary and anti-colonial cause despite the likelihood of heavy punishments.  As I have elaborated on elsewhere, to understand how certain individuals and/or populations continue to act out against punitive security states despite the potentially grave consequences, we should take into consideration the invigorating power of the martyred dead and hauntings (Yonucu forthcoming). In this book, approaching the martyr as a figure in which the collective memory of resistance and suffering is embodied, I argue that martyrs are major political forces that resist all manner of counterinsurgency technique and inspire many into ethical self-formation and defiant action. I suggest, martyrs are both spirits of resistance who liberate the revolutionary targets of state violence from the immediacy of fear in the present and encourage people to keep resisting, and they are also restless ghosts (a la Gordon 2008) who continue to disrupt the efforts of the security state by way of their inspirational force. The weakness of state violence, whether overt or covert, is its tendency to generate backlash in two temporally contiguous forms: feelings of absolute injustice in the here and now are transformed into an actionable rage that draws on the resurrection of past oppressed generations as a powerful force of inspiration. As long as the violence of the security states continues, the inspirational hauntings of those buried on the margins of history will continue to bubble up into the present to feed the spirit of resistance and encourage dissident political action.

Deniz Yonucu received her PhD degree in Social Anthropology from Cornell University and is a lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Sociology at Newcastle University. Her first book Police, Provocation, Politics: Counterinsurgency in Istanbul (Cornell University Press, 2022) presents a counterintuitive analysis of policing, focusing particular attention on the incitement of counterviolence and perpetual conflict by the state security apparatus. She is Directions Section co-editor of of Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR) and co-founder and co-convenor of the Anthropology of Surveillance Network (ANSUR). Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Current Anthropology, IJURR, Social and Legal Studies, the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Critical Times, and beyond.

Header image: police at a protest in Istanbul, 2015.

[1] For British counterinsurgency’s support of paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland against the IRA, see Sluka 2000 and McGovern 2013. For British counterinsurgency’s provocation of ethnosectarian cleavages in Malaya against communist guerrillas, see Khalili 2012. For US security agents’ provocation of counterviolence by the Black Panthers, see Marx 1974. For Turkish counterinsurgency’s promotion of paramilitary forces and local rivalries in Northern Kurdistan against the PKK, see Jongerden 2007.

[2] I use the term national security states to underline the connection between statecraft and warfare (see also Rana 2014). As David R. Mares ( 2007) argues, “two key characteristics define the National Security State: the military institution itself is intimately involved in leading the political system, and its goals are to transform the country’s political and economic institutions” (387).

[3] Here, I refer to the writings of the fascist German political theorist Carl Schmitt (2007, 27), for whom the political domain rests on a friend–enemy distinction. For Schmitt, the enemy is “the other, the stranger . . . and in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien,” an integral part of politics. This otherness within the political makes war “an ever-present possibility” and “a leading presupposition which determines in a characteristic way human action and thinking and thereby creates a specifically political behavior” (34).


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