Between Two Earthquakes
The disaster has sharpened a clash in Turkish politics
Tens of thousands of people have died in the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on February 6.
In Turkey, one of the photos that’s been widely shared is that of a building in the heavily quake-hit Kahramanmaras city, that stands calmly amidst the waves of rubble. Zooming in, one can see that its windows are intact and there is not a single crack on its façade. Above the doorway is the inscription “TMMOB İNŞAAT MÜHENDİSLERİ ODASI.” It’s the local branch of the Construction Engineers Chamber (İMO), a subsection of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB). The inference is that the engineers of the TMMOB were careful in abiding by the building standards in the earthquake zone, while the construction industry and the regulatory bodies that supervise them were not.
Another image - this one shared by the government surrogates - is drone footage of the same city at night of Feb. 9. There are pockets of light hitting rubble where search and rescue operations were going on. A large stadium is filled with neat rows of tents, lit up by the stadium lights. Flashes of red and blue from the ambulance and police cars dot the streets, and one almost hears the sound of helicopters flying about. It looks like a frame from a Hollywood disaster movie: the state has mobilized its vast resources to help its citizens in their darkest hour.
Political fragmentation is increasingly an epistemic gulf, and as citizens of Turkey, besides the obvious mourning of the colossal loss of life, we see very different things as the repercussions of this earthquake. The first group sees criminal neglect, a loss of human life that is monstrous, not because it happened, but because it could have been avoided. The second sees tragedy that vindicates the accretion of state power, a canvas for myth-making. I’d like to step back and examine this gulf a bit.
The AK Party rose to power on the heels of the İzmit earthquake in 1999, when more than 17,000 people died. At the time, Turkey was governed by a rickety coalition. It was dysfunctional and deeply in debt, so when the earthquake hit, people were left to fend for themselves for days. As TV journalists rushed to the scene, the phrase that the survivors kept repeating was “devlet nerede?” (Where is the state?) It’s an expectation baked into the modern existence: when something awful happens, someone, somewhere is supposed to come to the rescue. No rescue came. Families had sent their sons to the military service, paid their taxes, accommodated the politicians and bureaucrats running the country, but in that hour of dire need, the state did not answer their call. It was, in many ways, the straw that broke the camel’s back. People can accept an arbitrary god and they can accept an angry god, but an absent one they cannot abide. The first chance they got, the citizens voted to change the ruling political class. And what a change it was.
The early AK Party governments led with a construction boom. They wove the country together with 4-lane roads and magically converted shantytowns into tall apartment blocks. They implemented the recommendations of the IMF and World Bank, stabilizing the currency and privatizing huge swathes of the economy, including energy, communications, health and transportation. There were a lot of “wow” moments in those days - driving on a new road, turning on natural gas, seeing high rises where makeshift hovels had last been. As the country went into the 2010s, small projects were no longer enough. The AK Party now wanted monumental structures. They built a new Bosphorus bridge, great mosque complexes, a presidential palace, and are now planning a new Bosphorus channel.
What’s less talked about is the other political movement that sprang from the 1999 earthquake. Ayşe Çavdar, an academic and activist, recalled in one of the best commentaries since the disaster, how she rushed to the scene as a young woman to aid the rescue work in the earthquake’s aftermath. For three days, the official relief forces did not reach the town of Değirmendere, so the people there coordinated relief efforts themselves. Çavdar says she came from a fairly conservative household, recalling that she was conditioned to believe in the absolute necessity and sanctity of the state. Yet, she adds, “more or less my entire political opinions, my opinions about life, and my opinions about the state and my opinions about the nation [millet]... turned upside down in those 15 days I spent there.” It wasn’t just that people could organize themselves, it was also more fulfilling and in some cases more efficient to do so. The earthquake would be the formative experience for a generation of leftist thinkers.
She remembers meeting two prominent leftist writers like Gürhan Ertürk, Ümit Kıvanç at those sights in 1999. Then she lists a few other names “Çiğdem Mater, in prison. Osman Kavala, in prison. Mücella Yapıcı, in prison. I met them there at the civil coordination. Tayfun [Kahraman] was very young at the time, because he was born in ‘81, but I’m sure he would have been there” she says. To people who follow Turkish politics, the list is immediately recognizable.
They are the Gezi trial defendants.
In 2013, a group of civil society activists and opposition politicians began camping out in the Gezi Park, adjacent to Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. They did this because the government was preparing to tear down the park and construct what it called the “Topçu Kışlası,” an Ottoman era building that was torn down in 1940. At the heart of this group were the people who were emergency responders to the 1999 quake. To these people, the lesson of that disaster wasn’t just that urban spaces were badly planned and developed, it was that the system didn’t value human life. Turkey therefore needed an active citizenry that would pressure government and market forces to value their lives.
So let’s take a brief look at Çavdar’s friends, who are now in prison for “attempting to overthrow the government by force.” Çiğdem Mater is a film producer, journalist and activist who was at the forefront of that campaign. My favorite movie she produced is the 2010 movie Çoğunluk (Majority), the story of Mertkan, a young man whose father is a mid-level construction boss in Istanbul. Mertkan is spoiled and irresponsible, and his father raises him to use nationalism and market power to keep ethnic minorities and workers down. If you have trouble imagining the kind of person who would violate the building code for a bit of extra profit, watch that movie.
Osman Kavala is a businessman, philanthropist and civil society activist. Seeing that the emerging cities were becoming cultural wastelands, he founded Anadolu Kültür in 2002, an NGO that aims to breathe new life into the fast-growing cities across the country, connecting them to their histories and enlivening their arts scenes. The government sees him as the “ring leader” and has condemned him to life in prison.
Mücella Yapıcı is an architect and was the secretary general of the Environmental Impact Assessment Department at the TMMOB. Tayfun Kahraman is an urban planner and executive board chair at the TMMOB. Both fought the construction sector in the courts and in the public sphere throughout the 2000s, campaigning restlessly against the greed of the construction tycoons.
These people wanted to foster a culture of urban life where people could build networks of social solidarity that were separate from the state and the market, that could push back against them when needed. Gezi eventually escalated into a massive, uncontrollable anti-government protest movement across the country, but at its core was this spirit of civil solidarity.
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The perspective of Erdoğan’s government is starkly different. For Erdoğan, politics is about restoring the country’s geopolitical greatness. Turkey is no longer to be an appendage of “Western civilization,” but a Turko-Islamic power in its own right. According to this worldview, the health and wealth of the citizenry is important, but it is a means to that end. The government isn’t shy about this, as is evident in one of its favorite mottos “insanı yaşat ki devlet yaşasın,” literally meaning “let man live so that the state may live,” a phrase attributed to Seykh Edebali, the wise man behind Osman, the founder of the Ottoman state. The AK Party uses it unironically to headline its social projects.
This ethos has caused a rapid degeneration in the competence and professionalism in government. The trait Erdoğan looks for when making appointments is a commitment to the cause of civilizational reawakening. There are two ways people can signal this. The first is unwavering commitment to the president. The second is to work long hours and be known to be working long hours. “He who runs with love never tires” says the president, and he means it. Skills and know-how can always be acquired along the way, in this view, it’s unbending loyalty that must be rewarded.
It’s for this reason that in Turkey today people with nationalistic and religious backgrounds hold all sorts of technical posts. İsmail Palakoğlu, the head of disaster response at Turkey’s Disaster and Management Authority (AFAD), for example, is a theologian. He is the author of a book entitled “The Sultan of Hearts: The Venerable Osman Hulusi” [Gönüller Sultanı Es-Seyyid Osman Hulusi Efendi], in which the venerable one happens to be his father in law. Palakoğlu then worked at Diyanet, the presidency of religious affairs, before parachuting into his senior role at AFAD. This was the man responsible for emergency response during the early minutes of the earthquake, for making sure that tens of thousands of people trapped under rubble were saved, and that the survivors had decent living conditions.
Another person who has recently gotten public attention is İrfan Keskin, the head of AFAD’s Information systems and communications department up until 2022. A video that was widely shared on the social media platforms after Feb. 6, shows Keskin taking stage at a cyber security summit in 2018 dressed in medieval Turkic war gear, with bow and arrow at hand. He shoots some arrows shouting “Ya Hak!” (roughly something like “Ye Lord!”) which is the kind of thing nationalist historians imagine Ottoman warriors to say. The archery is supposed to present some parallel to the computer system on display at the summit, but as the nation furiously shared his video, Keskin’s intent was so blindingly obvious that it didn’t have to be articulated - he was imitating the president’s son, who years before in 2014, and unforgettably to the Turkish internet, let his arrow fly to the same battle cry. Keskin may or may not be a fairly competent engineer and manager (mediocre at best, based on those shots), but he knew that competence isn’t enough in the new regime. The palace must be reassured that its origins are wholesome.
Those people of course, were responsible for the emergency response to the earthquake. The most important public policy issue here is surely that buildings don’t collapse in the first place. Who was responsible for that? The “National Earthquake Strategy Plan 2012-2023” laid out a detailed roadmap to make the entire country earthquake proof by 2023. Erdoğan’s cabinet approved it on August, 17 2011, the tenth anniversary of the 1999 earthquake. They apologized for having been late, but promised to take implementation seriously. The plan was to conduct a holistic risk-assessment and systemic overhaul of unsafe buildings.
It was never really executed. In its quest for economic growth, let the construction sector run free. There is no shortage of reports and expert statements before and after the earthquake, warning of the dangers. The TMMOB has been at the forefront of those efforts. Right after the Gezi protests, the Erdogan government stripped the TMMOB of its constitutional powers overseeing the construction sector, including zoning, mapping and project supervision. The institution still did its best to campaign for safer cities, with its chairman, Taner Yüzgeç, going on TV regularly to alert the public of the dangers Involved.
It’s worth noting that other professional groups also resist the Erdoğan palace’s system. Lawyers resist the government’s takeover of the judiciary through The Turkish Bars Association (TBB). Doctors, through the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) campaign against a rampantly corrupt health sector, and worsening work conditions, including endemic violence against health professionals. Economists object in vain as inflation wipes out earnings, and housing prices soar to punishing heights. The citizenry had grown numb to the ceaseless jeremiads of the professional class, but something has changed with the earthquake. More than at any point in the past two decades, we are confronted with two very distinct forms of politics.
On the ruling government’s side, there has been a mad scramble to show that the state is not actually absent or incompetent. Its control may not be perfect, officials say, but look at how it’s hustling to get to the scene, look at how zealous its officials are, look at how beautiful their efforts look from the sky! In private moments, they may acknowledge that the construction sector may be a bit greedy, that the government’s coordination and emergency response was weak, but to them, dwelling on this recognition will seem inappropriate or downright treasonous. “Of course our insides are burning, our losses greatly upset us” said Mustafa Varank, the Minister of Industry and Technology, “but on the production side, we, as a government, will continue to support Turkey as a country that grows through production.” In that “but” was hidden two decades of fast-and-loose economic growth, and this unfortunate incident could not be allowed to slow it down. Tragedy had to be transmuted into national unity, national unity into state power, state power into civilizational revival.
This is also why the groups external to the state’s direct control could not be allowed to be seen by the public as the aid providers. The one thing that they could not afford was to have people shout “where is the state?” on TV. Any relief work outside of AFAD might be taken to mean that the state was absent, and that perception was to be prevented at all costs. “We won’t allow for any coordination outside of AFAD to take place” said Murat Kurum, the minister of environment, on the second day of the disaster. Civil solidarity networks, opposition parties, municipal governments, were welcome to help, but their contributions had to be dressed up in the Erdogan regime’s colors. If they refused, their efforts were obstructed or taken over. The Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu implied that such occurrence was akin to “attributing a partner to the state” (“devlete eş koşmak,”) a religious phrase that resonated with the Islamic aversion to having “partner” deities besides the one true God.
Gods that require such careful protection usually don’t last long. Turkey’s citizens know that these earthquakes didn’t have to be nearly as deadly as they were. “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do” as everyone keeps repeating. Most live in the earthquake zones, and even Erdoğan’s most fervent supporters will now think about how safe their building is, and how reliable the official assurances are. Did that show downstairs knock down a wall? A column? Does the contractor who built your building live in it? Where are you on the earthquake maps? And once faith slips, it slips. How powerful is your state really, you think, when the money you forgot in your pockets lost half its value, when your doctor’s examination is shorter than some TikTok videos, when you can’t get visas to even visit foreign countries, but they somehow buy up property in yours? The state’s response in the earthquake’s aftermath last week was as immutable a reminder of “father state’s” priorities as there can be.
That’s why many of the early videos from the quake-stricken areas had a bitterly mocking tone. “Where are you, Erdogan? Weren’t you a world leader?” said a man whose mother died after two days of awaiting rescue in the rubble. “I thought I was living in a wealthy, beautiful country” said a woman, “the country is not safe! Everyone is out for themselves!” There was rage at a promise unfulfilled, the humiliation being the victim of so primordial a disaster in a country supposedly made anew. “He says Europe is jealous of us,” said a man, recalling the president’s iconic phrase, “If Europe is so jealous of you, why can’t you send over a crane for the past four days? And I’m saying this as the [AK] party’s man!” People are astonished at how quickly life has lost value. The term “can pazarı” meaning “a market of lives” comes up repeatedly in these videos, as the bodies of the dead are laid out next to each other, at times buried by the dozens.
In his numerous statements since the disaster, Erdogan hasn’t been able to hide the bitter aftertaste of hubris. His model is increasingly looking like a Sunni version of Iran, hurdling towards empire as the home front crumbles.
As heart-wrenching and infuriating as it has been to watch the earthquake, it has brought to the fore the lessons of civil solidarity once again. Coal miners, lacking the most basic gear, have rushed to the scene to help save lives. Students of all political persuasions have flocked to the area, laboring not to score political points, but simply for the quiet comfort of losing oneself in collective effort. Foreign rescue crews have reminded us that foreigners - to the East or West - don’t have to be our enemies. It’s still early days, but people are already growing more determined to make a change.
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