State of emergency a confession of weakness

‘The state of emergency in the Ottoman Empire’ is the area of specialisation of Noémi Lévy-Aksu, whose work permit was revoked for signing the peace declaration. Lévy-Aksu has spoken about the ironic continuity from Ottoman martial law until today.

09 Nisan 2017 Pazar, 18:46
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One of the foreign signatories of the Academics for Peace declaration to have their work permits revoked under the Council of Higher Education Executive Board resolution of 22 February was Assistant Professor Noémi Lévy-Aksu of Bosphorus University’s History Department. It is as yet unknown if the school will take legal action to object to this resolution. French citizen Lévy-Aksu is a historian who focuses on such issues as public order, law and order and martial law in the final period of the Ottoman Empire. In a sense, she is researching the history of the ‘state of emergency in the Ottoman Empire’. Her doctoral thesis entitled ‘Law and Order in Ottoman Istanbul’ (İletişim Publications) has recently appeared. I spoke with Lévy-Aksu in the grounds of the school at which she can no longer teach, in the ‘Hands off My Teacher’ tent.

-You have been in Turkey since 2003. Do you currently have tourist rights?

Yes, the Council of Higher Education revoked my residence permit along with my work permit.

-You are a state of emergency victim and, at the same time, study such things as martial law and states of emergency in the Ottoman Empire. Would you have imagined it?

Yes, it is ironic. When I embarked on this study, there was no state of emergency. I had come to conclusions about the history of the Republic of Turkey through contemplating the 90’s. I had wanted to seek out the meaning of the absence of a state of emergency. And then the state of emergency was proclaimed. This is not only Turkey’s reality.

The implementation is extremely different from France

-Frequent resort has been made here to the argument that France has proclaimed a state of emergency. As a citizen who has experienced both, how would you list the differences and similarities?

The similarity is the government’s or state’s attempt to narrow constitutional rights while endeavouring to remain within the existing statutory framework. But, the implementation is extremely different. I do not consider the state of emergency in France to be legitimate, either, and I oppose its constant extension, but the arbitrariness that I see in Turkey at the implementation stage is very different from France.

-Why did the Ottoman Empire feel the need for martial law?

The main reason was the constitution. The term ‘martial law’ first began to be used along with the first constitution in real terms, the Basic Law of 1876. State of emergency and martial law – all these concepts define relations with the constitution. According to Article 113, martial law could be proclaimed for a temporary period if there existed signs of rebellion. Martial law meant the suspending, the lifting, of existing laws. The essential function of martial law was to protect the sultan’s absolute rule and to legitimise it in a new form. It is important for this to be placed within the prevailing Islamic political and legal tradition. The term used to mean ‘martial’ may appear to refer to custom and tradition, but it is a concept that points to the sultan’s power.

Martial law that is different in Mardin and different in Istanbul

-How do practices in the 19th Century and today compare in terms of arbitrariness and vagueness?

I attach a lot of importance to the notion of arbitrariness because what martial law or today’s state of emergency do is to make room for arbitrariness. Each state of emergency and each martial law is different from the others. The room that it makes varies according to each political and social context because it can be implemented by many different actors and the violation of different rights can come into play. Even if what they have in common is violating rights and creating injustice, for example, today’s state of emergency and the one applied in the 90’s are not the same. The state of emergency gives rise to itself. So, it can only be made sense of through reference to practice.

Today, even the same state of emergency has a different meaning in a village in Mardin and in Istanbul or Ankara. That is, it may vary geographically at the same time. They may not even feel the need for a state of emergency to do some of these things, but in Kurdish regions this may mean the demolition of a house and, on the other hand, sacking people from various public institutions or imprisoning journalists under decrees with the force of law. Apart from this, the state of emergency varies according to social class. You journalists and we academics experience it differently, but, for example, there are those who do not feel the state of emergency at all. In the Ottoman Empire, too, martial law was not the same thing in the Balkans or in Anatolia; it had a different meaning for a worker or a non-Muslim. Compared to today, an important difference is the role of the army. In the Ottoman Empire, martial law meant much more granting authority to local armies and generals. Today, the place of a bureaucratic organisation within martial law is more important.

The basic target was non-Muslims

-What sort of experience did non-Muslims have of the state of emergency in the Ottoman Empire?

In the final period of the Ottoman Empire, in Abdülhamit II’s period, martial law was mainly applied in the Balkans. It was applied for the first time during the 1877 Ottoman-Russian War, but after the war local generals resorted to it even if there was no special rebellion or problem in existence. Using arguments such as the existence of non-Muslims, the existence of bandits or nationalistic activities, martial law was implemented essentially due to that region’s ethnic, religious or social features. These were regions in which the military was always powerful prior to the Tanzimat, anyway, but martial law was used as a new tool. The basic target was non-Muslims, of course.

The state of emergency’s psychological dimension: Uncertainty and arbitrariness pacify people

-You referred a little earlier to sections of society that do not feel the state of emergency at all. Those who proclaimed the most recent state of emergency stress that it will not affect ‘normal’ citizens. Is this implication that those who are affected are in some way ‘guilty’ a psychological dimension of the state of emergency?

Both in the past and today, states of emergency are legitimised for two reasons. One of these is the matter of necessity. This is a dangerous argument because it leaves no room for opposition. What is said is that if you come out in opposition, then you don’t want state security or public order, and then you are also the enemy. Martial law is proclaimed after the 31 March Incident, and those who oppose are told, ‘Then did you want the 31 March Incident to succeed?’ If you look at parliamentary debate when Maintenance of Order was proclaimed during the Sheikh Said rebellion in the early Republic, similar accusations were levelled against a few liberal MPs who voiced opposition: Do you not want this rebellion to be supressed? You are either there or here. If you are good citizens you cannot come out in opposition.

-On the other hand, there is also a noticeable attempt on the part of the government to reassure and invisibilise by suggesting that the perception has been created that there is a state of emergency when there is no such thing and in fact everything is normal. If everything complies with due process or is necessary, why do countries feel ashamed at having declared a state of emergency or try to play it down?

One of the techniques for legitimising states of emergency is normalisation. There is no problem but there appears to be a problem. Yes, proclaiming a state of emergency greatly strengthens the state and its tools, but at the same time it is a defeat in my opinion. Because, what does this mean? It means that I am unable to solve this problem with the statutory or administrative tools that are normally at my disposal so I move out of the normal framework and make recourse to extraordinary tools. The state of emergency is a kind of confession of weakness. One of the ‘Yes’ campaign posters reads: ‘There will be no more martial law.’ I ask myself if this is ironic or odd. To promise to return to the normal and to do this in a very normal way... One of the greatest dangers of the state of emergency is the creation of the polarisation that you are either a supporter or enemy. The narrowing of the room for opposition leads to silence and self-censorship. It may mean that an act or statement that is considered commonplace in periods when there is no state of emergency may now be called a crime. Periods in which the definition of crime and modes of punishment become vague, periods in which uncertainty and arbitrariness prevail, make people more passive.

If ‘Yes’ prevails, Turkey will be without a constitution

-Do you agree with the assessment that the presidential government system being voted on is a system that will make state of emergency conditions ordinary?

Yes, I agree. We can also read this as being a continuation for Turkey; the business of making an extraordinary situation ordinary is being done through a constitution again. We can also refer to Ottoman history – no constitution over the entire history of the Republic of Turkey has been made for democracy and to defend rights. The aim has always been to strengthen and legitimise the regime. This of course has been at various levels: in 61 this was relatively more liberal, for example. The situation is so ironical that it is currently possible to long for the 82 constitution, because this bears a greater resemblance to a constitution. In the draft of the new constitution, the separation of powers, which makes a constitution into a constitution, is virtually absent. In other words, it is a constitution in name, but not in essence. This is why there are such concepts as ‘abusive constitutionalism’ and ‘bad faith constitutionalism.’ That is, if ‘Yes’ prevails, you can think of Turkey being without a constitution.