There is a differentiation between state violence and anti-state violence in the literature of political science. While the concept of state terror has been neglected by many media outlets and academics, especially in relation to the struggles of oppressed peoples and groups around the world, there are also many academics taking an interest in, and an expanding literature, on state violence and terror.
By distinguishing between “retail” and “wholesale” terrorism, the former the terror of individuals and small groups, the latter that of states, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman address the problems that have arisen out of the exclusion of wholesale terror. They stress the fact that “retail terrorists have limited capabilities for terrorizing, whereas states can intimidate and kill on a very large (wholesale) scale.”
A research assistant at Utrecht University, Dr. Ayhan Işık has been working for years on the paramilitary structures in the majority Kurdish southeast and east of Turkey, and this eventually led him tackle the usage of the words “terror” and “terrorism” in Turkey.
Işık’s study has revealed the contingency areas of the Kurdish image and the usage of the concept of terrorism. In an interview with Yeni Özgür Politika, Işık explains how the concept of terrorism has been manipulated by states to target certain opposition groups and individuals around the world. “Every state has its own terrorist enemies,” Işık argues, adding that all governments have their own definitions of how to use the word “terror”, such that it becomes impossible to reach a consensus on the concept of terrorism.
How was the concept of terrorism used in the history and who used it first?
The concept of terror has a vast context that requires academic expertise. I must say in the beginning that although I am quite well acquainted with the concept because of my own research areas and my research on political violence, I am not an expert in it.
The concept has a few centuries of history, but when it comes how to define it conceptually, the is a hard task, because there is no consensus in academical circles, nationally and internationally. It is rather vogue that determines who is to be defined as a terrorist and which actions acts of terrorism.
Speaking very generally, we can say that the creation of fear through acts of violence by certain governments, individuals or groups against other groups or individuals that they target is defined as terror.
The first appearances of the word terror coincide with the years immediately following the French revolution. This concept was used to define state violence in 1793-94. Nowadays the concept of terror is primarily used to define non-state actors, but the term “state terror” also holds an important place in literature.
It is actually more related to “state violence”; so this concept was being used to define violence by the state rather than violence by a group against the state. It is only after 20th century that the concept began to be used for acts of violence committed by those individuals or groups who position themselves against the state.
The concept of terror being used as a dismissive expression started after the 1920s-30s in reference to occasional individual acts of violence (without a political goal), but it is only after the 1970s-80s that we see a meaning close to today’s definition of the concept, where states mainly define opposition national liberation movements as terrorist organisations.
What is the connection between nation-state and the use of violence, conceptually speaking?
The definition of the “modern nation-state” is highly dependent on the concepts of force and violence. Max Weber defines the state as a “human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. So the “monopoly of the use of violence” is a key criterion to defining the state, according to Weber. Accordingly, the state or the sovereign does not see the use of physical violence as legitimate by any party other than itself.
Thus the state claims that it, and no-one else, is the party whose use of violence in legitimate. This claim is supported by its laws. These also define which bodies may use violence, such as the military, the police etc.
Therefore, when any individual or group not authorised by the state to use violence does so, they are denounced and deemed as “outlawed”.
On the other hand, these definitions are being questioned and criticised. Although the laws of the modern state contain these definitions, there are many grey zones around who is a terrorist and who is not. We know that states hand the monopoly of the use of violence to certain groups at certain times for certain periods.
How is state terror related to the concept of terrorism and which acts of the state are defined as state terror?
In literature, we only see non-state actors as the subject of terrorism. To define a whole state as a “terrorist organisation” based on its use of violence is not possible.
Anthropologist Jeffrey Sluka uses the concept of state terror to explain the threat and the use of violence by the state and its supporters/agents especially against civilians as a tool of political control and intimidation, that is, as a tool of oppression.
In particular, in defining the strategy used by the Turkish state in the years 1993-1996, certain acts of violence can be defined as state terror, because they are actions appropriate to the definition of state terror. Forced disappearances, torture and unsolved murders of civilians, perpetrated by the state or agents of the state, can be given as examples of these.
We see that Turkey bases its core argument against Kurdish politics on terror. How do you think Turkey and other states create their terror lists?
Terror is used by states in a very pragmatical way, and for Turkey the usage of this word in this context dates back to 1991 and their strategy to fight against the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party], when they set out the main legal provisions concerning terrorism in the Counter-Terrorism Law of 12 April 1991, amended in 2003.
In Turkey, there are more than 50 laws that define which actions are deemed to be offences, and if these offences are believed to be committed by organisations or members of organisations that are deemed to be terrorist organisations, they are evaluated within the scope of “terrorist offences”. That is, when a person is prosecuted on terrorism charges, they can be prosecuted on charges defined in 50 different laws.
When the PKK launched armed actions in 1984, these were not handled within the category of terrorism by the state institutions and politicians of the time. They rather developed definitions based on the activists themselves, calling them bandits and looters. With the 1991 legislation, instead of defining them as bandits, they shifted to a “modern” definition. This meant they had created a new designation for the PKK.
When it comes to other states; all states have their own political agenda to define certain groups in opposition to them as terrorist organisations. Russia’s “terrorist organisations”, for example, are primarily drawn from armed groups in the Caucasus.
In that case, why do you believe states other than Turkey add the PKK to their terror list?
Looking at the European Union countries that have listed the PKK as a terrorist organisation we see two categories: Germany, France, Britain and the Netherlands, who added PKK to their terror list based on their own decisions independent of the EU decision, and other EU countries who add PKK to their list solely based on the EU decision. Greece and Switzerland, for example, made this decision simply to comply with the EU’s decision.
Germany and Britain have been following this policy since the 1990s, based on their membership of NATO and their political and financial relations with Turkey, but the EU added the PKK to their list in 2002.
The concepts of “terror” and “terrorism” have been seriously altered since the early 2000s. These concepts have been constantly injected into the veins of societies through the media. It has easily turned into an argument that generates legitimacy for occupying states.
It is important to highlight a point over very tragic and current incidents in Afghanistan. It has been 20 years since US launched it first operation in Afghanistan. These are the years in which the concepts of “terror” and “terrorism” have been most used on a global scale. States started to create lists of national and international terrorist organisations.
Since the 1980s, the disappearance of economic borders with what we call neoliberalisation and globalisation seems to be a binding factor for the creation of such lists. Economies have become intertwined and dependent on each other. The financial relations between states have become a part of their political agendas. The relations between Turkey and Germany are a very important example of this.
States, now, want to utilise the concept of terror to broaden their areas of criminalisation for the groups which are and might be against to them, to restrain opposition.
One of the questions most often encountered by Kurdish politicans when they speak to the Turkish media is: ‘Do you see the PKK as a terrorist organisation?” How do you evalaute this question and the attribution of terrorism to Kurdish politics?
The individual who is addressed with the concept of terrorism in this way is pushed into a corner of being anti-state, an enemy of the state. In this way all the arguments of that individual to defend themselves or to enrich the political context of the debate are taken away from them.
Remember Tahir Elçi [a prominent Kurdish lawyer and human rights activist who was shot dead while giving a speech to the press in Turkey’s southeastern city of Diyarbakır (Amed) in 2015] and how he was targeted after a TV broadcast hosted by Ahmet Hakan because he did not give the answers expected by the state.
This is the framework that many Kurdish politicians such as Orhan Doğan, Ahmet Türk and Selahattin Demirtaş have come face to face with in Turkey.
Any Kurd, any individual, politician, intellectual or artist from the Kurdish community or any other ethnic minority who support the struggle waged by the Kurds have always been asked whether or not they view the PKK as a terrorist organisation. In this way, artists, politicians, intellectuals and journalists are all forced into a corner, a corner of criminality.
The hindrance of free speech in this way is a part of state strategy, and mainstream media is an agent of this strategy. Only when the Kurdish subject speaks freely in a public sphere will the political existence and the subjectivity of the Kurds be recognised; only then will Turkishness and Kurdishness be on an equal footing. But for now such equality is out of question.