The metastasis of despotism

After a two-year-long state of emergency, Turkey’s new anti-terror law ensures many of the extraordinary powers enjoyed by the government stay in place.

An important feature of the new anti-terror law is the extensive authority it grants to provincial governors and the military. For example, the fact that governors have the authority to postpone or cancel any meeting, and that in urgent cases, military commanders can give orders to search individuals as well as their vehicles, personal documents, and property is in conflict with the Turkish constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. Furthermore, the authority granted to the military to conduct searches without a warrant in areas under martial law is, in my analysis, a violation of personal privacy and the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.

The broadened authority given to governors, as well as the administrative reorganisation that brings them directly under the authority of the president, renders them representatives of the president beholden only to presidential authority and is a way of transferring the authoritarian central administration to provincial administrators. This means we will see more of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan everywhere. In every province, administrators will be more fervent Erdoğan supporters than ever. As a result, despotism will spiral and spread to all echelons of society. In short, this will be the metastasis of despotism.

Despotism results from a pathological state of mind. Most of the causes behind despotism are psychological. Foremost among these psychological causes are feelings of insecurity, excessive scepticism, and fear of the future.

The forces that gave birth to Sultan Abdülhamit II’s despotism in the late 19th century were much the same. Historians have reached consensus that due to the loss of his mother at the age of 11 and his father’s cold demeanour, Abdülhamit had a closed off, emotionally reserved personality. This was a result of growing up deprived of motherly compassion and fatherly love.

Since Abdülhamit witnessed how his predecessors, Sultan Abdülaziz and Sultan Murat V, were deposed through military and bureaucratic coups, he was heavily suspicious of government officials and the palace community. He was similarly weary of the Muslim clerics who legitimised coups with their rulings on Islamic law. He feared that he would one day be deposed via a coup, and he therefore never felt safe, or trusted anyone.

As a result, Abdülhamit began to search for precautions that would safeguard his political office, his life, and his future. He established a secret service and ran extensive intelligence operations. He had everyone followed, including government officials. He used loans to build his Yıldız Palace, and brought in new personnel to establish his new administration. He perceived his personal safety and survival to be synonymous with the safety and survival of the state, and took precautions accordingly.

In the meeting arranged to address the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, Abdülhamit became angered by criticism directed at him, and responded by declaring, “I will be forced to follow in Sultan Mahmut II’s footsteps” and deciding to implement a despotic regime. But in fact, the source of almost all of the issues that came up during the dissolution of the empire was that despotic regime. Embracing measures that pave the way for collapse as if they form the path to salvation undoubtedly indicates a pathological state of mind.

After consolidating his authority in Istanbul, Abdülhamit headed to the countryside. In order to establish his authority in the provinces, he made contact with local tyrants: tribal and sectarian leaders. Although his intentions seemed to be guaranteeing the continuity of the state, he was paving the way for the total collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

How? You ask.

The state is an abstract entity. Laws are its soul. Those who govern are subject to the same laws as the governed. No one can claim to be “the state”. Consequently, the intangible state can neither be seen nor touched. The state is everywhere, but its voice cannot be heard. It has no voice. There is no concrete force that can overthrow a state that cannot be seen, heard, or held. Both friends and enemies of the state only see the products of the abstract state. Those products are justice, consultation, liberty, welfare, and tranquillity.

When the state transitions from an abstract entity to a material one, this signals that its collapse has begun. Material entities can be touched and harmed. The materialisation of the state occurs when laws are shelved, and the will of individuals who scrapped the laws reigns supreme. You begin to see people who claim, “I am the state”. These people are not subject to the laws and prescripts that normal mortals follow. They have the authority to act outside the law, and they begin to use this authority. The abstract state order has crumbled, and in its place, the will of one individual and his dependents has established control over the people.

To protect the state against the Armenian and Russian threat, Abdülhamit established a provincial military order composed of Kurdish and Arab tribes that he named the “Hamidiye Corps”. It is unfortunate that Abdülhamit relied on despotism just like his grandfather Mahmut II. He was feeding an addiction and calling it medicine. But originally, the person responsible for the collapse of the social order in eastern Anatolia was none other than Sultan Mahmut.

The Hamidiye Corps was directly tied to the sultan, and was under the control of Army General Zeki Pasha, a relative of Abdülhamit. Local military and civil administrators did not have authority to interfere with these forces in any way. If corps members committed crimes, they were not tried in a local court. Local governors had no authority to hold them accountable.

Operating outside of the law, the Hamidiye Corps became a concrete manifestation of the state. The “state” had become Abdülhamit. In provincial areas under its control, the corps became a shanty state. The state had become completely concrete. Brigandry and oppression had no limits. For example, Mustafa Pasha, leader of the Kurdish Miran tribe, had visited the sultan, acquired the title of “pasha,” and established his own military brigades. History books are replete with the atrocities that Mustafa Pasha committed. Murder, extortion, and harassment were out of control. There was no organisation or individual that could challenge him. Archives are full of documents that chronicle these actions. Furthermore, Mustafa Pasha is not a unique example.

The order that Abdülhamit established comprised more than just the Hamidiye Corps. He also used his title of caliph to contact sectarian leaders. He hosted these religious leaders in his palace, and gave them valuable gifts. He allowed them to consolidate power and establish their authority in the region. As a result, in addition to the cruelties of Hadimiye pashas, sectarian leaders became preoccupied with harassing and stripping poor, uneducated provincial people. Though not all provincial leaders behaved in this way, the ones that did partake in cruelty were too numerous to be taken lightly.

History has not borne witness to humane orders being established by individuals that act outside of or above the law. History shows that tyranny breeds more severe tyranny, and destroys the existing state order.

The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which overthrew Abdülhamit, vowed freedom for its subjects, just as predecessors had. But when CUP members took control of government, they became even more heavy-handed than Abdülhamit. In reality, they had no other choice. Just as doctors subject patients with metastasised tumours to intensive treatments, the CUP began an era of intense domination. But the intensive care was not enough to save the patient, and following a century of tyranny, a 600-year state collapsed and dissolved.

The despotism that Erdoğan has spread to the lowest levels of the state with his new anti-terror law will not solve any problems the public face. Neither security issues, nor economic issues will be resolved. Abdülhamit II and the CUP may have chosen despotism when faced with the wreckage of the declining Ottoman state, but Erdoğan’s 15 years in power have turned the state to rubble, and he now chooses to govern through tyranny. This is the most important distinction between the two cases.

The anti-terror law has been ratified and is now being implemented. Now, security officials, military commanders, and governors who see themselves above the law will engage in illegal actions, spurred on by their personal misgivings and suspicions. Inevitably, innocent people will be hurt and public order will break down. This will lead to further government pressure.

Unfortunately, this law will become insufficient and a more severe administration, most likely martial law, will take over the entire country. The country will once again require intensive care.

About Me

Ali Agcakulu is an academic, author, and columnist. After he graduated from the Graduate School of Social Sciences at the Yildiz Technical University in 2016, he worked as a Postdoctoral research fellow at The Catholic University of America. He published two books; “The Brief History of Kurdish Nationalism” and “Said Nursi’s Political Theory or The Reform of Islamic Political Thought”. As a journalist, he was a columnist with Rota Haber and Ocak Medya news websites between 2015-2019. He also has many academic and semi-academic articles published in various magazines and newspapers. He is currently a columnist with the Ahval News website. His expertise is on the history and philosophy of Turkey’s relationships between religion and politics.

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