Deniz Yonucu, Police, Provocation, Politics: Counterinsurgency in Istanbul (Cornell University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Deniz Yonucu (DY): This book started as an ethnographic study of a predominantly Alevi populated working-class neighborhood in Istanbul. Over the course of years, it turned into a much bigger project on global policing practices that are informed by the colonial school of warfare and Cold War/decolonial era counterinsurgencies. What made me write this book was a kind of a burden of witnessing. When I was a high school student in the 1990s, I had working-class Alevi friends whose neighborhoods were placed under militarized spatial control—not unlike that seen in Belfast during the Troubles: military vehicles patrolling the streets, checkpoints, armed and masked policemen, and soldiers. I gave the example of Belfast, because, as I show in the book, British counterinsurgency in Belfast has been highly informative to the Turkish security state. Torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings were common in those years. When we were still in high school, some of my friends were imprisoned, others were forced to leave the country, and many came face to face with various forms of police violence. Yet, such intimidating methods were not effective in suppressing the dissent. Despite extensive repression, the 1990s—especially the first half of the 1990s—was a time of large-scale, left-wing, and anti-colonial mobilization in Turkey. Later, in the early 2000s when I first travelled to Northern Kurdistan (Southeast Turkey) both the scale of repression and the resistance against it made an impact on me. What I witnessed more than two decades ago in the Alevi working-class neighborhoods of Istanbul and in Northern Kurdistan has haunted me ever since. It is that story of the systematic police repression and the political resistance of Turkey’s Alevis and Kurds that I felt obliged to write.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

DY: Police, Provocation and Politics provides an ethnographically grounded analysis of the tension between policing and politics. It situates Turkish counterinsurgent policing within a global context and shows how Turkish counterinsurgencies have been informed by global counterinsurgencies—most specifically by British counterinsurgencies in Malaya and Northern Ireland, French counterinsurgencies in Algeria, and US counterinsurgencies at home and abroad.

Counterinsurgency acknowledges the impossibility of defeating resistance by repressive security forces alone and, thus, heavily invests in soi-disant “psychological warfare.” This entails various affect- and emotion-generating strategies employed by state security forces and the mass media. To show how these strategies work on the ground, this book focuses on their provocative, affect- and emotion-generating, and divisive techniques, and urban dimensions. It shows how national security states provoke conflict and violence, and ideological, ethno-racialized, and religious divergences both among and within various communities with the aim of maintaining capitalist, racist, colonial, and patriarchal nation-state order. Within this frame, in addition to the literature on policing and security, the book also engages with literatures on political subjectivities, ethno-sectarian and ethno-racialized conflicts, urban marginality, and urban violence.

In understanding how left-wing and anti-colonial resistance can carry on in a country like Turkey, which has since its foundation had oppressive practices against its Indigenous populations, ensconced in its many laws and policies, the book also engages with the psychoanalytical literature on hauntings and memory. That is to say that in analyzing the conditions of possibility of long-enduring fearless resistance, it takes the agentive effects of the dead, specifically the martyred dead, into account. To understand how certain individuals and/or populations continue to act out against punitive security states despite the potentially grave consequences, I suggest we take into consideration the invigorating power of what I call inspirational hauntings—the hauntings of past resistance and rebellious and defiant subjects who seep into the present and serve as encouraging and emboldening political and ethical resources. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

DY: I have always been interested in the issues related to the governance of urban working classes. My earliest work focused on the criminalization of working-class youth in relation to the neoliberal restructuring of Turkey. The criminalization of the working-class youth can also be seen as a counterinsurgency project, as a project of pacification of “dangerous classes.” Later, I explored the repressive aspects of militarized spatial control, urban violence, and the “lawfare” against Turkey’s racialized Kurdish and Alevi communities. In this book, I continue to explore urban, working-class experiences as well as the attempts to control, contain, and manage working classes. But in the book, rather than focusing on counterinsurgency’s strategies for producing docile and compliant citizens, I focused on the provocative aspects of policing and counterinsurgency. I argue in the book that counterinsurgency is a permeant and preventive war on politics. And the war on politics, among other things, includes the criminalization of actual or potential rebellious populations. In a way, what I have been trying to do for more than a decade all came together in book.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

DY: I believe in the political wisdom of the racialized, oppressed, and dispossessed groups—the wretched of the earth. I hope that my interlocutors’ political insights, analysis, and wisdom, as well as their struggles, can now be heard and seen by anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, and political theorists who are interested in the issues related to politics, policing, memory, and resistance. Activists and community organizers may also be interested in this book as it sheds light on the elusive and disguised security techniques that are designed to divorce dissident groups from their constituency and to counter existing or emerging forms of alignment among actual or potential rebellious populations. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

DY: I am currently working on emerging forms of surveillance and their colonial and imperial legacies. I am particularly interested in the psychic effects of surveillance, and I ask why in an era of unprecedented development in digital surveillance technologies, conventional undercover activities are still widely employed in various parts of the world, both in the Global South and North. Together with my collogues at the Anthropology of Surveillance Network (ANSUR), I seek to contribute to the development of new anthropological perspectives and debates on surveillance during this epochal shift in the history of technology. As Directions Section co-editor of Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR), I also take part in PoLAR’s new editorial collective’s attempts to bring together anthropologists to discuss anthropology’s new directions in an ever-changing world and to turn anthropological gaze inwards to reflect on the ways of doing and writing anthropology.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 11-15) 

The Space and Psyche 

If the population is the main target of the 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 that itself produces, shapes, and transforms space (Glück and Low 2017). As Eyal Weizman (2012) has demonstrated in his work on the Israeli security state, counterinsurgency, instead of destroying what security agents perceive as a “hostile space,” reorganizes it in line with its counterorganization aims. At the same time and in relation to this reorganization, it aims to transform political subjectivities and practices within the targeted space.

This book traces the transformation of Devrimova from the late 1970s when it was a sanctuary space built by and for the country’s racialized, hence most vulnerable, workers into a low-intensity conflict zone and a sectarian enclave since the mid-1990s. I illustrate how counterinsurgency and its provocative dimensions have become manifest and operate in this space with the aim of countering and reorganizing dissident activities and subjectivities.  Police forces’ hit-and-run tactics, the targeting of Alevi spaces and bodies, gang and drug dealing activates in the neighborhoods, the selective targeting of the most community-minded revolutionaries by the anti-terror laws and violent interpellations — which I define as calls to a specific subject position and a specific identification made through performative acts of state or state-backed violence—,  work to incite defensive counterviolence, exaggerate sectarian cleavages, and contain revolutionary activity and violence in the neighborhoods.

Known as a “dirty war”, counterinsurgency and its elusive security strategies rely very heavily on shadowy intelligence agents: undercover police, agents provocateurs, spies, and informants. The infiltration of such agents into dissident groups and communities and the coercion of individuals into collusion undoubtedly intervene in, shape, and inform dissident practices and subjectivities. Yet, counterinsurgency’s elusive practices and its soi-disant “psychological warfare” also entail various affect- and emotion-generating strategies employed by state security forces and the mass media. To separate dissident groups from their base of supporters, to drive a wedge between and among dissident communities and isolate them from the so-called passive majority, counterinsurgency relies on what Joseph Masco (2014, 18) calls “affective infrastructures”: historically produced, shared, and officially constituted, sanctioned, and promoted feelings that are deployed as instruments for coordinating citizens as members of a national security state. In his work on the links between the Cold War and the War on Terror in the United States, Masco argues that the official sanctioning and promotion of the effects of fear, anger, and terror by ruling elites are critical to how affective infrastructures produce and maintain a docile public. Indeed, in this book, feelings of fear, terror, rage, and insecurity play an important role. But in this book, rather than the production of docility, I am interested in the ways in which affect- and emotion-generating provocative counterorganizational strategies work to effect a broad range of counterorganizational aims: the strengthening of already existing ethnosectarian and ethnonational cleavages in Turkey, the mobilization of left-wing groups against one another, the creation of intergenerational conflict within working-class Alevi communities, the militarization of revolutionary youth, the continuation of low-intensity conflict in the neighborhoods, and, last but not least, the effective colonization of the political space through policing.

Counterinsurgency as a War on Politics

Laleh Khalili (2012, 5) argues that “counterinsurgency refuses politics, or at least transforms political conflicts and contestations, revolts and insurgencies into technical problems to be solved.” For Khalili, this refusal is caused by counterinsurgency’s “inability to recognize the politics that defines and structures revolts” (5). Yet counterinsurgency doctrines actually do acknowledge that the source of the insurgency is political. NATO’s Allied Joint Doctrine for Counterinsurgency stresses that “economic, political or social grievances . . . fuel the insurgency” (2011, para. 0354). It is not so much that counterinsurgency logics fail to recognize the political reasons motivating rebellions but that they are reluctant to make the political and structural changes necessary to eradicate their root causes, such as poverty, racism, and colonialism. Counterinsurgency instead aims to maintain social orders that are based on the oppression and exploitation of racialized and dispossessed populations—social orders that by their very nature lead inevitably to rebellions. Thus, it serves to make the inevitable evitable. In this sense, I agree with Harcourt (2018) that counterinsurgency is a “governing paradigm” (8) and a “counterrevolution without revolution” (12). We might even call it a permanent counterrevolution, a form of preventive governance that remains ever mindful of the possibility of revolt and rebellion against racism, patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism. Counterinsurgency then does not only “refuse politics,” as Khalili argues, by transforming already existing revolts and political conflicts into technical issues of security and “terror” but it also actively wages a preventive and permanent war on politics: although fragmentation of populations is a major effect of counterinsurgency, its ultimate aim is depoliticization.  As I illustrate throughout this book, generating the conditions for perpetual yet functionally manageable conflict through overt and covert intervention and the use of affect- and emotion-generating security strategies are key components of counterinsurgency’s depoliticization efforts. After all, counterinsurgency builds on the idea that even the most appealing political cause loses its legitimacy under conditions of perpetual conflict.

My understanding of politics here is inspired by Jacques Rancière’s juxtaposition of politics as antithetical to the police. For Rancière (1999, 2001), the police are not essentially about repression and discipline; their function “refers to both the activities of the state as well as to the ordering of social relations” (Swyngedouw 2009, 606). The police thus “constitute the assemblage of institutions, actors and practices” (Khalili 2014, 93) and serve as established orders of governance that assign and distribute human bodies, tasks, spaces, roles, voices, and forms of participation in society. The act of distribution is also an act of partition. Rancière employs the term “partition” in the double sense of the word: “on the one hand, that which separates and excludes; on the other, that which allows participation” (Rancière 2001, Thesis VII). Similar to the logic of counterinsurgency, Rancière’s police are concerned both with the partitioning, the dividing up of people, voices, activities, spaces, and so on, and with defining the forms of participation/part-taking. The “essence” of the police is “the partition of the sensible,” a general law that “defines the forms of part-taking by first defining the modes of perception in which they are inscribed” (Rancière 2001, Thesis VII). “The partition of the sensible” is also a “partition between what is visible and what is not, of what can be heard from the inaudible” (2001). In other words, the police are “an order of the visible and the sayable that sees that a particular activity is visible, and another is not, that this speech is understood as discourse and another as noise” (Rancière 1999, 28). In that sense, as Khalili (2015, 93) argues, for Rancière, policing is about “making unrecognizable (and insensible) that which lies beyond the ordinary discourses, practices and institutions in which we are embedded.”

Rancière holds that political activity is antithetical to the police. Whereas the police define the forms of participation, politics is an intervention in the forms of participation and distribution defined, shaped, and made possible by the police. It is an intervention in the roles and definitions assigned to the people and places by the “police order.” Therefore, for Rancière “politics act on the police” (1999, 33; emphasis in original): “Political activity is whatever shifts a body from the place assigned to it or changes a place’s destination. It makes visible what had no business being seen and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise; it makes understood as discourse what was only heard as noise” (30).

Politics works against the grain of the established order and disturbs the policed distribution of things. It intervenes in the police order; it changes or attempts to change places’ and bodies’ assigned destinations within the existing social order. It opens up new and unexpected possibilities, spaces, and roles.

To put it more concretely using a few examples from this book, whereas the police predestine the racialized working classes and the dispossessed to mere survival, politics opens up the space for them to become active agents of mass social mobilization who dare to challenge established social relations. Whereas the police strive to coerce the working classes of diverse backgrounds into a relationship of enmity, one characterized by ethnoreligious or racialized divergence, and allow their words only to be heard as “ethnic,” “racial” or “religious” noise, politics opens up a space for camaraderie that transcends divisive categories while fighting against oppressive structures. Whereas the police locate poor racialized women in domestic space as “ignorant,” invisible, and yet reproductive “victims” of patriarchy and capitalism, politics enables them to defy patriarchal public–private divisions and gendered and classed hierarchies to create their own “subaltern counterpublics” (Fraser 1990, 68). Finally, whereas the police push working-class youths of the urban margins into criminal activity, drug dealing, and drug use, politics generates a search for ways to put an end to the criminalization of those youths. In this sense, this book—by providing an ethnographically grounded analysis of the tension between policing and politics—says as much about policing as it does about politics.