Hunger Strike

In Turkey, hunger strike is an instrument of political struggle often used against power up to tragic consequences. An OBCT interview with Aslı Kuzu, researcher at SOAS University in London

14/03/2018 -  Dimitri Bettoni Istanbul

Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Ozakça, two Turkish educators that went on a months-long hunger strike to claim their jobs back, gained worldwide support to their cause. The Turkish government dismissed them from their position by two emergency decrees following the July 2016 attempted coup.

Their resilience lead them to jail in May 2017, facing accusations of supporting terrorist organisations and spreading terrorist propaganda. While Ozakça was acquitted, Gülmen was found guilty during a trial that critics consider largely politically driven – a verdict that will be appealed. They ended their strike last January 26th.

Gülmen and Ozakça's case is one among thousands in recent Turkish history, in which hunger strikes have been a common tool of struggle.

Aslı Kuzu is a researcher at SOAS University in London. Her current work analyses the widespread protests in Turkish prisons in 2000, during which hundreds of inmates started hunger strikes to challenge the introduction of the so called F-Type prison, or isolated segregation. These protests were followed by a dramatic intervention of security forces, the “Operation Returnto Life”, that led to the death of dozens of prisoners and hundreds of injured. Kuzu's research focuses on the link between hunger strike practices and the Turkish state policies in the bio-political nature of the state's power.

Can you elaborate on the concept of bio-politics and give some examples of bio-political measures?

We have to take into account the transformation of power relations and the shift from sovereign power to bio-politics. Sovereignty, the power of life and death, used to belong to the monarch. After the birth of the democratic rule of law, sovereign power initially shifted to the people. Now we are experiencing a new form of power that Foucault called bio-power. It can be described as “power to make live and let die”, or “calculated management of life”. Bio-power controls the populations for its own maintenance. Universities, barracks, schools, hospitals, and prisons constitute the prevalent institutions used by the state to simultaneously provide a service and shape the population to serve the authoritarian nature of power: prolong its existence.

Are hunger strikes and other self-sacrificing practices a way to fight back?

Foucault wrote: “Where there is power, there is resistance”. Within prisons, self-sacrificing resistance practices are mostly adopted by political prisoners. The transformation of the body into a weapon, used by the insurgent against the state's authority, is one of the most important aspects of these practices. Furthermore, the body has always been significant in the political field: Nietzsche defined the body as a “political structure”. Our bodies are not free from politics, because politics affects our bodies on a daily basis. So, they can become the sites of powerful symbolic resistance.

Why did hunger strikes become a common tool of resistance against the introduction of F-Type prisons?

The date 20 October 2000 marks the beginning of the deadliest hunger strike movement of political prisoners in the history of the Turkish Republic. F-type, high-security prisons led to the isolation of prisoners by replacing the shared ward system with solitary confinement. The state aimed at dissolving the “self-governing communes” that the inmates had managed to establish in large wards, putting in place solidarity practices to survive prison conditions and create free political spaces within the repressive jail system. After a months-long hunger strike in 41 prisons, the movement turned into a fast-to-death protest: inmates were literally starving themselves to death.

The government decided then to take action through a three-day security operation called “Operation Return to Life”. Its official aim was to “rescue” the prisoners from death. However, it resulted in the death of 28 prisoners burned to death, shot, or poisoned by gas. Hundreds of prisoners were severely wounded. The movement saw the participation of thousands of inmates and ended on 22 January 2007. It claimed the lives of 122 martyrs, most of them dying from self-inflicted deaths.

After the operation, state officials gave speeches praising its success. Their main argument was to “save the lives” of the prisoners. In fact, what was performed under the name of “security operation” was a massacre to reclaim its authority over life.

Nuriye and Semih's case is different: they started their hunger strike while out of prison and continued both in jail and after their release. The bio-politically controlled space of a prison cell and the outside public space seem to start merging after the introduction of the State of Emergency (OHAL) in Turkey.

The legal definition of State of Emergency, as stated in article 120 of the 1982 Constitution, is in line with the definition of bio-politics: the state claims to be the competent authority which knows what is best for the population. Let’s consider our everyday lives: the CCTV cameras placed in every corner of the streets are a form of bio-power. President Erdoğan’s infamous speech asking families to have at least three children is another bio-political tactic. So are the night patrols recently emerged in various neighbourhoods of Istanbul for “security reasons” and for the “benefit” of the inhabitants. These examples are all applied outside prisons, I cannot see a huge difference between a prison cell and streets: we are being watched, controlled, and disciplined by the state anywhere and everywhere. The state of emergency made things easier: in today's Turkey, bio-political power is tremendously visible in every aspect of life.

In September Nuriye was moved from her prison cell to Ankara's Numune hospital because of her deteriorating conditions – another place where the state can implement its control over life.

The state decides the disciplinary aspects of the healthcare system, such as the fight against smoking or excessive drinking, or birth control policies. In the context of the hunger strikes, force-feeding prisoners is not unfamiliar and reflects the intention of bio-power: controlling people's lives by legitimising its intervention as a beneficial act.

We must also distinguish self-sacrificing practices from suicide. Self-sacrificing acts are inherently altruistic acts, and the death of the hunger striker becomes similar to martyrdom. Force-feeding can be considered a form of torture (as stated by the World Medical Association with the Declaration of Tokyo in 1975, ed.) and counters an act of resistance and heroism.

Why have strikers like Nuriye and Semih been accused of being brainwashed?

In most cases, the discourse of “the opponent being brainwashed” is used by the hegemonic power to undermine and marginalise the opponent’s position. It carries a patronising attitude, in line with the bio-power's nature. Dying from hunger is a slow and painful process that is not the striker's aim. Hunger strikers do not seek to “sacrifice” their lives, but to obtain something that we must look at. I never thought that neither Nuriye Gülmen nor Semih Ozakca were brainwashed.

Nuriye and Semih stated that they were willing to sacrifice their lives as a means to have their jobs back. Usually, a job is a tool for a better life: we work not only to earn money, but to find our own place within society. Is there a link between having the right to work and a condition of freedom from the state's colonisation over life?

My work is actually not strictly related with the concepts of work, life, and their connection. Still, I think that if we look at Gülmen's or Ozakca’s statements we cannot say that their hunger strike is a self-sacrificing practice. Their claims are based on building a new and better life, they look for a negotiation with the power. Their strike is an attempt to open a communication with the usually deaf authorities.

These forms of resistance imply the necessity for the struggle to be witnessed by the public, or the self-inflicted sacrifice would be ineffective and forgotten. There's a necessary element of publicity on which the striker has no control. What's the role played by the media?

Banu Bargu's book “Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons” is a must-read and an inspiration source for my work. In the years 1999 and 2000, the mainstream media started to direct the public's attention to prisons, which resulted in increasing criticism towards the government's weakness (e.g. “Confession of the State: Terrorists in Charge of Prisons”, Hürriyet, October 1999). State officials perceived the coming threat and were led to take action, paving the way to the Operation Return to Life. Mainstream media referred to prisoners as “terrorists” because of their affiliation with outlawed leftist organizations. They had a paramount role in shaping the actions of the state.

Gülmen's and Ozakca’s case is fundamentally different from the hunger strike movement in 2000. They were imprisoned becauseof their resistance in demanding their jobs back. Being on the newspapers and television attracted the people's attention. The news coverage of their struggle by sympathetic media helped them in spreading their message and obtaining support.

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