Hunger strikes: Symbolism or Symptom?

Over the past two years, the Erdogan administration has fired over 150,000 state employees, cracked down on critics and — unwittingly— brought the hunger strike as a form of protest back into fashion. 

The dismissal of government employees is part of a series of emergency measures undertaken by the Erdogan administration in the aftermath of a failed coup on July 15, 2016. After the coup, President Erdogan declared the nation to be in a state of emergency, and imposed a set of safeguards to prevent future upheaval. But the declaration was even more opportunistic than meets the eye; Reuters reported that “human rights groups and the European Union say [Turkish President] Erdogan is using the crackdown to stifle dissent in Turkey and persecute his opponents.” 

Two of the sacked state employees — an academic and a teacher — vehemently objected to their dismissal. Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça took to the streets to dissent against the government decision. However, their protests were of little avail — the government rejected their appeals and even briefly placed the pair under arrest. 

The pair were arrested again in November 2016, once they resorted to the hunger strike in an attempt to get their jobs back. While they maintained that this protest was intended to draw attention to the fates of all the sacked employees, the government stuck to a different story. Claiming that they were part of FETÖ/PYD, the organization that supposedly masterminded the coup, the Erdogan administration rejected the pair’s requests to gain their jobs back.

In a country where the line between the judicial and executive branches of government has become increasingly ambiguous, most of the avenues for protest are clogged up. Almost all institutions in Turkey have be- come highly corrupt and justice has become nothing more than a distant dream. Gulmen and Özakça found solace in hunger striking, a form of civil disobedience with which Turkey is more familiar. 

The connection between hunger strikes and Turkey emanates from the the flaws of a deeply polarized societal structure. Although hunger strikes have a long history in Turkey, dating as far back as the 1930s, a unique form of hunger striking has become popular in recent years. The death fast, also referred to as indefinite hunger strikes, is only terminated once the government meets demands. The prevalence of the hunger strikes is understandable considering Turkey’s cultural values: hunger strikes, especially death fasts, invoke religious fasting during Ramadan, solidarity, and martyrdom. Even the usage of the word “fast” is a synthetic connection between the protest and Islam. However, there is an alarming degree of glory attributed to death and being a “martyr,” reinforced by the rituals surrounding death fasts in Turkey. For example, after the death of a faster, people march in a neighborhood called Kucukarmutlu, the home for many rebels, with torches in their hands. In her book, “They Died So Others Will Live,” Senay Donmez relays the tradition as a desire to illuminate the darkness with the faster’s light. 

Although Gulmen and Özakça were in a hunger strike, the strike’s trans- formation into a death fast was always a possibility. It was this poten- tial transformation, merged with the deadly history of hunger strikes, that gave their protest power. While they were in jail, citizens in Istanbul were arranging protests on the streets in their names, and ensuring that their strike remained in the spotlight. 

Back in 1996, death fasts had been enough to crush the barriers between factions. At the time, the government proposed a new type of prison layout for political prisoners. But prisoners and several members of the public were concerned that the cell-type prison would facilitate the tortures of prisoners by the guards as there would be no one for the prisoners to communicate their plight to. A series of local organizations  started a hunger strike, demanding the government forgo the construction of the new prison. 

Peyton Ayers

Peyton Ayers

Their hunger strike soon turned into a death fast, and ultimately ended after the deaths of 12 prisoners prompted the government to meet the faster’s demands. 

However, the resurgence of death fasting in the 2000s ceased to be covered by news outlets toward the end. The protest was also initiated to curb the building of a new prison layout called F-type prisons. Similar to the tabutluks, the government’s aim was to separate the political prisoners from each other, positing that the prisoners validated their “terrorist mindset” by talking to each other. Still, the previous fear lingered: seclusion would facilitate the torture of prisoners. Once again, the organizations command- ed the onset of hunger strikes and, once again, the hunger strikes were followed by death fasts. Many intellectuals tried to strike a deal between the government and the prisoners; the events were extensively covered. However, when negotiations were still ongoing, the government instigated an operation called “Operation Bring Back to Life,” which could be crudely described as raids. Although the operation lasted for only a single night, it culminated in thirty deaths: two soldiers and 28 prisoners. After the operation, the prisoners were tak- en to F-type prisons and death fasts continued. After a while, the public’s attention dwindled away: neither side was willing to compromise, and the coverage was soon non-existent. Most of the death fasts ended soon after; however, a notable exception was the DHKP-C, which only agreed to end the fasting once the government gave the prisoners the right to step out into a common area. 

In the case of Gulmen and Özakça, only certain news outlets chose to cover their story, and only certain people chose to sympathize with them. Their protests were repurposed to suit both the dissidents of the gov- ernment, who turned Gulmen and Özakça into representatives of their own opinions, and the supporters of Erdogan and AKP (Justice and De- velopment Party), who declared them to be “traitors.” In either version of the story, Gulmen and Özakça were no longer able to get their jobs back, thus defeating the original purpose of their hunger strike. 

Hunger strikes have thus lost their ability to allow individuals to assert their democratic rights, a fact that is evident in becomes apparent in Gul- man and Özakça’s polarized trials. The fallacies that should have been immediately spotted– why they were released, or why they were prevented from returning to their jobs– were ignored. Supporters of the two pro- testers were also guilty of oversight, ignoring the visit paid by Gulman to the funeral of a known member of the DHKP-C, who was guilty of attacking the Agile Force Branch in Istanbul Bayrampasa. Even the decision to hunger strike is now associated with the DHKP-C, casting a shadow over their professed innocence. 

Polarization caused the trial to be so far from objective that there is still no clear perspective on what transpired. As the trial progressed, it got increasingly personal for the government. According to Veli Sacilik, who was one of the biggest supporters of Gulmen and Özakça, the govern- ment was “trying to show that people can’t win their rights by struggling,” adding that “if we win, then it will encourage others.” This perceived government perspective caused supporters of Nuriye and Özakça to feel justified in their cause; they were able to hold onto the belief that their heroes were, in fact, innocent. 

A weak justice system bolstered the claims of the dissidents. The Ministry of Interior went as far as releasing a book while the trial was ongoing, condemning Gulmen and Özakça named: “An Endless Script of a Terrorist Organization: The Truth About Nuriye Gulmen and Semih Ozakca.” Yet, as a secular newspaper named Cumhuriyet pointed out, the book included trials that had not yet ended, and portrayed the duo as ter- rorists without any substantial evi- dence against them. For instance, the book claimed Gulmen and Özakça were involved in both FETÖ, an Islamist organization held responsible for the coup, and DHKP-C (a militant leftist terrorist organization. Yet the ideologies of the two organizations clash– FETÖ is an Islamist organization while the DHKP-C is Marxist-Leninist. Cumhuriyet thus insinuated that any individual’s involvement in both organizations was an absurd allegation. 

But it is difficult to hold the Turkish government accountable, even through international bodies of authority. Gulmen and Ozakca’s request to The European Court of Human Rights was denied as their detention “did not pose a real and imminent risk of irreparable harm to the life or limb of the applicants.” In fact, seeking out international support only caused supporters of the government to band together and solidify the “otherness” of those who stood beside Gulmen and Özakça. The power of civil disobedience relies on numbers, yet the controversy generated by the trial of Gulmen and Ozakca ensured that these numbers would never materialize. 

Death fasting, and, by affiliation, hunger striking, draw their power from their association with death, which is what makes these two acts so worrisome; the protests can only be successful if enough people desire to end them. The aim of death fasts and hunger strikes is to burden the pub- lic’s conscience enough to break their obedience to state laws. However, the flaws within the trials of Gulmen and Özakça showcase grave issues within Turkish democracy. Gulmen and Özakça chose hunger strikes because the only protest instrument they were left with was their bodies; the only power they had left was through appealing to public opinion. The uptick in hunger strikes in the country can be perceived as more than just a symbol; it can also be seen a symptom of a democracy backsliding.