Ihbar, Haber, and Serendipity: Sliding Into A Police State

Ihbar means to denounce, to warn and to communicate, a dangerous conflation of meanings that elides the line between getting a neighbor arrested and simply passing on some news. The Arabic-rooted word ihbar comes from the more innocent root haber: news, information, tidings, rumor. Once you add human intent to the mix, a Pandora’s Box of ill intention is opened. Ihbar as a concept is always much in the news in Turkey with widespread phone tapping and surveillance and the use of secret witnesses and confidential informants in trials. Ergenekon trial evidence was tainted by exactly this lack of transparency. Allowing ihbar as evidence allows the judicial system to be used as a form of oppression, a club wielded by someone with a mask and a purpose, rather than a fair and open airing of a dispute.

Judging by news accounts, people are constantly being picked up by police because someone has denounced them anonymously for some infraction or other, sometimes a vague “insulting Turkishness” or “aiding a terror group” perhaps by having been seen attending a conference or standing at a bus stop, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The real reason could be different, of course. Your neighbor dislikes your lifestyle or opinions or a shop owner wants to cut you out of the competition. In Turkey, the ihbar can be enough to get you held in jail for a very long time until your case finally comes up and someone bothers to see if there are any facts supporting it.

Haber, the news, is itself loaded with human intent. People read newspapers not for information, but for the opinions of their favorite columnists, and those opinions are then fodder for the news. Haber takes the form of rumor and opinion. Just as gossip serves as an informal means by which society polices the behavior and beliefs of its members (especially its women), rumor, haber, ihbar serve that function at the national level. It’s not surprising that Turkey’s population has a much lower level of inter-personal trust than any other OECD nation and, unlike the pattern elsewhere, levels of trust go down even further with higher education. The more you know, the less you trust others.

Ihbar is now being institutionalized in the service of the state, much as it was during the days of Sultan Abdul Hamid II who created a spy network with as many as 50,000 informants. A few days ago, the Turkish government went a step further to formalize people policing one another. First, PM Erdogan encouraged citizens to report their neighbors to the police and take them to court if they create noise pollution by banging their pots and pans in the evening as part of the Gezi protest. He said disturbing your neighbors is a crime and noise pollution is a threat against the environment. “You shouldn’t expect the state to do everything for you.” He promised that “we’ll act together” against such things.

Then the police announced that they would put “tip boxes” in certain neighborhoods. People could anonymously leave “complaints” about neighbors they suspect of being involved in “unlawful activity”. Into these boxes undoubtedly will be spilled the entire gamut of national vitriol from accusations of normative misbehavior (see my posts in the category “Women” for instance) to nationalist and racist definitions of “Turkishness” that demonize anyone who is different (see the category “Nationalism”).

If only one could rely on the police to winnow these complaints and to respond only to real “crimes”, but given the partisan nature of all Turkish institutions and the fact that the police are steeped in the same steaming nationalist, racist, misogynist, and communitarian stew as much of the rest of the country, what we can expect is more people hauled from their homes for unspecified “crimes” that they may or may not have done and that may or may not actually be on the law books. Serendipity might be the new watchword instead of justice — the chance to trample on your neighbor or a stranger with impunity.

Let’s take two recent examples from the news (haber) that may or may not involve ihbar, but likely are a result of serendipity.

In the above video, police swarm through an alley in Beyoglu and pull up two older men sitting outside a small grill restaurant eating their dinner, manhandle them and haul them away, presumably under arrest. This was caught on video by a neighbor from his window (haber) and put on YouTube (ihbar). Similar videos of police swarming back streets and confronting local residents have appeared since the first police attacks on Gezi demonstrators. Except that the people in these videos are not demonstrators. They are the local residents that the government claims have been economically hurt by the protests.

So what do these videos show? As with any ihbar, you look first for motivation. Is this a plot by the government to make their prediction come true? People are so afraid of the police swarms that business DOES decline; this can then be blamed on the protesters. Or are the men being arrested for drinking and eating during Ramazan by enraged hungry police? Or for sitting on two chairs in public outside the restaurant, illegally occupying public space? Did they not have their identity cards handy? Or are they criminals that the police had been looking for, drug dealers perhaps, or thieves. If one applies the principle of Occam’s Razor to Turkey, that the explanation with the least assumptions is the right one, then serendipity wins out. The police were given impunity to swarm, happened to see these two men and swept them along.

In this video, police swarm a man assisting a trash picker on Istiklal Boulevard and arrest him, then kick apart the trash picker’s cart, strewing the trash everywhere. Was there an ihbar that the trash contained a bomb (in which case kicking it wasn’t such a good idea). Was the citizen in violation of a rule about assisting trash pickers? Was the person a thief, a criminal (he shouts “It not me!”)? Or was this serendipity? An odd gesture (aiding a trash picker) leading to suspicion and attack with impunity. Occam’s razor would indicate the latter.

The former East Germany also had an entrenched network of people spying on one another for the Stasi secret police. Once Stasi archives were opened, it was learned that one in ten citizens of the GDR spied for the Stasi, spouses on each other, children on their parents, and friends and fellow activists on one another. That is what ihbar as a way of life looks like. Ihbar, impunity and serendipity are the beginning of a long, painful slide into a police state.

15 Responses to “Ihbar, Haber, and Serendipity: Sliding Into A Police State”

  1. Simpler explanations with a wink to Occam:
    Video one: they probably swore at the police. Doesn’t justify the manhandling but might explain the harshness.
    Video two: putting up barricades on Istiklal became a big thing w/ a subset of the protesters. What you call a ‘trash heap’ is one such attempt. The pieces of wood you see there were probably meant to be set on fire later. Here’s what goes on w/ stuff like that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=-vHFscVYa2A&t=49
    I, too, dislike what I see and hear and yes I, too, make the point that it is important to understand what went on in Europe during our parents’ or even within our lifetimes to draw lessons from it. But this is the same old Turkey with all its flaws [and whatever lovable things] more or less intact including its inertia. You don’t get from Nazi-like talk to Auschwitz here in a few decades — you hear some Nazi-like talk and it more-or-less stays as ‘talk.’ You also don’t get to Stasi from where we are that easily even though there are always always elements who desire such things and partially implement them. Yes, these dangers are good things to point out, and are almost always good/relevant things to worry about but let’s not get too carried away.
    Again, Jenny, you were here in the 70′s. If, back then, somebody told you people hit the streets in this kind of sustained manner and in these numbers (I’ve heard 2.5M as one ‘official’ figure) to directly face the police, how many deaths would you have expected? Yes, five is too many and one would be too many, but for God’s sake let us not lose perspective.
    Of course it is possible that I’m just fooling myself and I’m one of the donkeys in Aziz Nesin’s ‘Ah Biz Esekler.’ (Googleable and relevant for me since I am an idiot who remembers convincing a Canadian that a coup wasn’t likely right before an election year. This happened in late August 1980. I more or less had made myself believe it too.)

  2. Bulent bey,

    I have no idea about why you said ” Video one: they probably swore at the police” ..
    I personnally know the owners of that ocakbasi. Taksim Bekar sokak, Beyoglu Ocakbasi.. The people did NOT swore to the police at all ! Remember that evening was “kadir gecesi ?! ”



  3. Hasan bey, did you check with the owner about what happened? I mean was it a case of cops coming into that street, seeing two people drinking and then picking them up?

  4. Bulent bey,

    The link I gave should be an explain ;)

  5. Here is another one just before the first video :


  6. No it doesn’t Hasan bey, because the guy doesn’t quite say ‘no, no words were exchanged.’ You can hear a disapproving sentiment expressed [in terms of what profession the cops' moms must have been in] in the video you linked by the folks taking the video for example. Even if it happened, it doesn’t justify the police behaviour, but picking on random people for drinking on Kadir Gecesi is different than cops turning on people they heard mouthing off. [There's footage from Eskisehir where a cop tells people they are Armenians for example, but there it is clear what drives him nuts -- they offer/promise him anal sex. Again, not a justified reaction but we know what he's reacting to that way.]
    I am aware of how the police behaves, we have been seeing this for a long time and seeing it online since cameras became available to the people. This is not a new thing. Starting with ’07 May Day (if not earlier) we saw this behaviour around Taksim as well. On more than one occasion on my way to eating kokorec, I remember asking cops if they intended to gas demonstrating crowds on Istiklal because I was headed that way (sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no). This is not a new thing. I’m not saying I approve, I am just saying this is so and has been so.
    The issue is this: this harshness existed against demonstrations for years. A few thousands for May Day? Some gas, some water cannon action, some beatings in back alleys. A few tens of thousands for more than one day? More gas, more water cannon action &c. But if you listened to the hearings that Jenny linked to, the story is ‘AKP has changed in the past two years.’ I see the change in the size and the persistence of the crowds but not in the gov’ts stubbornness about not allowing demonstrations and the police methods (for the 21st century, in the last century they’d probably be far harsher w/ more deaths).
    Think about this: we’ve seen extensive wire-tapping and leaks, extensive exposure of personal details in some papers, 4am raids to homes and so on from 2007 onwards. Yet, nobody was talking about Stasi back then. In fact, the English version of the paper that was a major player in all that was getting extensively quoted here and its columnists were getting praised [I was saying Pravda back then, but that's me]. What has changed? AKP seems the same. Erdogan still says ‘ayaklar bas olursa’ and things like that just like he used to. We still hear people getting called ‘terrorists’ and suchlike after they get hurt by the cops. AKP pundits (this time excluding you-know-whos) still say ‘faiz lobisi’ just like they used to. The militant far left is still out there, setting things on fire, using slingshots, and throwing stones. The crowds outside the militant far left are bigger and more persistent, yes. Is that it? Are we losing all perspective because the crowds are bigger and more persistent?

  7. Bulent bey,

    As much as I understand you are not “yabanci” to Istiklal street. I gave the address above : bekar sokak, beyoglu ocakbasi. Do we think that the owner of the reataurant could speak loud to a TV camera without thinking what might happen to him afterwards?
    Anyway, its free to drop by there and have a kebab and find out what really happened there in that evening ;)
    But I have to warn ; you might end up hearing some very disturbing stories that were not filmed/published at all !


  8. Hasan bey, I know those stories and quite a few I can’t write down. We all do. I don’t think either of us are under any illusions about how this country is and has been. What do you think would have happened to the Rallies for the Republic in ’07 if they’d pressed for Taksim? [We know what happened to those who arranged for them.] My point isn’t that everything is fine here, my point is that things didn’t get extra special bad in the past couple of years.

  9. Bulent bey,

    I guess we are missing something here; the police have always been hursh, yes we all know that.. But, police never touched to ” sehit anneleri ” in those years did they ? But, recently they gas them as well ? I hope that I make my point clear..


  10. Ah, that’s something different. We’re operating under different assumptions: my assumption is that law enforcement doesn’t really have any favorites and would get harsh on folks they are ordered to do things to regardless of who they are. It can be Cumartesi Anneleri or Sehit Anneleri. Some of the same cops who were dispersing headscarf demonstrators are now probably dispersing Gezi demonstrators. I mean we know this from years ago, MHP guys were complaining that the coup regime was doing to Turkey what they themselves wished to do while simultaneously treating them very harshly. (In a similar vein, one or two recent May Days have been very peaceful even in Taksim, with cops being kind and polite. That wasn’t because they had all of a sudden started loving the far left, I imagine.)

  11. Bulent bey,

    You might find the links interesting :





  12. Hasan bey, someone did talk to them. I quote from an interesting piece:
    After much fidgeting and many apologies on my part, I asked her about the big bald man. Was he … er, was he really a policemen? She laughed, and her friend put on a mock indignant face. Ekin showed me a picture on her phone. It showed her, the big bald man and her child, in Gezi Park. ‘His name is Ulaş and he is my husband.’ She pointed at the baby, who was now back in her buggy again, asleep. ‘This is our daughter,’ she said. ‘Her name is Dunya Kurtuluş.’ Ekin and Ulaş began as pen friends. She was a teenage activist and Ulaş was serving a ten-year prison sentence for robbing a bank. When he was released they fell in love and moved in together. A decade later, in 2010, when he was put in jail again (this time accused of being a member of Dev Karargah, an illegal leftist organisation), they got married so that she would be allowed to visit him in prison. (emphasis mine)
    From here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n15/ghaith-abdul-ahad/diary
    That’s a piece well-worth reading. We know these people, they existed in the 70′s they existed in the 80′s and they exist now. Now maybe this particular journalist was fed a tall tale, I don’t know. I do know, though what’s written there is plausible and that there are people who want to use violent means.
    Not all of Gezi protesters and not even the majority or a significant minority is in this group, of course. The crowds are way too large for that.
    I did try to verify what Halil Berktay wrote about about the barricades in Nisantas as well. I didn’t see the militants he described, because obviously I wasn’t there and I don’t live there and have a view like he does, but I did see what they did for barricades either that day or some other day. These things do happen.
    I’ll state this again, I’m not saying any of this to imply that the police should do what they do in Taksim and basically shut the area down. What I am saying is (1) some perspective is called for (2) the assumption that militant far left isn’t there is just false.

  13. when i saw the title of the post I first thought Jenny finally wrote something about NSA scandal and Snowden incident but I was wrong.

    Jenny, I wish your Turkish friends got half of your patriotism:)

  14. You wish ( ! ) you were patriot anka, don’t you ;) But unfortunatelly you born with it :( You can not learn it after regrets.. So I am sorry for the inconvenience ;)

  15. http://mashable.com/2013/08/16/new-snowden-leak-thousands-nsa-violations/

    Jenny? any comments?

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