Yiğit Soncul on Masks and Emergency in Turkey

TCS LOGO_colourContaining the Mask, Governing the Emergency: The Case of Turkey, by Yiğit Soncul



The security bill, which was proposed November last year by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, has passed the Parliament of Turkey on March 27 2015 and been signed by the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on April 3. Along with expanding police powers, such as detention and search capabilities, the new law foresees three to four years of imprisonment to individuals “who conceals or partially conceals their face during a demonstration or public assembly that turns into propaganda for a terrorist organisation” (Human Rights Watch, 2014). In other words, it criminalises the use of the mask, that the concealment of the face denotes, in protests. In this short piece I am going to discuss what this law suggests in the present political situation by taking the case of Turkey as a departure point to explore the contemporary biopolitics of the mask. Furthermore, I will situate it globally in relation to the protest movements on the one hand, anti-mask laws on the other. In a recent TCS special issue, Governing Emergencies (2015), Peter Adey, Ben Anderson, and Stephen Graham set out to map the “proliferation” of the terms emergency and exception in the global context. In this piece, however, I am going to focus on Turkey which has quite a particular history in regards to these.

Nighttime mass protests in Ankara. Events of June 7-8, 2013.
Nighttime mass protests in Ankara. Events of June 7-8, 2013. Mstyslav Chernov. (Creative Commons).


Let us start unpacking what this law indicates from the latter part. Last decade proved that Turkey is home to some novel types of terrorism that may be unknown to the rest of the world. As the then Interior Minister Idris Naim Şahin put in 2011 referring to a wave of operations targeting people associated with the Kurdish political movement in various levels, these categories include “artistic,” “scientific,” “poetic,” and “journalistic” terrorism (Çubukçu, 2011). Oddities are not restricted with kinds of terrorism but also present relating to the quantity of convictions. According to an Associated Press report, Turkey has a share of third of the total 35.000 terrorism convictions happened worldwide in the decade after 9/11 (Mendoza, 2011). Considering the abundant usage of the term and number of convictions one might think that any oppositional political assembly is on the verge of being labelled a terrorist one and this is not far from reality as has been proved in the last years.

The techniques and discourses of state of emergency rule (Olağanüstü Hâl – OHAL) that characterised the reality of the predominantly Kurdish provinces of Turkey—at times de jure, de facto at othersfrom the late 1980s onwards, has started to become more familiar to the wider public in the first half of the 2010s (of course considering Turkey’s history with military coups and martial law we cannot assume citizens anywhere completely novice). Along with banning access to Taksim square, which has been a Mecca for the labour movement for decades, a virtually complete lockdown on transportation networks and public spaces was realised in Istanbul by the militarised riot police during May Days in the last three years. These events, where interventions to right to freedom of assembly and use of excessive (disproportionate) force are regular practices, has become vastly mediated realities that pervaded the collective memories of peoples of Turkey . Yet, maybe the most crucial point in this timeline is Gezi Park demonstrations.

With Gezi, individuals of any political affiliation (or lack thereof) experienced what has been well known to the Kurdish and labour movements. What started as a small-scale peaceful protest to preserve a public park quickly evolved into a nation-wide uprising in an unprecedented level of participation against the undemocratic actions of AKP, with police brutality as its catalyst (Kuymulu, 2013). One of the greatest challenges the AKP government had to face in their thirteen year continuous rule, it did not take long for them to employ the regular rhetoric that is crystallised in the words of, the then minister of European Union Affairs, Egemen Bağış on June 16 2013: “from this point on anybody who remains there [in Gezi Park] will be treated as terrorists” (Hurriyet Daily News, 2013). It is in this circumstances that concealment of the face, in other words the use of the mask, that the law criminalises becomes vital to protesters. To explore why and how, I will discuss the prevalent uses of the masks in Gezi under two categories. The concealment of the face; to prevent identification: i.e. balaclava, bandana and the Guy Fawkes mask; and to maintain respiration: the gas mask.


Gezi Park
Gezi Park, June 11, 2013. Burak Su. (Creative Commons).


In his book Terror from the Air Peter Sloterdijk demonstrates how in the 20th century, by “gas warfare” of WW1 and “genocidal gas extermination” during WW2, “the active manipulation of breathing air first became a cultural [hence, a political] matter” (2009: 47). Through this genealogy then, we can start locating the use of “negative air conditioning” by riot police as a contemporary tool of control and hence the use of gas masks by protesters as a tool of resistance. As media theorist Jussi Parikka posits in his article, “McLuhan at Taksim Square,” due to the excessive use of tear gas during Gezi, utilisation of gas masks by protesters was a necessity to access the public spaces—for the public to reclaim such spatiality and perform their right to demonstrate (2014: 91-93). Here, following Parikka, we can say that the gas mask operates as a medium in a McLuhanian sense, as an extension of the body, that render the hostile environment habitable to its embodier. And, this habitability that is attained through the mask signals a biopolitical condition.

I propose to consider this through contemporary political philosopher Roberto Esposito’s “paradigm of immunisation.” In search of an affirmative biopolitics, Esposito’s project does not consider “life” and “politics” as two separate domains in relation to each other, but two elements of an “indivisible whole” with immunity at its core. In his words, “immunity is the power to preserve life” (2008: 46). The gas mask in our case then can be seen as an immunitary medium that sustains life, hence political action, in settings rendered hostile as such. And, this law is a way to strip off the vital medium from the (potential) protester—a measure of preemption coupled with “negative air conditioning”. Yet, maintaining the attack on respiration is only half what this law denotes.

Whether it is deemed functional or symbolic, the use of mask in most cases conceals the identity of the wearer and, in the present maybe more than ever, this too indicates an immunitary capacity. Ubiquitous surveillance, to utter the common knowledge, is an essential part of our lived realities in the 21st century. CCTV networks, like the MOBESE system in the case of Turkey, represent only a part of the instruments of this regime of surveillance. One of the less obvious tools here is participatory media platforms such as Facebook that contributes to the techniques and technologies of identification in this biometric age. In a special section on privacy in the journal Science, John Bohannon reports that Facebook’s DeepFace algorithm “is now as accurate as a human being at a few constrained facial recognition tasks” (2015: 492). Soon automated tools of facial recognition will exceed human capacities, thus will further issues of mass identification for coming protests. So, maybe more than ever our faces are obstacles for political expression and we shall be immunised from such machinic gaze. This law, then, is also a way to negate such immunisation through the mask.

The Global Context

Examples like the Guy Fawkes mask which is now present globally both; on streets, in not-directly-related gatherings, such as the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring and Gezi; and also on screens, as exemplified with its use by the hacktivist group Anonymous, manifests a complex epidemiology that transcends the borders of the nation state. It indicates a politics of images in the networked screen culture where dissemination of the mask can be seen as a contagion of an image—an immunising image. Then, this law is a local means of containment of a global phenomenon.

Indeed, Turkey is not the only country with anti-masking laws in operation. In the first days of Occupy Wall Street five protesters were charged with violation of a (revitalised) 150 year old law that banned the use of mask in gatherings (Gardiner and Firger, 2011). Whereas Canada passed their own new law in 2013, that foresees up to ten years of imprisonment for the same action (RT, 2013). Comparable laws also exist in European countries, such as France (Assemblée Nationale, 2010) and Denmark (Mills, 2010).

It is under these conditions of governance and criminalisation that the mask’s biopolitical significance amasses. And its border-crossing presence might be a material sign for the emerging solidarities between movements around the globe.



Adey, P., Anderson, B. and Graham, S. (2015) Special Issue: Governing Emergencies, Theory, Culture & Society 32(2): http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/32/2.toc

Assemblée Nationale (2010) ‘Texte Adopté n° 524’, July 13. URL (accessed May 2015): http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/13/ta/ta0524.asp

Bohannon, J. (2015) ‘UNMASKED Facial recognition software could soon ID you in any photo’, Science 347(6221): 492-494.

Çubukçu, A. (2011) ‘“Operational Accidents”: On the Turkish State and Kurdish Deaths’, Jadaliyya, December 30. URL (accessed May 2015): http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/3842/operational-accidents_on-the-turkish-state-and-kur

Esposito, R. (2008) Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, trans by T. Campbell. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Gardiner S. and Firger J. (2011) ‘Rare Charge Is Unmasked’, The Wall Street Journal, September 20. URL (accessed May 2015): http://www.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424053111904194604576581171443151568-lMyQjAxMTAxMDIwMDEyNDAyWj.html

Human Rights Watch (2014) ‘Turkey: Security Bill Undermines Rights’, December 11. URL (accessed May 2015): http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/12/11/turkey-security-bill-undermines-rights

Hurriyet Daily News (2013) ‘Police to consider protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square terror organization members: Minister’, June 16. URL (accessed May 2015): http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/police-to-consider-protesters-in-istanbuls-taksim-square-terror-organization-members-minister.aspx?pageID=238&nID=48875&NewsCatID=338

Kuymulu, M. B. (2013) ‘Reclaiming the right to the city: Reflections on the urban uprisings in Turkey’, City 17(3): 274-278.

Mendoza, M. (2011) ‘ Rightly or wrongly, thousands convicted of terrorism post-9/11’, NBC News, September 4. URL (accessed May 2015): http://www.nbcnews.com/id/44389156/ns/us_news-9_11_ten_years_later/t/rightly-or-wrongly-thousands-convicted-terrorism-post-/

Mills D. (2010) ‘Denmark: Police brutalise climate protesters’, Green Left Weekly, January 23. URL (accessed May 2015): http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/43081

Parikka, J (2014) ‘McLuhan at Taksim Square’, Journal of Visual Culture 13(1): 91-93.

RT (2013) ‘Mask ban” Canada’s veiled protesters face 10 years’ jail’, June 20. URL (accessed May 2015): http://rt.com/news/canadians-ten-years-protesting-masks-965/

Sloterdijk, P (2009) Terror from the Air, trans. A. Patton and S. Corcoran. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Yiğit Soncul is a PhD candidate at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. His research interests mainly focus on embodiment, biopolitics, screen studies, media theory, network theory and political philosophy. He completed his BA in Istanbul Bilgi University, Film and Television Department and MA in Goldsmiths, University of London, Film and Screen Studies programme. His PhD dissertation, currently entitled “Contagious and Immunogenic Images: Mask, Medium, Body” investigates the uses of the mask in contemporary screen cultures through a media archeological approach. He co-organised the 2013 conference, ‘Bodies on Screen,’ which was held at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the 2015 symposium ‘The Image of the Network’ at Winchester School of Art.


32.2_coverGoverning Emergencies

The Theory, Culture & Society Special Issue ‘Governing Emergencies’ 32(2), is edited by Peter Adey, Ben Anderson, and Stephen Graham


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