The icon indicates free access to the linked research on JSTOR.

What is “the deep state” we keep hearing about in the news? Is it an alleged secret government buried deeply within the visible government?

JSTOR Daily Membership AdJSTOR Daily Membership Ad

Curiously, there aren’t many political concepts Americans have borrowed from Turkish history, but the deep state seems to be one of them.

The Turkish phrase derin devlet literally means “deep state.” According to historian Ryan Gingeras, the term “generally refers to a kind of shadow or parallel system of government in which unofficial or publicly unacknowledged individuals play important roles in defining and implementing state policy.”

This concept of a deep state, Gingeras continues, is used to “explain why and how agents employed by the state execute policies that directly contravene the letter and spirit of the law.” Breaking the law, of course, often means employing criminals. Gingeras, a specialist in organized crime in Turkey, looks at the underbelly of the Turkish deep state to examine how alliances between generals, statesmen and “narcotic traffickers, paramilitaries, terrorists, and other criminals” are formed. (Elsewhere, Gingeras traces the heroin connection, noting that the Turkish deep state itself is riven by factional rivalries.)

Gingeras tracks the deep state all the way back to its origins in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Organized criminal gangs in both the cities and provinces were useful to the Young Turks (the Committee of Union and Progress, CUP), the party that dismantled the Empire and declared the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

Essentially, dirty work needs dirty workers: so a clandestine force was recruited from paramilitary and criminal elements during the chaotic years of the first quarter century of the century. This time-span encompassed the Balkan Wars (1912, 1913), when the Ottomans lost most of their European possessions; World War I, when the Ottomans allied with the defeated Central Powers; the Allied occupation of Istanbul (1918-1923); and the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923), which was fought on three fronts against Greek, French, and Armenian forces.

Using the story of Sah Ismail, a bandit who became a CUP agent and then an enemy of the state, Gingeras details the connections between state and underworld to show how the CUP was “greatly enabled by, and indebted to, its relations to various provincial criminal syndicates.”

Gingeras cautions that in the Turkish context, “the deep state is not an entirely monolithic entity that shadows the bureaucracy, military, or civil society. Rather, it is an eclectic, ever-evolving political theater of competition, one that includes elements both explicitly legal and outlaw in nature. Paramount […] is the extreme emphasis placed upon state security, a need that places both law enforcement and clandestine agencies in the forefront of both the formulation and execution of state policies.”


JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers, and students. JSTOR Daily readers can access the original research behind our articles for free on JSTOR.

Past & Present, No. 206 (FEBRUARY 2010), pp. 151-174
Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present Society
Middle East Journal, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Summer 2011), pp. 426-441
Middle East Institute