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Book review: Identity politics inside out

Commentary Politics

Book review: Identity politics inside out


By Michael Mackenzie

When reports emerged that more than 1 million Uighur Muslims had been confined to re-education camps by the Chinese government in 2018, Turkey’s pro-minorities Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) brought a motion to parliament demanding an investigation.

The motion gained support from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and nationalist Good Party, but failed to go further after, likely keen to preserve good relations with China, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) voted against it and its alliance partners, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) abstained.

This was a crafty piece of work from the HDP. The motion at once reinforced the party’s own position as one concerned with human rights and freedoms, while also forcing its rivals to vote down a proposal concerned with an issue related to ethnic Turks to which both the AKP and the MHP have deeply concerned themselves with in the past.

The episode is a recent example highlighting a dynamic that has been at the forefront of Turkish politics in recent decades and is the subject of American academic Lisel Hintz’s first book, developed through her doctoral thesis – the interplay between competing groups’ notions of national identity and foreign policy.

Hintz’s “Identity Politics Inside Out: National Identity Contestation and Foreign Policy in Turkey” deals with the AKP’s rise to power in 2002 and path to dominance over the Turkish state.

Employing a constructionist “inside out” theoretical framework, Hintz contends that, faced with stiff opposition blocking the party from achieving hegemony for its “Ottoman Islamist” identity proposal, the party sidestepped domestic obstacles by pursuing a foreign policy based on EU accession. The widely supported democratisation reforms this entailed weakened the power of the opposing “Republican Nationalist” identity group that had enjoyed an engrained hold over Turkish institutions, notably the military, allowing the party to eventually supplant it.

Hintz’s work begins with a definition of competing identity groups in Turkey, which she divides into four broad categories: Ottoman Islamists represented by the AKP, Republican nationalists – followers of republic founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular nationalist vision of Turkey, Pan-Turkic nationalists, best represented by the MHP, and Western liberalists, who reject both Turkish nationalism and Islamism in favour of an inclusive human rights-based agenda.

Hintz conducted hundreds of interviews in her fieldwork and used these to determine the groups’ “red lines” – policy propositions a group would do everything in its power to oppose. The stance of Secularist Republican nationalists on Islamist policies is one example, the opposition of Pan-Turkic nationalists to Kurdish nationalism is another.

The choice to reference pop-culture and contemporary television shows and novels in categorising the four identity groups is a welcome one: the works cited are logically chosen, and they offer a reflection of the constantly shifting boundaries of identity that is more current and at times more incisive than works that take a canonical approach.

A good example of where this works is the use of a 2008 police show, “Kollama”. The television serial is used essentially as a snapshot that allows a glimpse of the mixture of concerns that dominated that moment: the ever-present conspiracy theories that fuelled the political trials against Republican military officers, the debate over university rectors’ power to not allow women wearing headscarves to study at universities, and the influence of members of the Gülen religious movement widely believed to have entrenched themselves in the judiciary and police forces and used their influence to prosecute rivals.

This methodology explains some notable absences from the index and references of a book that concerns itself with identity in Turkey. These include Nihal Atsız, the racist nationalist writer whose works have inspired both the Pan-Turkist political tradition and the kind of historical epics that have enjoyed a resurgence on Turkish screens in recent years, and Islamist poet Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, a favourite source for Erdoğan to use in speeches, and a political actor who has been hailed as a mentor by AKP founders, including former president Abdullah Gül.

This for the most part does not detract from the thesis, particularly in the well-studied cases mentioned above. A lack, however, is felt in Hintz’s definition of another group that is lesser known outside Turkey, the “ulusalcılar,” Republican nationalists who Hintz describes as a kind of unreconstructed wing of Turkey’s secularist opposition that has stuck to a Kemalist hard line on issues of secularism and ethnic nationalism.

In this case the lack of reference to thinkers of influence on the “ulusalcı” wing is more glaring: a reading of the canon associated with this group, such as poet and ulusalcı ideologue Atilla İlhan shows that, more than being merely a throwback to the hard-line secularism of past decades, it grew out of a synthesis of left-wing and Turkish nationalist thought. Hence the common use in English of “leftist-nationalist” to translate the Turkish term.

This is an important distinction: a main distinguishing characteristic of the ulusalcı wing is its “anti-imperialism”, an aspect inherited directly from Turkish leftists that in this case means the pursuit of a multi-polar world order through opposition to the United States. The AKP’s recent drift towards “anti-imperialist” states like Russia and Venezuela was preceded by years of contact between these states and Turkish ulusalcı groups.

Given that the AKP has gravitated towards policies favoured by ulusalcı politicians, and that hard-line proponents of the ideology such as Patriotic Party leader Doğu Perinçek are said to be informally working with the ruling party, Hintz’s example of former CHP politician Emine Ülker Tarhan’s inconsequential breakaway Anatolia Party to illustrate the ideology is disappointing.

The fact that a group steeped in Atatürkism is willing to cooperate with a government that, as Hintz aptly demonstrates, has consistently gone against that ideology’s “red line” by advancing an Islamist agenda indicates one of the problems associated with broadly classifying a nation of fractured identity groups into four blocks.

It also raises what could be interesting grounds for further study on the nature of the red lines themselves: the book’s thesis places the red lines as domestic policy actions that would arouse opposition by competing identity groups, and which the AKP sidestepped through its pro-EU foreign policy. But in this case the red line was itself (pro-Western) foreign policy.

Despite these quite specific criticisms, Hintz has done an excellent job of presenting her case, and it would be difficult to argue against the importance of the EU accession process in the AKP’s ascent.

The sixth chapter, detailing the AKP’s approach to the accession process and how it furthered its own identity group’s interests through democratisation reforms that would prove entirely disappointing to other groups, also serves as a strong overview of how a period of the recent past viewed by so many as promising has led to a bleak present in Turkey.

Hintz’s knowledge of the period is obviously excellent. Her knowledge of Turkish – sadly not a given in the field – allows nuanced analysis of speeches by politicians, and how the choice of specific words (ilim over bilim for knowledge, for example) indicate an ideological approach.

No single study can deal with all the factors behind the AKP’s rise to supremacy in Turkey, and there are doubtless many books to come on how the party consolidated its position by taking advantage of the country’s economic situation, for example, or through clientelism. What Hintz’s book provides is valuable perspective, for readers with some existing knowledge of Turkey, on the instrumental importance of foreign policy during the party’s rise.

Source: Ahval News


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