Lisel Hintz on Islamism in Turkey


By Tripti Poddar, Einaudi Center Graduate Assistant

On Thursday, March 3, 2016, Dr. Lisel Hintz, a postdoctoral fellow at the Einaudi Center, delivered a talk titled, "Ottoman Islamism and Erdoğan’s ‘New Turkey’: From Arab Street Hero to Foreign Policy Zero". The talk was a part of the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies’ weekly Brown Bag Seminar.

Dr. Hintz’s talk explored how identity contestation among groups with different notions of identity in Turkey spills in to foreign policy and consequently the latter’s impact on domestic politics.

To signify Turkey’s  ‘flip flops’ with respect to domestic and foreign policy under different governments, illustrating the manifestations of Turkey’s competing Republican Nationalist and Ottoman Islamist proposals, she discussed examples including shifting attitudes toward Israel and the rise of “Ottomania” in the domestic public and pop culture spheres.

Particular emphasis was laid on the issue of the Islamic headscarf, which goes from being completely unacceptable in parliament to acceptable depending on the government. In 1999, under a government influenced by Ataturk’s idea of the Turkish Republic, a parliamentarian was booed out of parliament for wearing a headscarf; in 2013, under the government of then-Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, four headscarved parliamentarians entered with no objections.

Dr. Hintz opined that there have been major shifts in the Turkish identity discourse since the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. She also mentioned the ‘Inside-out Theory of Contestation’. This theory seeks to understand the behavior of groups whose ideas and systems are institutionally or socially blocked in the domestic sphere, that then seek to engage the international community to gain outside legitimacy for their beliefs and actions.

She also delved into the question of defining and operationalizing identity. Dr. Hintz stated that to understand identity one needs to study aspects of the group such as how it determines the constitutive norms of membership and behavior, the social purpose of the group, relational meanings vis-à-vis various others, and a cognitive worldview with respect to its place in the rest of the world.

As for the question of Turkish identity, she discussed two periods in Turkish history where each of the two identities seemed dominant. The first was Republican Nationalism, which is based on the founding of the Republic in 1923. One of the most interesting aspects of this notion of identity is that its membership is based not on ethnic grounds but linguistic and territorial, and therefore identity is seen as less of a primordial cultural concept. In terms of foreign policy, Ataturk’s republic believed in a very non-aggressive state and this was played out by Turkey’s actively neutral stance during WWII.

Next she discussed Ottoman Islamism, which relied on the grandeur of Turkey’s Ottoman past as being the source of Turkish nationalism rather than the founding of the Republic. Dr. Hintz stated that this shapes Turkish foreign policy in the sense that Ottoman history gives Turkey an inherently justifiable role of being the leader of the Islamic world – as is also clear from Erdoğan’s tour of the Arab states during the Arab Spring, where he was hailed as the ‘Arab Street Hero’.

The two are very diverse ideas of where foreign policy and domestic policies can emerge from – these two understandings of Turkish identity are “opposite and incommensurable” with respect to each other. The military in Turkey sees itself as a protector of Ataturk’s ideas. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism was rated as one of the biggest threats to national security. Therefore from the two different identities stem two very different doctrines of foreign policy, among other things.

Dr. Hintz also discussed Erdoğan and the AKP’s use of foreign policy as a means to reduce the threats of social and institutional obstacles on its domestic policies. The democratization criteria for Turkey to join the EU were used by the AKP to legitimize several new policies like the civilianization of the military, and restacking the Constitutional Court, to name a few. Through foreign policy there were selected reforms, and while they slowed down around 2005-2006, these reforms opened the door for the spread of the Ottoman Islamism back in Turkey.

Dr. Hintz hinted that from the idea of Ottoman Islamism stemmed the idea of "zero problems with neighbors," where Erdoğan's party, the AKP, sought to normalize relationships with all of its neighbors; relying on constitutive norms that view Turkey as a Muslim society with brotherhood only in other Muslim societies. She also emphasized the social purpose of providing aid to other Muslim societies, citing the example of Erdoğan's speeches in Arab states during the Arab Spring, in which his professed exhilaration at seeing Muslim populations rising up against oppressive leaders was met with overwhelming support both in those countries and at home.  

Dr. Hintz noted that Erdoğan’s subsequent actions soon meant that Turkey’s policy of zero problems with its neighbors turned to ‘zero neighbors with zero problems’.  His vocal support of Morsi, fall-out with Iran, and subsequent support of rebel groups in Syria meant a greater backlash than the support garnered earlier. As for Russia, the excessive economic dependence of Turkey on Russia meant that despite being unhappy with Russian policies, there wasn’t much opinion voicing in which Turkey could engage.

The domestic consequences of these aggressive Ottoman Islamist policies were huge. It meant the spillover of over 2.5 million refugees in Turkey due in part to its role in Syria’s conflict, and the influx of Syrians meant reduced number of jobs for the Turks, to name a few. This also has a huge backlash in terms of attacks on Turkish soil, as is clear from the bombings of 2015 and 2016.

An interesting question posed at the end of the talk is the intention of the Erdoğan-led government with respect to EU and whether there is evidence to show that the AKP government intentionally sabotaged its EU connection or merely became disillusioned through the stilted nature of its accession process and the exclusionary ‘Christian club’-themed rhetoric used by some EU leaders.

To learn more about Dr. Hintz’s work and research, please visit the Einaudi Center’s Postdoctoral Fellows 2015-2016 page.