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The rise and fall of Turkish democracy under the ruling AKP government is one of the most debated cases amidst the larger global trend of democratic decline. Much ink has been spilled in an effort to explain how the AKP has shifted from engaging with EU reforms to repressing almost all political and civil dissent. It is, therefore, all the more remarkable that Lisel Hintz’s Identity Politics Inside Out: National Identity Contestation and Foreign Policy in Turkey provides a fresh take and essential reading on what has become a tired debate.

Many international observers and Turkish liberals welcomed the AKP’s rapid rise to power in 2002. Despite its Islamist roots, the AKP and its founders said and did all the right things to prove their commitment to liberal democracy and EU-friendly policies, at least at first. As the AKP began passing reform packages to fulfill EU accession requirements, negotiations between Turkey and the European body officially opened in 2005. The pace of reform and associated negotiations soon stalled, however, because of roadblocks both at home and within the EU. While the AKP faced challenges from the country’s secular political establishment, EU members made it clear they were far from ready to admit a large, Muslim-majority nation.

The first significant sign that all was not right with Turkey’s political reform came with the Ergenekon trials in 2008. The case, together with the related Sledgehammer case a few years later, purported to undercover massive plots to overthrow the AKP government. Hundreds were tried and imprisoned, including key members of the military, as well as journalists and academics. As these cases dragged on, it became increasingly clear that evidence of these so-called plots was most likely fabricated. Over the next five years, as the power of the AKP government rose, civil liberties fell in tandem. The nation-wide Gezi protests in the summer of 2013, which were violently suppressed, book-ended the AKP’s tenure as a potential democratizing force.

Most debates about the rise and fall of Turkish democracy under the AKP hinge on whether the party was concealing its undemocratic intentions all along. Hintz argues that the AKP was hiding nothing and that its seemingly democratic path was intentional and served its undemocratic goals. As she argues, the AKP’s implementation of EU-mandated reforms was actually the first step in a long-term plan to bring Turkey’s institutions under the party’s complete political control.

According to Hintz’s “inside-out” theory, foreign policy is an active battle ground for national identity contestation, rather than simply serving fixed national security or economic interests. According to Hintz’s theory, “when supporters of identity proposals find their struggle to achieve hegemony obstructed at the domestic level, they take their contestation battle to the foreign policy arena.” In addition to diaspora communities, NGOs, and activist networks, international organizations, like the EU, can be extremely powerful locci for contesting national identity and challenging domestic power dynamics.

Turkey’s official national identity as a strictly secular nation had been jealously guarded by the political establishment and armed forces in Turkey for some time. While the AKP’s pious, conservative beliefs challenged this identity, there was little space to mount a successful

campaign to remake Turkish nationalism domestically. According to Hintz, the AKP used EU ascension to breakdown those internal obstacles.

As Hintz argues, by necessitating institutional and legislative change,” the EU could be strategically used “to alter the contours of identity contestation at the domestic level to [the AKP’s] own advantage.” For example, by requiring the military’s power in politics be legally undercut and civilian government be given oversight over the military, the EU’s accession criteria helped the AKP gain the upper hand in the fight over Turkey’s political and cultural identity at home.

This remarkable insight into how the AKP shifted the political landscape of Turkey foregrounds Hintz’s primary focus, which is on identity-based groups in Turkey. She provides a fascinating cultural tour of contemporary Turkey, drawing on popular movies, novels, television shows, as well as questionnaires to paint a nuanced picture of the country. Hintz also takes her theory of inside-out identity contestation and applies it to several other states, demonstrating its wide application.

While Hintz’s cultural research on Turkey is extremely valuable scholarship, her theory of inside-out identity politics and how it was used by the AKP deserves immediate attention from academics, policy-makers, and practitioners. Hintz has created a practical framework for examining how foreign policy is used to build national identity, and has shown how ostensibly democratic reforms can be used for anti-democratic ends in countries with weak institutions and a divided opposition.

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