The SAIS Observer recently sat down with Professor Lisel Hintz to discuss her new book and her concept of identity politics “inside out” before its release on Friday, November 2. Professor Hintz’s regional focus is on Turkey and its relations with Europe and the Middle East. This semester at SAIS Professor Hintz is teaching Psychology and Decision Making in Foreign Affairs.
The SAIS Observer (TSO): Professor, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions.
Professor Hintz: Of course! I’m happy to.
TSO: Professor, your new book is titled Identity Politics Inside Out: National Identity Contestation and Foreign Policy in Turkey. It’s set to be released November 2, 2018. Why did you choose to take on this challenging topic?
Professor Hintz: This is what I do: I find political and societal puzzles and I try to solve them. I try to think about the unthinkable and then explain how it becomes possible. Turkey is a fascinating subject as it is an intersection of so many political, societal and regional differences. I have always been fascinated by identity politics, and Turkey is a microcosm of so many of the debates I am interested in – ethnic, sectarian, pious-secularist, gender – that it was a natural place of study.
TSO: The book is titled Identity Politics Inside Out, and we know your primary focus is Turkey, but what is the “inside out” in reference to?
Professor Hintz: The idea behind “inside out” is that actors take what we usually think of as domestic identity struggles outside to the foreign policy arena. In order to weaken domestic obstacles to its Ottoman Islamist understanding of Turkey’s national identity, for example, the ruling AKP used Turkey’s EU accession process. As part of the Copenhagen democratization criteria, the AKP undertook reforms to reduce the role of the military and reconfigure the judiciary – two previously secularist institutions that had unseated or closed the AKP’s Ottoman Islamist predecessors. In addition to institutional conditionality, domestic actors can also “take it outside” by using international normative pressure and the resources and mobilization capacity of diaspora groups to help reconfigure the domestic playing field back home.
TSO: Turkey’s political and regional politics are fascinating, but I’m curious, how did you go about collecting your research for Inside Out?
Professor Hintz: I spent a total of 18 months in many parts of Turkey doing fieldwork while in my PhD program at George Washington University. I was also lucky to receive two Critical Language Scholarships from the U.S. State Department that funded intensive language training in Ankara and Bursa.
TSO: You spent so much time in the Turkey developing your language skills and learning the culture. However, when writing this book, what is the one main takeaway you wanted your readers to understand after they had finished?
Professor Hintz: I would like readers to finish the book with a greater understanding of how identity politics is used within Turkey and how the “inside out” concept analyzes its spill over into foreign policy initiatives. Turkey hosts a multiplicity of identities that are organically linked to different and contested foreign policy prescriptions. Previous governments’ Republican Nationalist understanding of Turkish identity led them to distance Turkey from its Ottoman past and to craft a place for Turkey in the transatlantic security structure; the current government sees its role as disengaging with its former Western patrons and establishing Turkey as an independent Sunni powerhouse. Citizens of Turkey disagree about foreign policy as much as they disagree about politics at home. The question of “who we are” is as much about what we should do outside our borders as what we should do inside them.
TSO: Since we are talking about Turkey, we have to discuss the other regional powers in the Middle East. With the recent Khashoggi killing and the varied responses from both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, we have to ask: Is Turkey mobilizing to challenge Saudi Arabia for hegemony in the region?
Professor Hintz: Turkey is walking a fine line with Saudi Arabia in the sense that they are rivals for Sunni regional leader, with Istanbul as former home of the caliphate but Saudi as home to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Also, Turkey aligns with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar, while Saudi aligns with actors like UAE and Egypt. This shaped Turkey’s measured response to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, which took the form of intelligence leaks rather than direct accusations by President Erdoğan. Particularly given Turkey’s precarious economic state, the Turkish government may be trying to extract financial concessions like payments, loans, or contracts from the Saudi government in exchange for keeping evidence of the murder under wraps.
TSO: You have dedicated years of your life to studying Turkey and developing a greater understanding of the language and culture. Now that this project is done and about to be published, have you charted out your next project?
Professor Hintz: Yes I have. My second book project is multi-level discussion about the intersection of pop culture and politics. I examine the ways in which regimes use pop culture as a tool of social engineering to mold their envisioned societies, how the opposition uses it as a forum of subversion, and how researchers can engage it as an empirical window onto debates we otherwise don’t have access to. In fact, I am teaching a European research seminar next semester subtitled “Reading European Politics through Pop Culture.” The first half of the term will be heavy in course content on Turkey, and then will build on other European cases. Students will have the opportunity to create their own research project on politics and pop culture on a European case of their choice. Turkey is a super interesting case to build on given that its soap operas are a hugely lucrative export in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East. Further, the current government shapes and polices the content of TV shows and films to create an image of the ideal citizen – a pious Sunni Turk who respects patriarchal authority and sees Turkey’s role as a Sunni Muslim leader in its neighborhood. Watching a grandiose Ottoman-themed soap opera about Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent is what propelled my learning of Turkish, and the government’s attempts to censor the show’s depiction of women in the harem inspired my first Foreign Policy piece, so I guess I’ve been hooked by pop culture ever since.
We want to thank Professor Hintz for taking the time to speak to us about her new book. It’s always interesting to learn about the work of current SAIS Professors, especially on such a relevant topic given current news headlines. If you want to read more about Professor Hintz, you can go to her website – liselhintz.com. Her new book “Identity Politics Inside Out: National Identity Contestation and Foreign Policy in Turkey” was released this Friday, November 2, 2018. You can order online now and be sure to use code ASFLYQ6 for 30% off.