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Fighting for Us, Inside and Out: National Identity Contestation and Foreign Policy in Turkey Open Access

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In the early 2000s, Turkey’s foreign policy orientation swung enthusiastically toward the EU, just when a party with roots in an explicitly anti-Western tradition of political Islam assumed power. Beginning in the AKP’s second term, however, Turkey’s foreign policy veered sharply away from the EU, in favor of deeper ties with former Ottoman territories and other Muslim states. Concurrent with this external shift eastward, sweeping internal initiatives began expanding the presence of Sunni Islam in the education system, the media, the presidency, and many other areas. From a broader historical perspective, Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy shifts are surprising; as a long-time NATO ally and defender against perceived encroachments of Islam into the public sphere, Turkey seemed to be firmly embedded in a Western, secular tradition. How was such a drastic reorientation of Turkey – inside and out – possible under the AKP, particularly when a similar transformation attempted by a predecessor party was quickly and resoundingly thwarted just a decade earlier? Domestic politics and economic arguments fail to explain the timing of Turkey’s eastward shift and its domestic repercussions, while actor- and party-based Islamist identity approaches cannot account for Turkey’s initial EU-centric orientation. As this dissertation demonstrates, identity is indeed deeply important for understanding foreign policy, but existing accounts fail to connect Turkey’s domestic discursive struggles with its multiple international outcomes. In teasing out this complex link, I conceptualize foreign policy as an arena, alternative to domestic politics, in which supporters of proposals for national identity compete to advance the spread of their own proposal across a population. To analyze these struggles and their inextricable, organic relationship with foreign policy, I develop a theory of identity hegemony. The theory posits that supporters of competing proposals engage in processes of contestation, identifying a mechanism that generates changes in support for particular proposals over time. Identity hegemony theory argues that elites choose to take their identity contestation “outside” to the foreign policy arena when identity gambits at the domestic level are blocked by those supporting a competing proposal. Examining evidence collected from archives, interviews, surveys, popular culture and social media, and ethnographic observation, I employ intertextual analysis to identify four main identity proposals in Turkey – Ottoman Islamism, Republican Nationalism, Western Liberalism, and Pan-Turkic Nationalism – and parse out the domestic and foreign policy interests generated by each. I trace processes of contestation over the content of Turkey’s national identity since the founding of the Republic, analyzing the formation of identity-based obstacles established by Republican Nationalists to block the pursuit of hegemony by rival supporters. I then demonstrate how the AKP utilized an EU-oriented foreign policy to weaken these obstacles by selectively applying accession criteria, succeeding in opening the space for Ottoman Islamism where efforts in the domestic arena had failed. Finally, I analyze how the AKP’s initiatives to realize Ottoman Islamist interests at home and abroad, once having weakened Republican Nationalism’s obstacles, inadvertently laid the groundwork for alternative identity proposals to emerge. Examining the advantages foreign policy offers as an alternative arena in which elites can politicize identity debates helps to distill the complexity of the Turkish case, while offering an original, comprehensive approach to wider studies of the relationship between national identity debates and foreign policy.

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