Turkey, Power and its Eastern Others

This is the third post in a series of posts by several guest authors The Disorder Of Things on Ali Bilgic‘s new book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, released in late 2016. The full series is collected hereClemens Hoffmann is a Lecturer in International Politics at Stirling University, UK.


Ali Bilgic’s book is a timely and sophisticated contribution to the analysis of Turkish foreign policy as well as gender theory in IR. It combines a convincing analysis of the puzzle that is Turkish Foreign Policy (TFP) through an analytically as well politically original lens: that of gender. It identifies and problematizes practices of gendering underlying the relationship between the ‘West’ and the ‘Non-West’, of which Turkey is held to be a part. Apart from its rich and sophisticated historiography, its major contribution lies in analysing a ‘non-Western’ society from within, offering a rich and original narrative, which, no doubt, will benefit future generations of Turkish foreign policy and feminist IR scholars alike.

To my mind, Ali fills an important gap left by much of IR and TFP literature in here. He delivers a critical, theoretically sophisticated account problematizing the contradictory history of a ‘peripheral’ power (I don’t agree with the label ‘non-Western’ so much). He does so beyond a merely abstract or conceptual reflection, using a situated, informed and personal experience of the international, demonstrating its real life contradictory policy outcomes. It offers a credible account from a truly ‘non-Eurocentric’ perspective, produced outside of the confines of Western, and, more specifically, Anglo-Saxon International Relations scholarship. Similarly, Ali’s book takes a Turkish audience into different, uncharted and important territory, that of a gender, which, as he shows, has much to reveal about the uneasy spaces Western power can leave to its ‘others’. Here, too, the book rightly claims to offer an original perspective to a field traditionally dominated by much more conservative analyses, reproducing rather than challenging existing power hierarchies in the region. Demonstrating how the reproduction of power hierarchies, normalised and justified through gendering offers novelty and quality to the analysis.

The book chronologically demonstrates foreign policy making as a gendered practice. The use of gendered strategies of power by Turkish foreign policy makers from various political backgrounds throughout the Republic was always closely related, but not reducible to the West as a model, ideal, mystified desire as well as a threat and fear. The book shows a fascinating process of their internalization regardless of the political nature of the regime and the ways in which the ontological securities these tensions generate then lead to the formulation of its own contradictory foreign policies. In particular the relation between foreign policy making, the tensions within the Turkish Western consumerist ‘market man’ and the changing roles political strategists assigned to Islam is intriguing.

What to make of this tension between perpetrator and model for Turkey itself? As the book demonstrates, these are tightly intertwined with Western strategies and gendered identities. The masculine performance of its Turkey’s exclusive ‘Volk’ identity quickly submerged the civic cosmopolitan underpinnings of modernization of the Ottoman Tanzimat reform project. This then led to gradual defection or eradication of all perceived non-Turks (not just ‘non-Muslims’) from the Young Turk and Kemalist masculine projects. Arab leaders, many of whom were an intrinsic part of the late Ottoman society and represented in the late Ottoman parliament, were excluded from the new ‘Young Turk’ vision of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), only to fall prey to Western imperial tactics. Once powerful Armenian, Jewish, Greek and Kurdish populations became subjected to state violence, expulsion and genocide, for which the very Enver Pasha the book opens with is thought to have been largely responsible.

While the book describes the process, I feel that the book would benefit if it paid greater attention to this racialized as well as gendered understanding of ‘Turkishness’. In other words, how the identities problematized by this book are not just masculine and feminine in discourse but how Turkishness not only depends on a one-time historical, but a continuing social production, classically, in opposition to its internal and external ‘others’. This could then lead to a greater emphasis on the debate relating to Turkey’s own internal and in many ways quasi-colonial East/West differentiation. A more systematic gender spotlight on these processes of othering would add greatly to the story. Despite its critical credentials, the present historicisation primarily deals with the relationship between powerful Western agents and a largely ‘receiving’ and emulating Turkish class of policy makers. The production of gendered power hierarchies systematically depends on those internal processes of othering.

Can we talk of ‘Turkey’ without a more detailed treatment of this historical and contemporary process of violent political differentiation, which, as is described in relation to the CUP’s policies, also led to policies of active and conscious eradication? It seems to me that the Turkish modernity problematized by this book is intricately built

TOPSHOT – This picture taken around 5 kilometres west from the Turkish Syrian border city of Karkamis in the southern region of Gaziantep, on August 25, 2016 shows Turkish Army tanks driving to the Syrian Turkish border town of Jarabulus.
Turkey’s army backed by international coalition air strikes launched an operation involving fighter jets and elite ground troops to drive Islamic State jihadists out of a key Syrian border town. The air and ground operation, the most ambitious launched by Turkey in the Syria conflict, is aimed at clearing jihadists from the town of Jarabulus, which lies directly opposite the Turkish town of Karkamis. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

upon these gendered and physical, not just discursive processes and would, therefore, deserve greater attention. This could also include ongoing debates about a process described as internal colonialism exercised by ‘White Turks’ and the way in which the current regime has utilized this legacy of oppression to enact their own policies of inclusion and exclusion. Problematizing how minorities are gendered by those social strata in power would add substantively to understanding the gendered strategies of power. While this may sound like a call for an ‘internalist’ analysis for an analysis concerned with foreign policy making, those minority policies and the Kurdish Question in particular are, to my mind, an integral part of understanding TFP. In that sense I disagree that the Kurdish conflict “falls beyond the objectives of this analysis”. It should be an integral and revealing part which would certainly add credibility to the book’s post-colonial political agenda.

The problem I’m trying to point at here is not only a historiographic one though. A book is always most easily criticised for the things it didn’t do or cover. What I’m trying to get at is more of a theoretical problem as well. From its rejection of Bandung to the invasion of the non-aligned, post-colonial Cyprus, Turkey’s masculine Westernness was not just reproduced in isolation towards its outside. Though it has also emerged within the very context of exclusion and subjugation by the West, it was (and still is) as intricately related to the treatment of its minorities and constitutive others. This doesn’t stop at non-Muslim minorities. This tension between a target and an agent of masculine power, by no means unique to Turkey, challenges the starting point of this book though: Namely Turkey’s uniform categorization as ‘non-Western’ at the uniformly lower end of the global power hierarchy. Processes of producing Turkey’s own masculinity and its identity formation are intertwined with its exclusion as well as its own internal practices of exclusion. This isn’t so much about filling a historical gap, but to include the structural reproduction of an internal power hierarchy visible in the identities subject to the present feminist-postcolonial analysis. These identities, strategies and power hierarchies are historically dynamic and relational processes exceeding a strict internal/external binary.

Ontological securities are not merely projected from the outside. All Turkish leaderships are subjected to a continuous process of exclusion and continuing crises of legitimation. This similarly applies to all ‘non-Western’, Muslim, non-Muslim, but above all non-homogenized Turkish citizens. The performance of Western masculine power by the Turkish state has and continues to lead to multiple forms of exclusion and violent subjugation, from Sur to Sirnak to Cizre, all of which have an immediate bearing on its foreign policy making. More recently, Turkey’s excursions into Syria and Iraq have repeatedly triggered claims of internal and external neo-colonialism. These practices are by no means new, but are deeply entrenched memories of masculine practices of oppression by all those considered not Turkish.

Again, the point is not to simply ‘add’ empirical details missing from the current account. It’s more to make a theoretical point about the gendered practices the book tries to decode. Arguably, those can be made sense of much better if related to an underlying process of producing internal gendered hierarchies. This may seem to be an unfair criticism of a book written before the extent of the onslaught on opponents and the eradication of entire Kurdish cities from the map and history of Turkey became visible. While extent of the violence of exclusion may be shocking, it is by no means new. In the 1990s, like now, we could observe how ontological insecurities can trigger the violent reproduction of Western masculine power through the very Western strategy of physical destruction. This was not so much invented, but merely emulated by the current ‘Islamist’ government.

Evidently, these points of critique are not to deny the valuable contribution the book makes: a gendered analysis of Turkey and its foreign policy in relation to the West. It is more of a call to operationalize relational aspects of gender and post-colonial theory by including those systematically excluded from the beginning of the Turkish Republican political project and to look into the relationship between various strategies of exclusion and hierarchization. This can only be in the books’ spirit of problematizing a relationship of global inequality through the lens of gender theory. I, for one, would look forward to reading a second volume of similar quality, addressing the gendered power relations from the perspective of those being ‘devalorized’ by Turkey’s hyper-masculine foreign and domestic policies throughout history.

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