Hagia Sophia: The Latest Target of Erdogan’s Supremacist Policies

Hagia Sophia: The Latest Target of Erdogan’s Supremacist Policies
(Dr. Aykan Erdemir, August 28, 2020)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Dr. Aykan Erdemir, senior director of FDDÔÇÖs Turkey program, is a former member of the Turkish Parliament (2011 to 2015) who served in the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, EU Harmonization Committee, and the Ad Hoc Parliamentary Committee on the IT Sector and the Internet.

As an outspoken defender of pluralism, minority rights, and religious freedoms in the Middle East, Aykan has been at the forefront of the struggle against religious persecution, hate crimes, and hate speech in Turkey. He is a founding member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, and a drafter of and signatory to the Oslo Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2014), as well as a signatory legislator to the London Declaration on Combating Antisemitism.

He has edited seven books, including Rethinking Global Migration: Practices, Policies, and Discourses in the European Neighbourhood (KORA) and Social Dynamics of Global Terrorism: Risk and Prevention Policies (IOS Press). He is co-author of the 2016 book Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites and Spaces (Routledge).

On April 27, 2016, Aykan was awarded the Stefanus Prize for Religious Freedom in recognition of his advocacy for minority rights and religious freedoms. In March 2015, he was awarded a distinguished fellowship at the Oxford Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, The Hill, Politico Europe, The Huffington Post, The National Interest, War On The Rocks, The Cipher Brief, Business Insider, Turkish Policy Quarterly, Hurriyet Daily News, Ahram Online, and The Times of Israel.

After completing his BA in International Relations at Bilkent University, Ankara, Aykan received an MA in Middle Eastern Studies and PhD in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University, where his doctoral dissertation was entitled, ÔÇťIncorporating Alevis: The Transformation of Governance and Faith-based Collective Action in Turkey.ÔÇŁ He also worked as a doctoral fellow at Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at HarvardÔÇÖs Kennedy School of Government and a research associate at the University of OxfordÔÇÖs Center on Migration, Policy and Society.

The views of the speaker are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Westminster Institute.


Robert R. Reilly:


Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute’s continuing series of Zoom lectures, which we are holding during this time of the virus. I am extremely happy to welcome back to the Westminster Institute Dr. Aykan Erdemir, who is Senior Director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is a former member of the Turkish Parliament (2011 to 2015) who served in the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, and other EU committees. Aykan has been at the forefront of the struggle against religious persecution, hate crimes, and hate speech in Turkey. He is a founding member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, and a drafter of and signatory to the Oslo Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2014).

Dr. Erdemir has edited seven books, including Rethinking Global Migration: Practices, Policies, and Discourses in the European Neighbourhood (KORA) and Social Dynamics of Global Terrorism: Risk and Prevention Policies (IOS Press). He is the co-author of the 2016 book Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites and Spaces (Routledge). In 2016, Aykan was awarded the Stefanus Prize for Religious Freedom in recognition of his advocacy for minority rights and religious freedoms. In 2015, he was awarded a distinguished fellowship at the Oxford Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy.

His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, Turkish Policy Quarterly, and many other journals and newspapers. After completing his BA in International Relations at Bilkent University, Ankara, Aykan received an MA in Middle Eastern Studies and a PhD in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University. He has also worked as a research associate at the University of OxfordÔÇÖs Center on Migration, Policy and Society. He last spoke to Westminster in 2018 on, “How Erdo─čan Consolidates Power: The Weaponization of Turkish Media.” His topic today is, “Hagia Sophia: The Latest Target of Erdo─čan’s Supremacist Policies.” Welcome back, Aykan.

Aykan Erdemir:


Thank you, Bob, for the kind introduction and for this opportunity to address your distinguished audience. Today, I would like to take a look at Turkish President Erdo─čan’s policies through the lens of Hagia Sophia. You know Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque in and of itself is an extremely important topic, and we could spend our time just discussing that. But I would like to situate it as part of a broader alarming trend that we are seeing with Turkey’s Islamist President Erdo─čan.

Since we planned this event actually another church has been converted into a mosque – namely, the church of Chora in Istanbul – and so I would like to add that also to our subject matter because the two are also intricately linked.

So just to give background as to what these two churches mean and how they were converted into mosques, let me begin by saying that there have been numerous churches named Hagia Sophia across Turkey. We are familiar with the one in Istanbul, which has been the most important, sacred architecture , especially for Orthodox Christians, for almost two millennia.

But besides that there were other Hagia Sophias, which suffered the same fate before the one in Istanbul. Today I would like to draw attention to four other Hagia Sophias. There was one in Trabzon on the Black Sea coast, one in a sub-province of Bursa in a town called Iznik, the ancient Nicaea, as well as another one in Vize.

All these three Hagia Sophias, you know smaller Hagia Sophias, but nevertheless important Hagia Sophias, were converted into mosques gradually under Erdo─čan’s rule. So this shows that Erdo─čan has had a very patient and systematic policy of converting Hagia Sophias into mosques. But of course, the biggest prize, not just for Erdo─čan but Turkey’s successive generations of Islamists, was the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.


Now, Hagia Sophia’s history is very interesting not just within the Turkish republican history but also since the Byzantine times. This was a magnificent Orthodox church central not only to Christianity, but also to the East Roman Empire, to the Byzantine Empire. And in 1453, when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered Istanbul, he converted the church into a mosque as a symbol of the Muslim, Turkic ruler’s domination of the Christian subjects.

Since then Hagia Sophia served as a mosque, but only when in 1934, the founder of the Turkish Republic, the secular Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atat├╝rk, with a Council of Ministers’ decision decided to turn the Hagia Sophia mosque into a museum.


Now, this was a very important move for various reasons. It, of course, symbolized the new era of the secular republic of Turkey and equal citizenship, a state that is at least theoretically equal distance to its Muslim, and Christian, and Jewish, and other citizens. At the same time it was an important symbolic gesture to Greece as well as Turkey’s other Western neighbors, showing that this is no longer the Ottoman Empire that is pursuing conquest and domination, this was the secular republic of Turkey that would like to be a member of the European family of nations. And I think it was a very positive and important gesture.

Definitely, the Turkish Republic had all sorts of shortcomings when it comes to separation of mosque and state, when it comes to institutionalizing equal citizenship, and more importantly guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities. But I would like to argue the glass was half-full, so despite all these shortcomings, there were important steps taken. If successive Turkish political leaders had pursued this track, I think Turkey could have become and remained a beacon for the Muslim majority world to emulate in terms of institutionalizing pluralism, fundamental rights and freedoms, and most importantly religious freedoms.

Hence, for Turkey’s Islamists the Hagia Sophia remained also a symbol but a negative symbol. To them that was a symbol of defeat of their supremacist, sectarian project. So especially in the aftermath of the Second World War we see a vocal campaign that revolves around the Hagia Sophia, revolves around this crusade to convert it into a mosque.

It was more than just a conversion of the building itself, but it was a symbol of reversing Turkey’s fortunes, reversing Western-oriented, pro-secular Turkey’s trajectory and reinstating a majoritarian, Sunni Muslim rule that is back on a pan-Islamist and neo-Ottoman track. And in case you are wondering, this was also the ethos with which Erdo─čan was raised and socialized in.

Strategic Patience

He was inculcated with these ideas, so it is no coincidence that when Erdo─čan’s Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, this became a key but secret goal of Erdo─čan’s. So this is a point that I would like to emphasize: that Erdo─čan since the rise of his AKP to power in 2002 remained quite demur, what I call a strategic patience at work when it comes to Hagia Sophia because when we take a look at Erdo─čan before the militant Islamists of the ’70s, 80’s, 90′, he was open about Hagia Sophia.

But when he claimed that he was reformed, that he was now kind of a conservative, Muslim, democratic leader, he dissimulated when it comes to Hagia Sophia. He pretended as if he had given up his old, radical, Islamist ways, but instead for those of us observing Erdo─čan closely, this was only a renewed and patient strategy to build Islamist domination and supremacy in Turkey. This patient path meant over this last decade meant gradual, legal, and incremental steps toward converting Hagia Sophias.

Now, there are two legal models at hand and I would also like to present them. One is the three Hagia Sophias I mentioned, the one in Trabzon, Nicaea, and Vize, which were museums under the Turkish Ministry of Culture. So in those cases Turkey’s Directorate General of Foundations, which is in charge of all the pious foundations in Turkey, took the Ministry of Culture to court.

So one Turkish state agency took another agency to court, and through the courts took over these three museums and converted them into mosques. So they managed to prove in court (under Erdo─čan’s of course immense pressure) that the Ministry of Culture was basically occupying sites that belonged to the Directorate of General Affairs, and that they had a right to convert them into mosques.

When it comes to Hagia Sophia and Chora in Istanbul, there was a different legal path at work because these two churches then converted into mosques, then converted into museums. Basically, this process took place through the Council of Ministers’ decisions. Hence, it was a private association that took these two Council of Ministers’ decisions to court to one of the high courts in Turkey, namely the Council of State. And the Council of State’s reversal of those Council of Ministers’ decisions paved the way to Erdo─čan’s conversion of these two monumentally important church museums into mosques again.


Now, the act of conversion itself is important, it is highly symbolic, but I argue that we have to pay attention to the rhetoric, to the explosive rhetoric, the official rhetoric, that accompanied the conversion of these churches because that is what should alarm us as much as the act of conversions themselves.

Now, Erdo─čan, as is usually the case, used multiple discourses, different ways of framing the debate to address different audiences. At home he was very brazen. He framed this whole debate around this issue of conquest, so Hagia Sophia’s conversion was yet another step in the Turko-Muslim conquest of this land.

I know it sounds strange that almost one hundred years into the secular republic of Turkey, Turkey’s ruling party is still trying to conquer the land and the peoples, the citizens, and their homes of worship, but this is the bizarre thinking of not only Erdo─čan but also his coalition partner, namely the Nationalist Action Party, Turkey’s ultra-nationalists. In fact, the leader of the ultra-nationalist party stated that this was yet another step in the centuries-long process of conquest of Turkey. So he again framed it as part of the same conquest mentality.

Framing Conversion as Conquest

To make matters worse, pro-government circles framed conversion of Hagia Sophia through an Ottoman legal term and an Islamic legal term called the ‘right of conquests’. So they claimed that the legitimacy for converting Hagia Sophia was based on Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II’s ‘right of conquest’, namely, literally, the ‘right of sword’.

And in fact there were others in the pro-government circles who referred to minorities as ‘remnants of the sword’. This is another pejorative term used frequently in Turkey to refer to Armenians and Greeks. So what this basically means is those few Christians who still remain in Turkey are ‘remnants of the sword’. These are individuals who escaped centuries of pogroms and mass killings. I would argue that a government or a ruling party would refrain from such language, right? It is an embarrassing term.

But in an interesting way Turkey’s Islamists and ultra-nationalists use it in an affirmative way. They use it to simply signify their domination over Turkey’s religious minorities, and that the right makes it right, that they, the beholders of swords, are the ones who have the legitimate right to rule and decide on the future of minorities as well as their religious and cultural heritage.


So this was the language at home. What made it more alarming is also the ruling coalition’s constant references to the few Turkish, Muslim individuals who resisted this conversion as fifth columns, as Byzantines, and as traitors. So this was not only an attempt against Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, but this was also an Islamist attempt against Turkey’s pro-secular Muslims who disagreed with Erdo─čan.

You can imagine it is extremely difficult to speak up against Erdo─čan, especially when it comes to such a sensitive topic. Erdo─čan dominates over 95% of Turkey’s media. Turkey’s journalists, opposition politicians, academics, are frequently in jail based on trumped up charges, often brought by Erdo─čan himself. So it really takes a lot of courage to speak up, but nevertheless there were individuals who spoke up and this was the treatment they received.

Framing Critics as Traitors

Now, of course, this serves two purposes. You not only frame those Muslims who oppose Islamist policies as being crypto-Greeks, crypto-Byzantines, crypto-Christians, but you also put pressure on Turkey’s religious minorities because you isolate them by framing any Muslims who would be in solidarity with them, who would like to work with them, as basically traitors, as fifth columns. So this really will have long-term repercussions in terms of building alliances and defending the rights of Turkey’s minorities.

Now, when it came to the West, Erdo─čan again had this quite typical doublespeak. He, of course, did not use the term ‘conquest’. He made sure he did not come across as a radical Islamist. He gave assurances. He said that that Hagia Sophia would be open to people of all faiths. People would have access all throughout the day.

In fact, pro-government circles said that it would be even better. They said look, back in the days you had to buy a ticket to enter the museum. Now, in the mosque form you can enter and visit any time of day, not just during museum hours, and you do not even need to buy a ticket, so there were all of these ‘sugar-coating’ attempts and Erdo─čan simply presented this as a court decision, just a legal procedure.

Global Influence

Now, there was a third set of rhetoric, and this is Erdo─čan’s address to the global Islamist movement, to his fellow Muslim Brotherhood members as well as other radical Islamists. And we also saw this in various social media messages and in messages Erdo─čan conveyed made in Arabic. And again, there was a strong emphasis on conquest, but there was also a strong emphasis on this process all around the world.

Erdo─čan referred to this as the bringer of good news also for other sites, including Al Aqsa Mosque. So he talked about liberating Al Aqsa Mosque, which was kind of a message about Israel, although he did not mention Israel. Again, one could find Erdo─čan’s messaging toward the Muslim majority world to also be problematic.

Repercussions on the Discourse and Policies in the Middle East

And in case you are wondering whether this is just a concern on the part of us analysts, whether we are reading too much into it, there is already I think enough evidence to show that Erdo─čan’s conversion of Hagia Sophia and Chora and the accompanying rhetoric have already had a very negative repercussions on the discourse and policies in the Middle East and beyond.

We have documented numerous cases of radical Islamists, stating their support of Hagia Sophia’s conversion, but then vowing to carry out further acts in their parts of the world. For example, a Muslim Brotherhood member from Jordan, speaking on a Muslim Brotherhood channel, after praising Erdo─čan and the conversion of Hagia Sophia, stated that when the Muslims conquer all of Palestine and Israel, they would of course push out all Jews to the sea, and convert all synagogues into mosques. So this was just one of the examples in which other extremists were emboldened, other supremacists were emboldened by Erdo─čan’s practice and rhetoric. And it would not be surprising to see more such discourse and potentially policies to come.

And of course here I would like to note that we are not discussing all of this in a vacuum, right? We are discussing this in the immediate aftermath of one of the most brutal genocidal campaigns of killing, enslavement, mass rape, and forced conversion in the Middle East. We have seen the Islamic State and other radical Islamist movements that targeted Yazidis, Christians, Muslims who did not fit into their narrow view of Islam as victims.

So I think it is extremely irresponsible and risky to fuel such hatred, such prejudices, to convey such inciting rhetoric in the Middle East and North Africa that happen to be still suffering from the consequences of these recent episodes of violence and mass killing and destruction.

Equal Citizenship

Now in terms of what this act does to Turkey’s religious minorities, my key message is this has completely transformed Turkey’s citizenship regime. Yes, although Turkey is nominally a secular republic and has legalized full, legal, citizenship rights, in practice, of course, there has been systematic discrimination. But now with this conversion and the accompanying rhetoric I would argue that Turkey’s religious minorities’ citizens are being relegated from citizens who are being discriminated against to subjects who are dominated.

So things have gone for the worse. In fact, we can hear this first hand from the protests of the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, Archbishop Elpidophoros, who emphasized the exact same point because he, too, is also a Turkish citizen and he mentioned in a BBC interview how this transforms his status as an equal citizen in Turkey.

And so it created a hierarchy of Turkey’s citizens, and by relegating Turkey’s Christians, and by extension Jews, into subjects, tolerated subjects of a benevolent ruler, reintroduced an Ottoman idiom. And again it is very important to pay attention to Erdo─čan’s accompanying propaganda campaign because those in the audience who might have come across Erdo─čan’s spectacles of tolerance, namely the Turkish government’s sponsorship of restoration of churches and synagogues, could be confused.

Spectacles of Tolerance

They could argue how does this Erdo─čan, the tolerant Erdo─čan who pays for church and synagogue restorations, come together with this Erdo─čan who talks about conquest, and the right of the sword, and dominates minorities? And I would argue the two are basically two sides of the same coin because for Erdo─čan the minorities in their subordinate status should be subjects who should be bestowed with the benevolent tolerance of the ruler, so they should know their place, and they should when asked play their role in spectacles of tolerance and inclusion.

In fact, just like Iran, we have begun to see increasing demands by the Turkish government to force Turkey’s religious minority communities to sign and issue statements, saying that everything is wonderful in Turkey, that they are free to worship, that there is perfect freedom of religion in Turkey. So I always argue if religious minority communities are in a position to constantly affirm that life is good for them, that is a sign that something is deeply wrong in that polity because we see the same in Iran with Iran’s Jewish community, frequently put under pressure by the Islamic Republic to express how free they are and that they have a wonderful time in Iran.

Recent Examples

Now, two of the spectacles of tolerance were Erdo─čan’s recent announcement that this year there will be for the first time after the restoration period liturgies held in the Sumela Monastery, which is a Greek Orthodox monastery on the eastern Black Sea coast, and in Aghtamar Church in Lake Van, which is an Armenian Apostolic Church.

Now again both this monastery and the church have been restored by the Turkish State, but these properties have not been handed over to their minority communities, so this is a very important point. Erdo─čan’s government restores some of these synagogues and churches, but then keeps them under government control, and decides if and when minority communities can hold liturgy, and when that happens, televises that widely as proof of Turkey’s tolerance and inclusion of religious minorities.

So I call this a tolerance for minority worship sites without their worshipers. So it is a world where almost all minorities have been wiped out, almost all Christians and Jews are no longer existent, but then some monuments are there for occasional spectacles.

Impact in the Muslim World

Now, let me move onto the impact of these conversions in the Muslim majority world because there was a very mixed result. First of all, Erdo─čan wanted the first Friday prayer at Hagia Sophia to be a major spectacle, emphasizing his leadership in the Muslim world, as well as in the world at large.

So he invited a long list of dignitaries all the way from the Pope to heads of Muslim majority states. To his surprise, no one else showed up, so there were no dignitaries who wanted to join him in this spectacle, so the only words of praise came from the usual suspects: Iran, Hamas, Pakistan, and a few other radical Islamist actors. In general, most chose to look the other way. They did not want to be associated with Erdo─čan’s act of conversion.

Again, in the Muslim majority world we had two different kinds of opposition. On the one hand, we have a kind of pro-Western, pro-secular, pluralist Muslims who saw this as an offense. In fact, some of them even tried to push within the Islamic tradition against such conversion, arguing that it is against Islam and Islamic law as well.

But then you also see an interesting pushback from traditional monarchies in the Gulf, in the Middle East. Since there is an ongoing fight between Erdo─čan and the Muslim Brotherhood and the established traditional monarchies in the Middle East, this was also yet another battlefield.

As we have seen lately, some of these countries, for example, the United Arab Emirates, have been having a very pro-active campaign to build churches and synagogues and to encourage a multi-faith coexistence in these countries. So they highlighted their efforts and contrasted it with Erdo─čan’s ongoing efforts to convert Christian sites.

Western Response

Now, beyond the Muslim world, let me give you a quick overview of the response or the lack thereof from the West. Now, we have seen some of the usual talking points, expressions of concern, from the United States International Commission of Religious Freedom, from the State Department, from some Europeans heads of state.

Of course, there were intellectuals, academics, and advocates who raised their voices, but overall I would argue that the policy response was weak, meaning this was exactly what Erdo─čan predicted, that there would only be some statements, mild statements, which would then be within a week or two or a month forgotten. And in fact, as we now approach September, that is where we are, right? Hagia Sophia, unfortunately, is not necessarily making headlines and it no longer appears to be central to the policymaking process.

Of course, we still wait to see whether Erdo─čan’s policy and rhetoric will prompt the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom to consider Turkey’s Tier 2 Status in its annual report. And whether it will go forward with recommending the State Department designate Turkey as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). If and when that happens, of course, the White House can issue sanctions based on the International Religious Freedom Act, and this would be of course a strong policy response that proves to Erdo─čan that he cannot just get away with some statements but there will be some material consequences for his actions.

EU Response

When it comes to the European Union, again I think it would have been unrealistic to expect much of a pushback because on a wide range of issues the European Union so far has proven to be ineffective when it comes to pushing back against Erdo─čan’s policies. And Erdo─čan continues to hold the Syrian refugees as leverage in disciplining the European Union, threatening Brussels with opening what he calls the floodgates of refugees to destabilize and undermine Europe. So this limits the room for maneuver when it comes to the European Union as well as the constituent nation-states, but as you can imagine, especially Greece was very vocal and continues to be so.


Now, I would like to emphasize one country, Russia, which has had a very interesting take, a very strategic take on the Hagia Sophia issue. Putin, who has very cordial relations with Turkish President Erdo─čan despite their disagreements in Syria and Libya, was quite silent. He stayed silent. Basically, the Russian Orthodox Church did most of the talking in terms of protesting Hagia Sophia’s conversion.

But Russia played a dual game because there has been an ongoing rivalry between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is the primus inter pares among all the Orthodox Patriarchates in the Orthodox Christian world. This is threatening to Putin as well as the Russian Orthodox Church because especially since the end of the Cold War, Moscow perceived the expansion of NATO and the European Union as being coterminous with the expansion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s influence and outreach.

Targeting the Ecumenical Patriarchate

So Russia has done its best over the years, often colluding with Erdo─čan, to undermine the Ecumenical Patriarchate. I know this is an interesting point because one would assume why should Erdo─čan work with Russia to undermine the Ecumenical Patriarchate seated in Istanbul? Because ultimately this is also a great honor, a source of influence, for Turkey itself. It is like having the Vatican in your country.

But for Erdo─čan, who is not necessarily the most rational politician, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is not a resource, it is not a blessing for Turkey, it is a challenge, it is something to be undermined. And hence, on this issue Moscow and Ankara, Putin and Erdo─čan, are fully aligned. We have seen some messaging from the Russian Orthodox Church, pointing to the weakness of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, weakness that allows such conversions to take place.

Now, I do not believe this is a criticism in good faith. I think this is part of the ongoing Russian attempt to delegitimize and undermine the Ecumenical Patriarchate as part of a Russian, imperial policy of inscribing not only Putin’s but also the Russian Orthodox Church’s primacy in the former Soviet-controlled or influenced domains.


So overall we can see that Hagia Sophia’s conversion, Chora’s conversion, has major ramifications for Turkey’s democracy and religious pluralism, for Turkey’s vulnerable religious minorities, for the Muslim majority world, for religious minorities in the Muslim majority world, but more importantly for the global power struggle between the West and its adversaries.

Hence, this is I think not just an issue for the Orthodox Christians or Christians or people who care about sacred heritage and architecture. This should be an issue of major concern to all of us since it brings together multiple fault lines and since it has the potential to trigger detrimental processes in parts of the world a long way away from Istanbul and Hagia Sophia.

Overall I believe we have not done a terribly good job, and when I say we I am talking about the concerned international community, the rights and freedoms community. We have not fully articulated the problems with Erdo─čan’s policy and rhetoric. We have not fully succeeded in building interfaith, intercultural, and non-partisan alliances necessary to push back against such a policy. And more recently, I think we have dropped the ball in the sense that we have allowed other headlines to take over what really should continue to be a major concern around Hagia Sophia and Chora.

So it is my hope that also thanks to the Westminster Institute we will raise further awareness about this, and that this will also spark greater interest among policymakers in the U.S. and beyond, and that this could become a part of not only policy rhetoric but also some concrete policy action to push back against Erdo─čan’s supremacist, sectarian, discriminatory policy that puts lives as well as ancient communities and their traditions in the Middle East at risk. Thank you, Bob, for giving me the opportunity and I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.


Robert R. Reilly:

Aykan, thank you very much. By the way, I noticed some of this rhetoric to which you refer, spilling over into foreign policy issues and tension between Greece and Turkey today in the eastern Mediterranean and the gas exploration. A member of the Turkish Parliament said about Greece that it is not a worthy successor to the Byzantine Empire, the flip side of which would be that we in Istanbul are a worthy successor of the Ottoman Empire. When I observe Turkey’s behavior in the eastern Mediterranean, the analogy that comes to mind is China’s behavior in the South China Sea. I mean it is rather audacious. What do you make of that and the rhetoric that is being used in respect to that?

Aykan Erdemir:

Thank you for this great question because it allows me to elaborate on a key aspect that I left out, and that is I have argued all along that Hagia Sophia comes as part of a broader Islamist, you know, pan-Islamist, neo-Ottomanist package, and we should be concerned about it. Now, definitely one part of that issue is the eastern Mediterranean issue, and we have seen Erdogan using an irredentist, a maximalist, an aggressive rhetoric. It is not just gun boat diplomacy I am talking about, but it is also the accompanying rhetoric and all the symbols used. To begin with for example, a key date for Hagia Sophia’s conversion Erdogan preferred July 24th, which was the date of the signing of the Lausanne Peace Treaty. For Turkey’s secular citizens, July 24th is a great victory day in the sense that that is when Turkey won peace. It ended all hostilities when it set on a new path of peaceful coexistence with neighbors.

But for Erdogan and Turkey’s Islamists, it has always been a day of defeat.

They have argued that the Turkish Republican leadership sold out Turkey, they caved into Western demands, and they left territory over, so in the Islamist, expansionist, irredentist worldview, July 24th is a date you need to turn around, that you need to reverse this old Turkey associated with Mustafa Kemal Atat├╝rk where the key motto is ‘peace at home, peace abroad’ with what they call an assertive Turkey that has its eyes set on these former lands controlled by the Ottomans. And of course, you can imagine Greece is one of the first countries that should be concerned because in Erdogan’s circles there have been numerous references to this notion of taking over islands, taking over the Aegean. More recently, this worldview combined with a neo-nationalist and maximalist understanding of [the] maritime waters issue, namely, the blue homeland.

This is a formulation that argues that all the way from Turkey to Libya, Turkey has these maximalist maritime borders and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), that islands, including Crete and Cyprus, do not have the same territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones as guaranteed under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. And you can imagine that all of this has neo-Ottoman and pan-Islamist references as well, and this has complicated the issue between Turkey and Greece, and Turkey and Cyprus, to a much greater extent. And in fact, today it is I think safe to say that we are talking about an escalation at the regional level, so when we today talk about the eastern Mediterranean crisis, the ongoing escalation in the eastern Mediterranean, it is no longer a bilateral affair. It is not just [the] Turkish and Greek Navies or Turkish and Greek Air Forces, challenging one another’s notions of territorial waters. On the contrary, we now see two blocs emerging.

On the one hand, we have Erdogan’s Turkey, we have the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli in Libya, we see the Muslim Brotherhood, we see Hamas, we see Qatar, forming one Islamist bloc. On the other hand, we see Greece and Cyprus, France and Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, [and] to some extent Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The anti-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Erdogan alliance becoming more and more together, and this, of course, is a recipe for disaster because when you have so many different moving parts where many actors see these issues as existential threats, and where they will not refrain from using force, I think we could see unintended escalation, military escalation of these bilateral and multilateral crises, and this is I think a great time.

I know isolationism has been getting more popular in the West, both in the United States and in Europe, but I think this is a great time when we again have some transatlantic leadership, when we have concerted American and European action to help negotiate the existing conflicts, to help settle things not through gun boat diplomacy but through international law and diplomatic negotiations. But also, more important is an extension, pushing back against radical Islamist politics, whether it is Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism or whether it is Erdogan’s export of extremism and supremacism to other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. This is time I think we need to see (just like back in the days of the Cold War) some concerted transatlantic action.

Robert R. Reilly:

Aykan, might Erdogan’s aggressive behavior and his radical rhetoric in fact disguise his weakness? The Turkish economy is in very bad shape. I believe he is turning to China for some financial aid, with the Turkish currency, the alienation of so many through his export of weapons to Libya, which is against, I believe, a number of few in resolutions. Can he afford to alienate as many people as he has, and is it just an attempt to consolidate political support at home?

Aykan Erdemir:

Now, I think this is the tragedy of Erdogan, that is the more he is cornered economically, the more Turkish economy is in dire straits, he feels the need to escalate tensions to divert the Turkish votersÔÇÖ attention away from the problems at home. Erdogan’s key problem is that when it comes to the economy, he has no one else to blame but himself. He has consolidated power with the executive presidential system, and the only other person who has a say in economic and financial matters is his son-in-law who happens to be Turkey’s Minister of Finance and Treasury.

Erdogan unfortunately made sure he no longer has any scapegoats when it comes to the economy. He does not want to take the full blame for depleting Turkey’s foreign currency reserves, for devaluating Turkish currency, for leading to not only capital flight but also brain drain from Turkey. He is the one who is responsible, and he cannot point the finger elsewhere. Hence, what is better than diverting attention by these spectacles of war because [the] rally around the flag effect of nationalist causes is always a godsend from Erdogan’s point of view.

And at the same time, Erdogan is of course scrambling for help. Given Western help, let us assume in the form of an International Monetary Fund bailout, [which] always comes with strings attached about good governance, about transparency, about accountability, about basically competent fiscal management, Erdogan looks for other opportunities that do not appear to come with such democratic strings attached, so he turned to China to act on an already existing swap deal, a Yuan-Lira currency swap deal, and he is looking to get further injections of cash from China.

Erdogan also turned [to] his long-term ally Qatar, his Muslim Brotherhood ally, Qatar, to expand again an existing swap deal between the national currencies, but we all know that these are not permanent measures, these will not fix any of Erdogan’s problems. Hence, he has turned to the United Kingdom, he has turned to the United States, to the central banks, to the Federal Reserve, and he also turned to the European Central Bank, and looked for opportunities of similar swap deals, and all these institutions so far have turned him down because given the state of Turkey’s finances and economic mismanagement, I do not think any Western central bank authority would be interested in extending Erdogan a lifeline.

And add to that the additional challenges of impending Western sanctions. As we speak, [the] U.S. has been on the verge of imposing CAATSA sanctions for Erdogan’s purchase of a big-ticket Russian military hardware item, namely the S-400 air defense system. There are other cases of corruption and human rights abuse where we might see Global Magnitsky Sanctions issued. We have Turkey’s second largest public lender, Halkbank, currently being tried at the Southern District of New York Court for evading U.S. sanctions against Iran, which could also lead to massive fines and sanctions, so this is an extremely vulnerable economy that is not only bleeding capital as Western investors are fleeing Turkish equity and bonds but also an economy which is increasingly under the risk of sanctions, which then ends up undermining the business climate, which then pushes especially greenfield investment to other countries. And we have seen the consequences.

Turkey is going through one of the worst economic downturns as capital flight leads to a currency devaluation, massive unemployment and poverty, as well as brain drain. Now, the tools Erdogan has at hand at this point will be utterly ineffective. What he needs, according to experts, is a major IMF bailout package, $100-250 billion dollars just to sustain the economy going [forward]. And although Erdogan definitely needs that resource, he from a democratic perspective does not feel that he can afford the conditionalities because already his electoral prospects have reversed.

Last year we [saw] that although he controls the media, although he outspends the entire opposition maybe a hundred-fold, and although there is a lot of rigging at the ballot box level, Turkey’s opposition bloc managed to defeat him at the municipal elections, so today, Turkey’s opposition parties control two-thirds of Turkey’s GDP and half of Turkey’s population through the municipalities. And this is yet another worrying sign for Erdogan, that if and when he goes forward with the ÔÇś23, 2023 presidential [and] parliamentary elections, it is highly likely that despite the uneven playing field, he will lose elections, which means the only way to reverse this trend is by strengthening his iron kind of hold on the society, on the economy, on the media, on politics, and that is mutually exclusive with an IMF package and its conditionalities.

Robert R. Reilly:

Actually, I wonder if you could talk for a moment about the level of alienation amongst the youth in Turkey both to Erdogan himself and even to the kind of Islam he represents.

Aykan Erdemir:

So Erdogan has frequently referred to his project of a pious generation, what he called a pious generation, but what he really meant was an Islamist generation. He believed that through schools, through media, through state institutions he could inculcate his ideology of hate and prejudice in [and] among the youth, thereby reversing the secular, republican tradition, what he sees [as a] West-toxified, brainwashed, pro-Western, pro-secular, pro-democracy population, replacing it with this anti-Western, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, anti-Western quote-unquote ‘pious generation.’

Now, when we take a look at the polls after almost 18 years of Erdogan rule in Turkey, the youth do not appear to be more religious. The youth do not appear to be adhering to Erdogan’s worldview, and in fact, we now hear many AKP officials complain that the youth (even those studying at the Muslim preacher schools) are turning away from Islam, that they are becoming deists, agnostics, atheists. And this I think itself is yet another example of how Islamist rule actually pushes many Muslims away from Islam. We have seen this in Iran, and we have seen numerous Iranians either leave Islam or embrace new faiths, including Christianity, and this has then led [to] the Islamic Republic to crack down on Christian converts, and I can argue that there is a similar paranoia about conversion within the Erdogan government.

You might remember this sad episode, the hostage-taking of North Carolina Pastor Andrew Brunson by the Erdogan regime. For almost two years Pastor Brunson was imprisoned in Turkey on trumped-up charges of espionage, coup plotting, and terrorism. Ludicrous charges, not a single shred of evidence, everything was built on three secret witness testimonies, and those three secret witnesses did not fully materialize in the end, and they contradicted or retracted their accusations when Erdogan finally allowed Pastor Brunson to leave Turkey for the United States, but in that case in the indictment and the superseding indictment we [saw] a lot of the Erdogan government’s paranoia articulated, and the same articulation was also present in Turkey’s government-owned or pro-government media as well.

There were all these conspiracies about missionaries plotting to divide Turkey to create a Kurdistan, to bring down the Turkish Republic just as they were they allegedly brought down the Ottoman empire, so there were a lot of unfounded conspiratorial thinking, and this, of course, is I think a reflection of the anxiety the Erdogan government has vis-à-vis the youth, so they are afraid that the youth not only has turned away from Islam as well as political Islam but they might now look for alternatives just like the Iranian youth, and I think this is further provoking paranoia among the Turkish governments.

But overall, it is my hope that Turkey’s youth will continue to demand a more pluralistic, more inclusive, and more democratic Turkey, that they will see Turkey’s prosperity and success not in the battlefields, not in repeating Ottoman feats, but in trade, mutual, cordial relations, diplomatic exchange, and they will ultimately succeed in reversing the damage Erdogan has been doing for the last 18 years.

Robert R. Reilly:

Aykan, if I may close with one additional question: Erdogan is back in the news for denouncing the UAE’s move to recognize Israel, and also for having some senior members of Hamas in Istanbul, and purportedly for giving Turkish passports to a dozen or so Hamas members, so on the one hand he is burnishing his Islamist credentials, on the other hand however, [he is] relatively if not completely silent on what is happening to the Uyghurs in China, who are a Turkic people and Islamic, who are undergoing brutal, brutal suppression by the Chinese. Does anyone call him [out] for the hypocrisy of this in Turkey?

Aykan Erdemir:

You know the opposition, Turkey’s opposition, has tried to bring a motion in the Turkish Parliament to establish an ad hoc committee on the Chinese persecution of the Uyghur minority in China, especially in Xinjiang region, and guess who killed the motion? It was Erdogan and his ultranationalist colleagues, so Erdogan has been an accomplice when it comes to turning a blind eye to what is happening in China, and interestingly, this is a pattern we also see with Iran. It seems Beijing has succeeded in buying both Tehran and Ankara’s silence on the Uyghur issue, and this is not the only convergence between Iran and Turkey.

You referred to the deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to establish diplomatic ties for rapprochement, and ironically, there were messages of support from some other Arab capitals or silence, but Iran and Turkey were the two most vocal opponents of the deal, and that is particularly ironic because these are the two largest non-Arab powers in the Middle East, and interestingly, Turkey in 1949 and Iran in 1950 were the two first Muslim-majority states to practically recognize Israel, so it is ironic that those two countries are now criticizing others for following in their footsteps. And what is more ironic is although Turkey and Israel do not currently have ambassadors, they still have embassies and a robust trade and diplomatic relationship, so in criticizing the UAE, Erdogan does not seem to be aware that Turkey itself has diplomatic relations, and it is only natural that others would follow in those steps.

Now, when it comes to Hamas, that is yet another convergence between Iran and Turkey. Erdogan has been a longtime supporter of Hamas. He has been on the record, saying that Hamas is not a terrorist organization. Turkey has been the number two headquarters politically and militarily for Hamas outside of Gaza, and there have been frequent reports of planning meetings in Turkey about terrorist attacks in Israel and beyond, so when Erdogan once again openly hosted two designated Hamas terrorists in Istanbul over the weekend, and one of them being someone for whom the U.S. has a $5 million bounty for his involvement in kidnapping and murder, the U.S. [State] Department for the first time pushed back hard, you know, because so far Washington has been silent as it looked the other way about Erdogan’s involvement with Hamas. But I think this weekend was the last straw that broke the camel’s back, and we have seen the State Department spokesperson register a strong opposition to Erdogan’s move.

This of course will not change much because Erdogan knows this is just talk, so unless we see concrete sanctions, designations about Hamas financiers and enablers in Turkey, Erdogan will continue because keep in mind this is not a tactical alliance, this is an ideological alliance. Both Hamas and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party have roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, and they share the same anti-Western, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic ideology, so as long as that ideological affinity is there, we can expect further cooperation between Erdogan and Hamas, as well as between Erdogan and other radical Islamist state and non-state actors around the world.

Robert R. Reilly:

Dr. Aykan Erdemir, thank you very much for joining us at the Westminster Institute today. I invite our audience to go to the Westminster Institute website. You could watch AykanÔÇÖs superb lecture from 2018 as well as sample the many other videos that are on our website. Thank you.

Aykan Erdemir:

Thank you for having me.