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 FDD’s 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, “Incorporating Alevis: The Transformation of Governance and Faith-based Collective Action in Turkey.” He also worked as a doctoral fellow at Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a research associate at the University of Oxford’s Center on Migration, Policy and Society.
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 Oxford’s Center on Migration, Policy and Society. He last spoke to Westminster in 2018 on, “How Erdoğan Consolidates Power: The Weaponization of Turkish Media.” His topic today is, “Hagia Sophia: The Latest Target of Erdoğan’s Supremacist Policies.” Welcome back, Aykan.
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 Erdoğan’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 Erdoğan.
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 Erdoğan’s rule. So this shows that Erdoğan has had a very patient and systematic policy of converting Hagia Sophias into mosques. But of course, the biggest prize, not just for Erdoğan 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 Atatürk, 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 Erdoğan was raised and socialized in.
He was inculcated with these ideas, so it is no coincidence that when Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, this became a key but secret goal of Erdoğan’s. So this is a point that I would like to emphasize: that Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan’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 Erdoğan’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, Erdoğan, 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 Erdoğan 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.
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 Erdoğan.
You can imagine it is extremely difficult to speak up against Erdoğan, especially when it comes to such a sensitive topic. Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan 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.
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, Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan simply presented this as a court decision, just a legal procedure.
Now, there was a third set of rhetoric, and this is Erdoğan’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 Erdoğan 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.
Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan’s messaging toward the Muslim majority world to also be problematic.
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 Erdoğan’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 Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan’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.
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 Erdoğan’s accompanying propaganda campaign because those in the audience who might have come across Erdoğan’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 Erdoğan, the tolerant Erdoğan who pays for church and synagogue restorations, come together with this Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan 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.
Now, two of the spectacles of tolerance were Erdoğan’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. Erdoğan’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 worshippers. 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, Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan’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 Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan’s ongoing efforts to convert Christian sites.
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 Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan’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 Erdoğan that he cannot just get away with some statements but there will be some material consequences for his actions.
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 Erdoğan’s policies. And Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan 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.
So Russia has done its best over the years, often colluding with Erdoğan, to undermine the Ecumenical Patriarchate. I know this is an interesting point because one would assume why should Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan, 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 Erdoğan, 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 Erdoğan’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 Erdoğan’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.