The Reconversion of the Hagia Sophia


Source: Council on Foreign Relations

from Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Calls

Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at CFR, Azza Karam, secretary general of Religions for Peace International, and Elizabeth H. Prodromou, visiting associate professor of conflict resolution at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, discuss the conversion of the Hagia Sophia back to a mosque. Mark D. W. Edington, bishop in charge of the convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, moderates.


Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars, Council on Foreign Relations

Azza Karam

Secretary General, Religions for Peace International

Elizabeth H. Prodromou

Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution, Tufts University’s Fletcher School


Mark D.W. Edington

Bishop in Charge, Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

FASKIANOS:   Good morning to all of you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, Vice President of the National Program and Outreach at CFR. As a reminder, today’s discussion will be on the record. The audio, video, and transcript will be available on our website at and on our iTunes podcast channel” Religion and Foreign Policy.” So we have a distinguished panel today to talk about the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia and I am pleased to introduce our moderator, Bishop Mark Edington of the diocese in Massachusetts. He is the bishop in charge of the convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. Prior to this position, he was rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Newtonville, Massachusetts and Director of the Amherst College Press. Bishop Edington worked both as an ordained Episcopal priest, a higher education executive, social entrepreneur, writer, and editor. He served as a senior executive officer of the inter-disciplinarian research centers at Harvard, including the Center for the Study of World Religions and the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory. So I’m going to turn it now to Bishop Edington to introduce our distinguished panelists. So, over to you.

EDINGTON: Thank you, Irina. Thank you so much. Good morning, everybody. And good evening from Paris. It’s my great pleasure to welcome you to this conversation about Hagia Sophia and to be honored as the moderator of this conversation. Everybody on this call knows that we’re gathered to discuss a cultural institution of enormous significance for at least two cultures and two of the world’s great religions. Justinian I, the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire began building the third building for worship on this site, the current Hagia Sophia, in the middle of the sixth century. And that means when ground was broken for what we here in France regard as our oldest cathedrals, Hagia Sophia was already 500 years old. It was a Christian church until 1453, with a small hiatus from its experience as the center spiritually and administratively of Orthodox Christianity in the early thirteenth century, when as a result of, we might say, the excesses of the Fourth Crusade, it served for sixty years as a Roman Catholic Cathedral. In 1453, Hagia Sofia became a mosque, and it served in that capacity until 1931. Four years later, in 1935, it was established as a museum, a status that it had until just recently this summer. How we got here, and what it means, is the focus of our conversation today.

I am honored to be joined for our conversation by Professor Elizabeth Prodromou, who is visiting associate professor of conflict resolution at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she also directs Fletcher’s initiative on Religion, Law, and Diplomacy., an initiative I can say, without fear of contradiction, did not exist when I was a student at the Fletcher School. Elizabeth, we’re glad to have you. We’re also joined by Steven Cook, who’s the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow at the Council for Middle East and Africa studies, and also serves as the Council’s director of the International Affairs Fellowship for tenured international relations scholars. And we’re very honored to be joined by Azza Karam, who is, I think, just finishing her first year as Secretary General of Religions for Peace. If I may, Elizabeth, I want to start with you. Can I ask you to help us situate how this, all that has happened and this year, is, we can place it within the cultural heritage policy of the Turkish government and of President Erdoğan.

PRODROMOU:  Of course. Thank you, Mark. And thank you also Irina for the fantastic Religion and Foreign Policy webinar series of CFR. And it’s great to be together with Steven and Azza on this panel and again, thank you, Mark. I wanted to say a little bit about the intersection of why the Hagia Sophia matters as a kind of reflection of the intersection of Turkey’s cultural heritage policy and its geopolitical ambitions and objectives. A lot has been said in the last month and a half about the decision. The July 10decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to reactivate the Hagia Sophia as a mosque and a lot of the coverage, media, blog, policy coverage, treated that decision as kind of a surprise. And so I would like to suggest that there’s ample evidence to show that the Hagia Sophia decision was a long time coming, and if we fit it in the context of Turkey’s cultural heritage policy, no one should have been surprised by it. But I think you know, there should be concerned about how it happened, why it happened, and the implications.

So just a couple of words on Turkey’s cultural heritage policy in general. That more recent cultural heritage policy, how the Turkish state manners manages its cultural and religious heritage, religious heritage falls in cultural heritage, really draws from the deep wellsprings of the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923. And it was with the founding and the establishment of the new state that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk actually mobilized academics and practitioners, professional experts on cultural and religious heritage, to develop a new identity for Turkey. And so the management of the country’s cultural heritage became central to the growth and the consolidation of what it means to be Turkish, Turkish nationalism. And within that context, the decision about Hagia Sophia is simply the latest chapter in a cultural heritage policy, which, whose core markers have really been the acquisition, the repackaging, the repurposing, and that has meant in many cases, the destruction and the erasure of the cultural and religious heritage of the core faith communities: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Syriac Orthodox, Christian communities who inhabited Asia Minor before the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, and the Seljuk Turks. So there’s a long historical context for this. And the way in which the Turkish state has managed cultural heritage has been through three main state institutions; through the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Diyanet, as well as the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. And it’s interesting that under the Erdoğan regime, there has been a deliberate and purposeful shift of management of cultural heritage to the Diyanet at the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

And so the grand Hagia Sophia decision was preceded by the reactivation of three other Hagia Sophias, what I’ve called in my writing the Hagia Sophia fetish in Turkey, in Adana, Adrianople, and Izmir Smyrna, and in Nicaea, into active mosques. And also in November of last year, the Turkish High Courts decided to reactivate the beautiful Chora Church that had also been made into a mosque and then a museum again. Cultural heritage is universal heritage as a mosque as well. And I say all this because there’s a long set of signifiers that should have made recent decision quite, not a surprise, but disturbing. And the disturbing part comes for the use of civilizational dialogue that presents Christians, Muslims, Jews, non-conforming Muslims in Turkey as hostile to one another. The use of cultural heritage policy that means the potential death of the very small Greek Orthodox minority community belonging to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Turkey, and also for Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions. Cultural heritage policy has been the soft power tool used for Turkey’s revisionism in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean and beyond. And that figures into this kind of Neo-Ottoman foreign policy, where Turkey positions itself as both the leader of the Muslim, if not Sunni Muslim world, the Muslim world more generally, and also in redrawing the boundaries in the three continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia, to reconfigure Turkey with its Ottoman territorial space. And that bodes very poorly for peace in those three continents for NATO and its sustainability as we know it. And I think I’ll close here: Erdoğan’s comment from Andalusia, Spain to Bukhara, Uzbekistan—now Hagia Sophia, tomorrow Al Aqsa, speaks to his use of cultural heritage policy as a soft power tool for geopolitical ambitions. And one that bodes very poorly for interfaith cooperation and collaboration and survival inside Turkey.

EDINGTON: Steven Cook, talk to us a little bit about what this says about the domestic situation in Turkey and Turkey’s ambitions in the region.

COOK: Thanks Mark. I think, really that is the question. Erdoğan’s objectives here both domestically and around the region is really the heart of the matter when it comes to the recent change in status of Hagia Sophia. But let me step back for a second and kind of put it in a broader context about the use of religion on the part of politicians and political entrepreneurs. And I did once get in trouble with some version of this group, and Irina may remember it, when I suggested at a seminar, not a webinar, an actual seminar, that politicians and political entrepreneurs tend to leverage religion for their parochial interests, and then in turn, how they define national interests. Again, before I get in trouble, this is not a Middle Eastern or Islamic phenomenon. No need to look any further than political discourse in the United States or in Europe; in the United States about Judeo-Christian values, in Europe particularly among the rise of the right and Neo-Nazis about saving Western or Christian civilization. And the other caveat is, I’m not suggesting that leaders who invoke religion to advance their political agenda don’t necessarily believe it. Some men, I think that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, certainly does. He’s known to be personally pious, but certainly, their followers do believe it and that’s what makes religious appears so politically appealing and so politically potent.

Okay, now onto the Hagia Sophia. This is a long way of saying that the transformation from a museum to a mosque is all about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s domestic politics and his geopolitical objectives. But let me also say it’s not just about power politics, it’s not untethered from Turkish nationalism, from Turkish identity, from collective memory, all of which are, again, extremely potent in any society, and Erdoğan is playing on these things in order to advance his agenda. Then, when you situate all this within the Justice and Development party’s worldview, it makes a tremendous amount of sense that Erdoğan has taken this step in the reconversion from a museum to a mosque. I, for one, and I don’t know really know anybody in the Turkey-watching community, the serious Turkey-watching community, who woke up one morning and were surprised by this announcement, but let’s explore for a second that Justice and Development Party’s worldview. Turkish Islamists tend to see the establishment of the republic in October 1923 as an interruption of society’s natural development. The republic has been discriminatory against pious Muslims and Kurds, an older generation of Turkish Islamists, from which Erdoğan and the AKP have obviously come from, used to rail against Turkey’s western orientation. Being that, that western orientation was something that had been imposed from without. Everyone in his reformers in 2000, 2001, sort of set aside that rhetoric to advance their agenda, but now they’ve come full circle in the same kind of distrust, mistrust of the West and by many of the things that they’ve been doing. And Elizabeth pointed out the railing against a Lausanne Treaty and the Lausanne borders. This is all part of a hole in which Erdoğan is signaling. He is delving into the AKP worldview. That the Republic, the Kemalist reforms that came in the years after the establishment of the republic, which includes the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum. The whole set of ideas and things that came in early years of the Republic were imposed by an elite, a westernized elite and imposed by force and supported by and supported by the West, in a way in which, if you listen very carefully to what Erdoğan and other AKP leaders are saying, is that Turkey actually as a result of the Lausanne Treaty, and all of these things, wasn’t ever actually fully sovereign. And the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a statement about Turkey’s sovereignty.

This clearly, clearly, clearly, clearly is a benefit domestically for Erdoğan. He’s dealing with a flagging economy, all kinds of problems. Recent polling suggests that even younger conservatives are kind of losing their yen for the Justice and Development Party, yet the reconversion of Hagia Sophia has been generally popular in Turkey, not just within the core constituency of the AKP. Also, let’s be clear that President Erdoğan envisions, and this is also part of the AKP’s vision, is that Turkey is not just a regional power, not just a country that is important in its region, but a leader of the Muslim world. And by reestablishing Turkish sovereignty over the Hagia Sophia, he is making a claim to be a leader of the Muslim world, given this the importance of this. And you can see how all of these things intersect with these ideas of nationalism, obviously religion, Turkish sovereignty, and how these, all of it comes together. It’s all part of one narrative that Turkish Islamists have been talking about for a long time that finally breaks the institutional bonds of the Republic, which has been a long term goal. I’ll stop there.

EDINGTON: Okay. Azza Karam, I’m a bishop in Europe. I’m a bishop in a place that’s just radically secularized and I have a seat in a cathedral here in Paris. We love it when visitors come to visit us. Not long ago, I had a little time off and I went to Chartres Cathedral, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was able to walk in, I observed a service taking place in the evening and I also observed women as part of families in that space who were wearing hijabs. Shouldn’t I be glad that this formerly secularized building has been returned to religious use?

KARAM: That is a very loaded question, Bishop Mark. In principle, I think all of us should be glad that we can access any space that we wish to access, that is either considered sacred to some or to many. The issue here is precisely that, amongst many issues that have been very eloquently articulated by Elizabeth and Steven, that there’s a there’s a use of sacred in order to justify the political, in which in my opinion, is the profane. But before I say anything else, I do need to clarify one thing. I am not speaking as the Secretary General of Religions for Peace. It is one of the hats I wear, but I cannot afford to speak on behalf of all the world’s religious communities which this organization represents. I wouldn’t do that. But what I would do is I’d speak on behalf of, or wearing the hat of the professorship that I hold at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam on Religion and Development. So please listen and hear me from that vantage point, so I do not get into any hot soup with a different religious communities that my organization legitimately represents, as the only inter-religious organization that actually has all the religious institutions on its board. So it’s the UN of the religions. And as you will know, even when I was in the UN for 20 years, I would begin by saying, I’m not speaking on behalf of the UN. It’s just as I’m speaking here as a scholar. So that qualification, I think, is very valuable.

It’s helpful to, to have seen the narrative from the perspective of the cultural politics, actually, as Elizabeth very articulately mentioned, but also from the perspective of the intersection of Erdoğan and AKP in their own evolution and their own intention. I would like to take us back to where Steven started, which is the view from above. And the view from above, as far as I have been able to tell is that, indeed, as much as we would look at all these different buildings that you see from when you’re in an airplane, and you look and you see the entire landscape, I guess if he has one, or is he is one of those things where you’re actually being, it’s being moved in a straightforward but nevertheless, very complex chessboard. Where the Queen and the King in this case is the authority the legitimacy of the governing institution, or party, in this case. So how do we move so that we protect and affirm the legitimacy of that particular political authority? To be very honest with you,, the whole Hagia Sophia thing is for me, and not just that it’s not a surprise, but actually, it’s not a surprise globally because we were seeing, we have been living and images not so far away from where we are based here, of president crossing dispersing demonstrators to hold the Bible in front of a church. I’m sorry, that sounds to be pretty similar to the use of the religious sites and symbols for very clearly political affirmation and legitimacy. So, this normalization has happened already, the use of religion today and religious leaders, religious institutions, religious sites, religious NGOs have been part and many of us who’ve been in the space of have been saying, can we please be aware of the fact that, while we’re very happy to know that religion is now a mainstream part of public discourse and action, there is also a very strong element of instrumentalization of the religious that is taking place. This Hagia Sophia is a very, one of many, I think, clear instances of that kind of instrumentalization of sacred sites to affirm certain or to legitimize indeed what may be questionable about the political authority in a country and it’s not surprising that it happens now because yes, AKP has re-established its dominance of the electoral space. But let’s not forget that there was also tremendous mobilization, and protests against the election and the electoral outcomes, and so on and so forth.

So actually, no regime in today’s world is that stable. Frankly, there are very few that are that stable, and some of the most stable political regimes are being significantly threatened by a nationalist right agenda, even in the heart of the so called democracy of the world. I want to point out the fact that one is this issue of the normalization of the instrumentalization of religious sites, spaces, discourse for the political which our colleagues have mentioned. But I also I want to point to something else that’s taking place that, I think, and this is why it’s important for me to speak with my professor’s hat, this is a very significant deepening of the rifts between Muslim and Christian communities worldwide. Because of what we’ve heard before, there are, there are many who actually are from the Muslim community who are quite happy with this decision of converting reconverting Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. There are many who are very happy. There are many who are extraordinarily unhappy from the Muslim side as well. So there’s been a deepening of the rift a little bit between Muslims and Christians. And those are the two largest religious communities of the world. I think it’s important to think in numbers terms as well, that on the whole, in spite of all the differences between them, Christians and Muslims are the two largest religious groups in the world and that’s a significant number of people. And deepening a rift between them is never going to be a very good idea. Especially not when it is used on the symbols or it uses symbols which have a deep significance that goes all the way back in our historical memory of dignity or indignity from to the years of the Crusade, and the legacy that that has left inside so many nations and countries, which nobody wants to talk about, because it’s politically incorrect. But it is a legacy of historical memory that is there. And unfortunately, Hagia Sophia has symbolized so significantly that shift that have happened with, as a result of some of those, the crusade experience.

So there’s a deepening of a rift potential between these two communities. But there’s also a deepening in Trump community within the Christian community writ large. There are different positions and opinions even though, on the whole, one can say that there’s a deep discontent from the Christian community side writ large. But from the Muslim side, there is a deepening of the rift inside the Muslim communities about this, because there are those who maintain that this is a blatant abuse of religious sites for political purposes and that should not happen with with our religious sites as Muslims. But there are those who are also, as I said earlier, quite happy. So there’s a tension, very clear and dissonance within the Muslim community about the Hagia Sophia listed to be understood that everybody’s deeply happy. No, everybody’s not deeply happy, the Muslim community is split upon itself. And quite frankly, given everything that’s been going on with Sunni, Shia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, hullabaloo, this was about the last thing that anyone needed from that particular space. And we are living that rift, which is deeply, deeply problematic. I think it’s also important to realize that the position of the Orthodox Church, and this is something that Elizabeth can elaborate and speak to much better, but the position of the Orthodox Church, that Constantinople space, that is deeply contested in nomenklatura, as well as political power. It has also been in a way, it’s a hit against that institution, and those who uphold and try to maintain it. So, on a number of different levels, I think this is this is posing a very, very serious issue in terms of the cohesion and resilience of communities of faith globally. It is, as I said, particularly problematic because it isn’t only the Hagia Sophia, but it is the preponderance of that kind of abuse of religious and sacred sites.

What is very noteworthy is how, how the silences that were happening around this, and yet the cries and the screams of indignation, and you can easily see that within the Muslim community, for example, there’s a tremendous amount of consternation about saying something or taking a position because there is no unified Muslim position on this. It is very much divided. But, to me, the thing that I find most disturbing is the sense that the tectonic plates between Islam and Christianity shift. With this in the end, it leaves us all in this kind of a space, which I suppose for some regimes around the world, this might well be what they would be comfortable than presiding over. But I do think that it fundamentally weakens the civic cohesion that we require as citizens of the world in a time when democracy itself is deeply under threat, when multilateralism is under threat, to then have the religious play such a, for lack of a better word, an explosive role, is about the last thing that we would sort of need, really. So I’ll leave it at that.

EDINGTON:  Oh, boy. Okay. Azza, thank you. On that note, we have, not surprisingly with three such wise people, we have gone considerably past our limit of 20 minutes of conversation. So Irina, I’m going to turn it right over to you to move us into the Q&A from our guests.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful, thank you very much, everybody. Appreciate it. So now we’ll go to questions. I see some hands are already raised. So just to review, if you go to the bottom of your screen, you can click on the raise hand icon there. And if you’re on a tablet, you look at the upper right hand corner of your tablet, there will be a “more” button and you can raise your hand there. And please say who you are and your affiliation to give the group context for your perspective and your lens. So we’ll go first to Felice Gaer.

GAER:  Thank you very much. And thank you for this excellent program on this important issue. I’m Felice Gaer, director of AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights. It’s wonderful to see Elizabeth again. I wanted to ask without making comparisons. Do the speakers think that this action by Erdoğan signals strength, or signals weakness, and what is the signal specifically to Christians in Turkey? And what’s the signal given here to the United States? We noticed that President Trump praised Mr. Erdoğan Monday night for being very nice to him. But there was an expression of concern by the U.S. government when this happened. So does this signal strength, or does this signal weakness?

COOK:  I presume that question is most directly related to my area of expertise. So let me just say that domestically, President Erdoğan is in a relatively weaker position than he has been in the past. Turkey has been confronting significant economic problems. If you remember back when it came to the municipal elections, he lost every major metropolitan city in the country, including Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, Istanbul, which he had said was that if we lose Istanbul, we are clearly losing our footing in all of this. And he has been working assiduously since that time to rebuild his political strength. And there is an ongoing theme in Turkish politics throughout the period of the Republic, of a kind of interesting interrelation between religion and nationalism, and this is the issue that Erdoğan has focused on over the course of the last couple of years, and the reconversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque is sort of, a kind of, quintessential move in this religious and nationalist direction. It is an attempt to regain domestic strengthen and domestic initiative, given the fact that, as I said, the AKP is not as popular, it’s not as popular with youth. There have been defections from the AKP among a number of notable figures, historic figures within the party.

Regionally, President Erdoğan, again, I’ll emphasize just quickly what I said before, is seeking to establish Turkey as a leader in the Muslim world, now because of Atatürk’s reforms in the early 1920s, many, many, many, many, the vast majority of Turks really don’t have access to their history. And so they’ve responded to the Justice and Development parties sort of version of Ottoman history, that version of Ottoman history that AKP has brought to the world. The problem is in the region specifically, people understand the history of the Ottoman period much, much differently. So there is significant pushback in the region with regard to this very kind of aggressive position of Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world. If you ask the Egyptians, if you ask the Saudis, they don’t accept Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world. Now, when it comes to the United States and Turkey, there is clearly a difference between the White House and the foreign policy bureaucracy. And the State Department, no doubt, I can’t remember what the statement was, but issued some statement about concern about what’s happened. But what’s really important and what’s really important to Erdoğan is what comes out of the Oval Office. And it’s clear that President Trump and President Erdoğan are fond of each other personally. And that is what matters. If it didn’t matter, then Turkey would be under sanctions, under the CAATSA sanctions, and a variety of other things that are important to the professional foreign policy bureaucracy in Washington. Thanks.

PRODROMOU:  Can I add a footnote to that because Felice, I think your question is crucial, and it’s great to see you again. I think Steven sort of underscored there’s a paradox at work here. On the one hand, it appears that Erdoğan is, reaching the pinnacle of his power, and I use the word power because it’s certainly not legitimacy. But at the same time, the Turkish economy’s tanking and cratering. Turkey is more isolated in the region now than it’s ever been. Really it’s only friend in the greater Middle East is Qatar, which itself is isolated from the GCC. Turkey is increasingly isolated and inside the transatlantic alliance, but that isolation, which is a sign of weakness there, but at the same time, there has not emerged any unified opposition to Erdoğan inside Turkey, whether it’s, İmamoğlu or Babacan or oxen, or any of those we could mention.

None of the opposition parties have managed either a united front or to reach the kind of threshold that would pose a real challenge electrically to Erdoğan. And then finally, Turkey now occupies three countries in the region. They’ve occupied Cyprus, Northern Cyprus since 1974. They now occupy northern Syria. And they are and they move, I won’t say occupy, they move easily across the border with Iraq at will. And so I think the real question that comes out of your question, Felice, is not whether Erdoğan is strong or weak, but whether the transatlantic alliance is strong or weak. And the absolute failure of the transatlantic alliance to respond to Erdoğan moves, domestic and foreign, signifies the weakness of that alliance to stand up to its norms. Those are NATO’s as  a security community of democracies and also in terms of its strategic interests, so that lack of response and the tepid response out of the State Department, Congress’s inability to push back against President Trump’s violation of U.S. law when it comes to what Steven said, to applying CAATSA sanctions, speaks to a different kind of weakness and that’s on the transatlantic side that enables Erdoğan to do what he’s doing.

KARAM:  I would just add that it’s not just the transatlantic weakness. I think there’s a weakness of the multilateral space in general, multilateral institutions in general, and into this void, being either weak entities and institutions that are meant to uphold global human rights and international law into the void of this weakness, a number of different leaders emerge, and all of whom are actually competing with one another globally. So it’s not just in their own nation, but to see who’s the bigger, more powerful leader quite frankly, that’s what we’re seeing today, all over the world. I would say that history teaches us, and I am a scholar of religion and politics for the last forty years, and I think one of the key lessons from history, especially looking at where the nexus of religion and politics comes together, is that whenever the political establishment, no matter how it is defined, starts to depend on or use religious symbols, religious institutions, religious language, that is very often a sign of weakness, actually, it’s very, very often and very rarely has this been a situation except for in the very beginning of the different religions when, when the prophets or God was supposed to be the savior of the oppressed. But since then, in terms of institutional and social engagement, every time that the religious institutions or language or land and, Felice, you’ll know this from the context that you’re also very familiar with in the Middle East, in when religion becomes such a hot potato in the political space and gets beat and gets used by different regimes, it is invariably a sign of the weakness of those machines, otherwise they would not need the religious to justify their power, legitimacy, or actions.

FASKIANOS:  Great. So let’s go to Whitney Bodman. We have a number of questions, so maybe we can, each of you can answer one and we’ll move on and you can add in your answer to if you want to respond to somebody’s point. So Whitney Bodman, and be sure to accept the unmute prompt.

BODMAN:  Whit Bodman from Austin Presbyterian Seminary. What do you expect to happen with the religious iconography within Hagia Sophia? And I’ve also heard some contrast made with the mosque in Cordoba and I was wondering if that becomes part of the polemic.

KARAM:  I’ll just do what I, if I may very just to get two points. The first is that it functioned, as I believe the bishop also clarified, it functioned as a mosque from 1453 to 1931. And I don’t believe much has happened badly to the iconography it has been covered in some cases. But in that time, in those many centuries, things have stayed within this institution and have been protected to a large extent. The situation in Cordoba was quite different. In this was also mosque transferred into church, so there’s it’s a slightly different case. It wasn’t rendered the museum as such, and the time that it was a museum added to the protectiveness of the authorities, and the responsibility and obligation to look after what was in there, so I don’t necessarily see why that would change at the moment.

EDINGTON:  I can just add in, Elizabeth may have something to add to this too. I understand that on the twenty-fourth of July, when the first Friday prayers were offered in the mosque, two of the mosaics were covered over with sheets. One, the Virgin and Child mosaic and the other, a sort of Jesus Pantocrator mosaic. Whether that’s going to continue, I don’t know. Assurances have been given by the state ministers in Turkey that no harm will come to the existing mosaics but we’ll see.

PRODROMOU:  Most of those, most of those images, a lot of the iconography, alas, was covered over. Some was destroyed. Some was covered over during the siege in 1453. And then subsequently, it was plastered over with the removal of the plaster. Some of the iconography now, as Azza said, has been particularly since the site was converted to a museum, protected. But I think it’s concerning. I think there’s every reason to have grave concern about the Turkish government’s commitment to preserving the integrity of that mosque. And those images in the mosque and also, I think the hotter church is going to be the real test of that, because those, the iconography and mosaics, and there are far more extensive, and to cover them over would mean covering over almost all of the visible space in that site. And those contain some of the most magnificent Byzantine frescoes from the Palaeologan Renaissance period. So I think that’ll be another big test.

KARAM: I think we just, I would have to disagree a little bit with Elizabeth on this. I don’t think that just by virtue of the fact that this this automatic assumption of concern because of damage, that we may well find that the Turkish government sees it in its own interest to be protective, rather than destructive. We’re not talking about ISIS here. We’re talking about a government that has been, for better or worse, elected by its own people. And that is part of the international fabric of the community and has been working to safeguard what it considers to be also its own part of its cultural heritage. So I think all these things factored into a government’s decision.

FASKIANOS:  Let’s go next to Farah Pandith.

PANDITH: Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be with you. I’m Farah Pandith. I’m with the Council on Foreign Relations. And I just have to say since Fletcher was called out, I’m a proud Fletcher alum. I have a question for Steven, he brought up an issue that I think is really critical in the context of the larger landscape. So two aspects to what happened with Hagia Sophia. One is, I’m curious Steven, how you view that in the context of what is happening in India, with the changes from mosques to temples, temples to mosques, and back and forth. And secondly, connected to that, there was a news report a couple weeks ago, where the first lady of Turkey was meeting with a Bollywood actor who had come to Turkey and it’s sort of when you talked about, the sort of, the Ottoman reboot and bringing in this idea of Turkey speaking for Muslims. I’m just curious if you saw a connection there with that visit and how you view that. Thank you so much.

COOK:  Thanks, Farah. I just want to point out that I’m a proud CIS grad. My wife, my sister, and my sister in law are all Tufts grads. So, I’m good with this group apparently. With that, go Jumbos. Farah, I think you make a good point in terms of comparison. And that you do have populist leaders around the world who have seized upon religious sentiment of the majority in order to advance their interest. So I would put the reconversion knowing kind of in a theoretical sense, not knowing the details of what’s happened in India, I can essentially put Hagia Sophia’s reconversion from a museum into a mosque in a similar type of category as what you’re seeing in India, with the conversion of mosques into temples.

It’s clear that Erdoğan and Modi are of a same, similar type and have signaled to their core constituencies, and beyond, the importance of religion. And let me point out, in Turkey, lest anybody be confused by this, is that this is not something that is just for the AKP’s core constituency. This is something that is broadly popular in Turkey for those who are casually supportive of the AKP or not at all supportive of the AKP. This idea, this intertwining of religion and nationalism, motivates and activates different constituencies. So you will find secular nationalists who would regard the conversion of Hagia Sophia as something that’s important for Turkey’s collective dignity in the world, and I suspect not knowing, having spent three and a half wonderful weeks in India five years ago, but knowing not really following, I would suspect that you would find the same thing among the Hindu population in India. As far as Mrs. Erdoğan’s hosting of Bollywood actors or actresses, I think that there is a sense, within the AKP, that for eighty-five years of the Republic, Ankara looked almost exclusively West. Now that’s not necessarily true. But that is the perception and that is the signal coming from the Islamist movement. Now, Turkey is a global power. India has the largest population of Muslims in the world, despite being a minority, and that Turkey can speak for Muslims globally. Not just in the Middle East, not just in Africa where Turkey has been active, not just in North Africa, in the horn, as well as now further in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Turkey wants to see itself and wants other Muslims to see it as a defender of the faith. And, if you’re on Turkish Twitter, the Indians, the Kashmiris, the Pakistanis, lots of people pop up who want to express their support for president Erdoğan and Turkey. I’ll stop there.

FASKIANOS:  Right, let’s go to Thomas Zane. And if you could direct your question, that would be great.

ZANE: So my question is about Russia’s role in all of this and how on the one hand, they’re Orthodox country and they would like to see Hagia Sophia protected, on the other hand, they would love to, you know, get a dig up the Patriarch of Constantinople for their actions and Ukraine. And on the third hand, there there’s some help facilitating the building of a mini Hagia Sophia and, and Syria and Hama, Syria together with the businessman there. So what do you think their role or position is one way or the other and all of this? Whoever is the best one to answer.

PRODROMOU:  I can jump in. I can start with that. I think the Russia-Turkey relationship, let’s call it that, has provided Russia with an opportunity to act as a disrupter inside NATO, and to gradually make inroads using cultural diplomacy and military and energy relationships with Turkey inroads into the greater Middle East. But the history of Russia-Turkey relations in the pre-modern period, I think suggests that this is a momentary relationship of convenience. Again, Russia plays a disruptive role within NATO and Turkey utilizes its relationship with Russia as leverage inside NATO. When it comes to, and I think they asked for hundreds, the purchase of the S-400, the military system by Turkey is the best example of that. But when it comes to the Hagia Sophia, the unfortunate competition within the Orthodox world, if we want to call it that way, Moscow’s, the patriarchate of Moscow’s pretensions to primacy, those figure quite neatly with the objectives. And I think empirical evidence bears this out. It’s not hyperbole to say it, the objectives of the Turkish state since 1923, which is the elimination of any living Greek Orthodox Christians and the elimination of the ecumenical patriarchy. And so this is again, a moment of convenience and a moment where two leaderships in two countries, both of which are non-democratic, highly authoritarian, with totalitarian features, and both utilize and instrumentalize their relationship for micro and macro purposes, religious and geopolitical. And I don’t anticipate, in the short term, any shift in that. But I think this is a marriage, a shaky marriage at best, of momentary convenience.

FASKIANOS:  Great. Abbas Barzegar has his hand raised. And he also put his question in the chat. So Abbas, I’m going to, why don’t you just unmute and ask it yourself.

BARZEGAR: Okay. Absolutely. Thank you, Irina and thank you, everybody from the Council and hello. It’s wonderful to see everybody. Thank you, question is, given the rise of authoritarianism, strongman politics, exemplified in many ways by Erdoğan himself, and the weakening of multilateralism, and the importance of how much we need interreligious dialogue and, not just dialogue, but like interreligious working groups on humanitarian issues and whatnot. What tools do we have available right now for those of us who want to shore up those kind of relationships to push back against this increasing trend? Thank you.

KARAM:  Can I take a stab at that, given that it has to do with interreligious work? And I think I’d love also to hear from Elizabeth, who sits on my board. I would say a couple of things, Abbas. One of the worst things that’s been happening in the last few years as we’ve seen religion move into the mainstream of public life and discourse and unfortunately become instrumentalized left, right and center. One of the things that has happened is that there’s been a flourishing, if you will, of the interreligious space and the interreligious discourse that is taking place. And as we’ve seen in reactions to a pandemic like COVID, we will also see this pandemic of abuse of religion will have two completely polar reactions. One reaction, which is a coming together of communities, of people of discourse for care, for nurture, for resilience, building, etc. And another, completely contradictory trend, which is to dig in and try to rip up even more and create even more divisions, and all in the name of doing good, of course, none of this has ever said very openly to be armed. But I think you will see that what we don’t want to have happen is to start recreating and really reinventing the wheel again, in terms of more and more institutions and organizations and networks and whatever trying to deal with interreligious and intercultural. There are so many institutions in our map of the world, in the ecosphere of our human existence, that have been dealing with these issues for a very long time.

I can tell you that from the Religions for Peace perspective, this issue of the Hagia Sophia has been instrumental in bringing together our religious leaders, as diverse as they are, and having them actually debate and discuss with one another and see one another and their respective institutions and roles very well. And I think that this kind of a coming together, even when and about issues that are deeply emotional, and for some people quite divisive, of the religious institutions, this coming together of different religious institutes and religious leaders and religious communities is absolutely important. That is one of the things that we have to be very deliberate in supporting. And to date, we see what governments do is very, very important, which makes a lot of sense. But this is one of those civic arenas that we now have to actively strengthen, actively work together with and build more partnerships with other civil society entities, and there are already mechanisms for this. I would love to see more interest from many of the governmental and non-governmental partners in the work that we’re doing with Religions for Peace because this is the space where Elizabeth and the patriarchs, representatives, and the Pope’s representatives and the Egyptian, and Turkish, and whatever, all of their representatives come together and this is precisely the space that needs to be nurtured and given voice and platform because they’re talking quintessentially about how you heal, rather than how you deepen, the rifts.

COOK: If I could just jump in here very quickly and offer a different perspective about this question. I think now is not a propitious moment for what Azza is suggesting, that there’s an intensification of the multireligious, interreligious dialogue, if only because of, precisely your diagnosis about authoritarian strongmen. If you know something about how authoritarian strong men work, and how they use civil society organizations as an outer perimeter defense for their regimes, I can easily imagine how Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would welcome the idea of hosting an interreligious dialogue in Istanbul to talk about everything that the Turkish government is doing to protect the Orthodox Church, Jews, Christians in Istanbul. We’ve seen this over and over and over again, going back to Erdoğan’s sponsorship of the Alliance of Civilizations, being part of a group of democracies, and so on, and so forth. This is something that is playing right into the hands of authoritarians. If you want to have these interreligious dialogues, have them far away from places where, like Istanbul, like Cairo, like Riyadh, like any number of, any number of cities.

EDINGTON:  If I may—

FASKIANOS:  I think Azza disagrees.

EDINGTON:  I don’t know if you want to jump in on this, Elizabeth, but I think I’m the only person—

COOK: I can’t get through one of these without being a skunk at a party.

EDINGTON:—I think I’m the only—Elizabeth, do you want to jump in?

PRODROMOU: I would just say that, I think, as Azza said, we have the processes and the tools. But I do think that it’s important for faith-based leaders to actually be brave. May be easy for me to say that, but I don’t think it is. I think faith-based leaders need to be brave. I mean, they have to lean into these issues. And also it’s important for people who are looking for them to take the lead and give voice to things to actually do that and realize that oftentimes the most difficult part of interfaith dialogue isn’t the interfaith, it’s what’s happening inside their particular communities because that’s their first audience nine out of ten times, and so they will make calculations based on that. But,  I think they just have to be willing to, to be to be brave. And by that, I mean, not only standing up for what their communities claim, , that they all share, but also calling out political leaders who maybe can’t be called out by non-faith based civil society groups that are fearful in other ways.

EDINGTON:  So as, as the only person on the panel who can’t claim to be a scholar, but can claim to be in that category of faith community leaders, let me just come to Azza’s point. I guess I would say, I think now is the time for those of us in these communities who have long been committed to the idea that interfaith conversation is essential, not just for enriching my own faith experience, but for tending our communities and our countries toward more peaceful outcomes. I think now is the time for us to redouble those efforts. But I take Steven’s warning and I think it’s, I’m happy to take it. I have no interest in irenic conversation with state authority. I don’t think that gets us anywhere. I think we really need to go do our own work. But I’ll also say, as Azza, I think you will agree, within these faith communities, the people who are really committed to interfaith dialogue are minority and we have to work on that problem too.

KARAM:  I think there’s all types and all kinds and it remains important to understand that precisely because religions are being instrumentalized in their discourse, in their sizes, precisely because of this instrumentalization that’s taking place by the politicians, it would be a mistake to walk away from the spaces, religious actors and religious leaders and institutions. And the question then becomes, how do you engage within that space to try to nurture and safeguard the resilience, the social cohesion that we require, which tells us that the communities that are religious are the ones who have to be socially cohesive. So I don’t think there’s a way of getting away from knowing what the problem is and understanding that those who are contributing to that space from a very negative perspective, there are many more who can contribute from an extremely positive perspective and are doing so.

FASKIANOS:  Okay, so I’m sorry, we’re not going to get to all the questions. We’re going to just have to reconvene and do another conversation. I’m going to go next to Bishop Peter Eaton. And so we can have him ask his question and then there was also a question in the chat. I know that Mark is going to ask for you all to give a summary, wrap up just about how effective are these discussions we’re having to being effective to the issues at hand. So, that came from Harry Cavalaris. So, go over to you Bishop Eaton.

EATON:  Thank you, Irina. I’m Peter Eaton. I am a colleague of Bishop Eddington’s. I’m the Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Southeast Florida. And I’m very grateful to you all for this extremely thoughtful and engaging conversation. And my question may, in fact, have been answered at least indirectly. And as I’m talking to you, I had before me a book published in 1920 called the Redemption of Saints of Fear when the conversation was in fact about returning the church to Christian use at the fall of the Ottoman Empire. So we’ve been having conversations about this kind of thing for a very long time. But when I was last in Istanbul several years ago, in conversation with friends and colleagues there, and it was early on in Erdoğan presidency, the phrase I remember was this: that Erdoğan was the best hope among possible leaders of the country, for minorities in the country. Now this was very early on. And so my question is, was that really true? And if it wasn’t true then there’s no other question, but if it was true, what’s happened because, of course, there’s still that there was hope about, there are many properties that continued to be closed by the government, the theological school at Halki, a number of other institutions, that the church at least has hoped would be reopened and returned to church use there. So, so, so was Erdoğan really a hope? Or not? And if we was, what’s happened?

COOK:  I will take that on. Um, and I’m confused by your Southeast Florida accent. Doesn’t, it seems like Southeastern England, but I’ll take your word for it.

EATON:  I’ll explain it to you offline, Steven. Feel free to be in touch.

COOK:  I mean, it sounds close. Anyway, look, just two quick points before I answer the question specifically about Erdoğan being a hope for minorities. One, just going back to the previous discussion, I think the line between civil society, religious organizations in authoritarian systems has not only been blurred but been obliterated. I don’t think you can really talk about independent nongovernmental organizations in a place like Egypt or in Turkey at this point. So if you’re going to do interfaith dialogue with civil society, realize you’re going to be talking to the government in one way or another. Two, yes, in fact, what are the reasons why Ataturk decided to make Hagia Sophia a museum? Was because he made the arguments, not what he decided, he made the argument that if the Europeans had succeeded, had beaten the nationalist revolution in Turkey, Hagia Sophia would have been made a church. And his goal was to reorient Turkey, the Republic of Turkey, and this was a way of kind of settling everybody’s interest.

Now, when your friends in Turkey early on in the AKP period were talking about Erdoğan is a hope, they were talking about ethnic minorities, and they were talking specifically about Kurds, and what are Kurds, and the vast majority of Kurds are Muslims. And what the AKP promised when it came to power, was to loosen the ideas of what it means to be Turkish and Turkishness, which was no longer under, in the AKP’s worldview, necessarily ethnic. So the point was that, with the AKP’s emphasis on religion, on Islam, 20 percent of the population that had been discriminated against because they were a different ethnicity. They weren’t Turks, they might have been mountain Turks, which was the euphemism for Kurds, could be brought in and normalized because everybody would be happy Muslims living within Anatolia, there would be no distinction. And that was something that was actually helpful. And there was a moment where, leading all the way up through 2014, where there was the possibility of settling accounts. How that ended was the hard realities of Turkish nationalism, and Kurdish nationalism. We don’t have enough time to go into that, but that would be a great book.

KARAM:  Can I quickly add on to that point, please? Because I think that the question of was it was it for sure, was it for real, was this discourse or narrative for real, is a very valuable question as well. And I think I agree with Steven and so far, as not only the AKP, but many of the religious political parties, when they are trying to get their attention, and assume that they are, and show people that they are indeed respectful, they tend to speak very favorably about human rights issues, minorities the whole time, it’s part of the political discourse. And you saw it with the Muslim Brotherhood. They also, by the way, it’s not just with religious minorities, they also speak like that about gender and women’s rights issues. They’re supposedly, extraordinarily caring about these, all the human rights, including those who normally know that they don’t really care about those particular rights. It’s part of the discourse of politics that we see happening around this everywhere. And I think that was part of that conversation. Now, how serious was he or not? You can see from what has transpired. But that it is part of the political narrative including a political narrative from religious parties? Yes. That always is part of the pitch, if you will, that takes place and then experience shows differently.

PRODROMOU: Just to add on to this, I think that Erdoğan was seen as a hope by the religious communities as well, not only in terms of more inclusiveness when it came to ethnic communities. And I think that their view, if you were to talk to leaders in the ancient Christian communities, or the Jewish community, was that Erdoğan’s view about how to organize religion. First of all, he acknowledged the relevance of religion, both for the Muslim majority but also for non-Muslim minorities. What their view was that his was an outright Neo-Ottoman meeting, meil millet model. So that meant that those communities actually would be organized, but as separate and unequal. Under the Kemalis, that’s a different kind of nationalism, you know, under the myth of Turkey as a secular democracy, the Kemalists use secular nationalism as a means to create the very architectures that eliminated most of the country’s non-Muslim minorities and made life very difficult for the alloyed community, who are considered nonconforming Muslims. So I think that the faith communities in Turkey were quick to understand that they had two options in late 2002, either a secular nationalism that had led to their near erasure, or a religious form of nationalism that would allow them to live as separate and unequal. So for the religious communities, I think that’s why they saw Erdoğan as the least worst option, as opposed to all of the CHP and other self styled secular parties that had come before.

EDINGTON:  So it’s thirty-six minutes past the hour, we have run way past our time, and I can testify that all three of you missed a great calling as a preacher because you had no difficulty filling up the space. Thank you so much for that. I’m going to give you a chance, remembering that the people on this call are going back to their communities on Friday and Saturday and Sunday to share a message with them. So in thirty seconds. Can you give us some advice about what we should be saying to our communities about this issue and the hope of interfaith dialogue? Thirty seconds, Elizabeth go.

PRODROMOU:  If you want to know why Hagia Sophia matters for your community—one day it’s Hagia Sophia, the next day it’s your temple, or mosque, or synagogue, or church, or worship space. And so, reflecting on the preservation and respect for sacred space, and its intended use, is something that affects all of your communities. And don’t be silent.

EDINGTON:  Steven.

COOK:  Beware political leaders and political entrepreneurs espousing religious values.

EDINGTON:  Azza, last word.

KARAM: And beware of religious actors who try to espouse political positions and values, as well. I think absolutely important to realize that our faith is our backbone for all communities around the world. To have it abused or utilized will hurt everyone, what every single person of faith, it’s not just about Muslims, or Christians, or Jews, or Hindus, or Buddhists, or Sikhs. This is about faith, and faith needs to be safeguarded and nurtured. And what better way to do so than to come together as people of faith, as communities of faith, to keep away from the politics, but also to be the mirror of the conscience for all those who claim to represent us. Keep the faith. Stay together.

EDINGTON:  Thank you, everybody. Elizabeth, Steven, Azza. Great conversation. Thank you so much. Irina Faskianos and the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you so much for sustaining the Religion and Foreign Policy roundtable. I really appreciate it. So many of us do. Thanks for making this conversation possible.  Thanks everyone.

KARAM:  Thank you.

FASKIANOS:  Thank you to all of you and just as a footnote, you can follow Steven Cook and Azza Karam’s work on Twitter @stevenacook and @Mansoura1968. You can follow Mark Eddington’s work at the and Elizabeth Prodromou at I also hope you follow us on our Twitter @CFR_religion, and of course, please send feedback suggestions to us at [email protected]. We appreciate it and thank you for this terrific conversation.


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