Entries with tag faith matters .

Water We Doing!?

Locally and internationally, debates regarding best practices to save the world’s diminishing clean water supply swell between two main camps: those who support the human right to water and those who promote privatization. Realizing the complexity of the issue, this blog intends only to provide a very boiled-down overview of each position as well as resources on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s work on the topic.

A Case for Privatization

Corporations and supporters of the neo-liberal model for development tend to believe that placing water sources and services in the hands of private corporations is the only way to protect and conserve what little water is left on our earth. Some try to rebrand the phrase “the human right to water” to include this model, while others, such as the current Chairman and former CEO of Nestlé, admittedly do not believe access to water is a fundamental human right. The argument is that public infrastructure is old and inefficient, which produces a great deal of waste. Furthermore, ownership by the commons means water is often overconsumed and irresponsibly regulated. Therefore, companies, seeing water as a commodity, would create infrastructure and technology that would more responsibly manage water services in order to maximize their profits. They would use pricing to manipulate consumption patterns in an effort to eliminate overconsumption.

A Case for the Human Right to Water

On the other side of the aisle, many civil society and religious leaders believe equitable access to water can only be realized through the “human right to water” model, which keeps water and sanitation services out of the private sector. Some of the key players in this camp include Ecumenical Patriarch BartholomewPope Francis, the Blue Planet Project of the Council of Canadians, and the NGO Mining Working Group. The argument is that every human has a right to water; therefore, it cannot be commoditized but must rather remain in the possession of the public. Of course this camp agrees that modernizing infrastructure and developing responsible consumption policies must be part of the equation, but the actual ownership, cleaning, and delivery of water sources and services must remain with the people (in other words under the care and responsibility of the democratically elected government). Thus, all people would have equal access to water, undeniable due to socio-economic status.[1]

The Archdiocese's Work

In the end it is quite simple: 70-80% of the human body is made of water. Our food, regardless of diet, requires water. Whoever controls water enslaves not only the market but also people. If private companies retain ownership of water, they retain the ability to deny a person the most basic necessity of life. It lends way for profiteers to further widen the economic gap of disparity through water pricing. It also allows them to enslave people by taking ownership, indirectly, of 70-80% of their bodies. Therefore, for freedom’s sake, ownership of water must remain with the commons. It must remain a basic human right. For these reasons – and many other nuances omitted from this short blog – the privatization of water and sanitation is one of the greatest threats to humanity.

In order to ensure people retain their right to water, the Archdiocese has engaged the issue primarily through international policy at the United Nations. The following is a list of resources including not only statements but also processes and policies the Archdiocese has influenced over the past decade:

United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

United Nations High Level Panel on Water

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s Statement on Water

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s Statement on Water at the Budapest Water Summit

NGO Mining Working Group’s Water Justice Guide

Defense of Land and Water: Economic Empowerment for Women

Defense of Land and Water as a Strategy to Eradicate Poverty

The Protection and Management of Transboundary Groundwater: Legal Issues and the Human Right to Water

The Foundations of SDG 6 - The Human Right to Water and Sanitation

Theology, Science, Advocacy, and Practice: The Human Right to Water and Sanitation

Women, Water, and Wellbeing: The Human Right to Water and Sanitation

 

[1] It is worth noting that, since water and sanitation have been internationally accepted as human rights by a 2010 UN Resolution, governments theoretically have a responsibility to provide access to water for all their citizens. This means that high-cost, private water would lead to higher taxes to subsidize water for those who are unable to pay.

Faith and Football

Photo credit: St. Paul Pioneer Press
 

At the center of my Sundays since the mid-90s has been the act of praising and thanking God (for almost fifteen years now, in Eastern Orthodox parishes) for His unshakable good will toward me and all human beings in spite of our great and ongoing failings.  This way of structuring Sundays stands very much in contrast to my experience as a child growing up in a secular Jewish family in a Minneapolis suburb in the ‘70s -- when, from September through January (and I really don’t remember Sundays otherwise), my whole reality rose and fell with the televised fortunes of the Minnesota Vikings, whose yellow-trimmed white and purple uniform and helmet against the wan (home games) or strong (West Coast games) sunlit expanse of a perfect green field touched the deepest chord in me.   From a game’s start to its finish, reality was different, more taut and concentrated, than before or afterward and determined the cast of the rest of the day and, often, the week, for better or worse. 

Usually it was for worse – or so I remember.  The Vikings’ cumulative record from 1970-80 was actually 108-50-1.  And I do have vivid memories of high points.  One was the game against Cleveland that put us into the 1980 playoffs (the closest analogue to an afterlife, in my childhood cosmology) when Tommy Kramer with 14 seconds left from our own 20 and the Vikings trailing 23-22 hit Sammy White who lateraled immediately to Ted Brown who ran to about midfield and out of bounds with 5 seconds on the clock.  Kramer then threw a Hail Mary into the end zone on the game’s final play.  The ball was tipped and somehow scooped up with one hand by Ahmad Rashad for the touchdown.  With the rest of Minnesota, and with the latest (January '77) of four lacerating Super Bowl losses still a raw wound, I was delirious, running and shouting through the house for joy.  But such moments of elation are far overshadowed in my childhood memory by the Super Bowl losses and kindred devastations like the '75 divisional playoff loss to Dallas, when Drew Pearson scored on a Roger Staubach TD pass the refs let stand even though Pearson clearly shoved cornerback Nate Wright on the way to the ball.        

I was baptized in '96.  One of the things about the presence of God when a person is newly touched and exalted by it in even the merest of ways is that it relativizes everything else.  What otherwise would get a person all riled up – slights, disappointments, fears – suddenly doesn’t.  Everything is melted or dissolved in the glow of the divine radiance.  As one millennium gave way to the next the Vikings went on blowing important games as, for example, they did, true to form, in the '98 NFC championship game against Atlanta (placekicker Gary Anderson, otherwise perfect all year, missing a 38-yarder), again in the 2009 championship game against the Saints (Brett Favre throwing needlessly and dangerously across field for an interception) and again in the January '16 Wild Card game against Seattle (Blair Walsh missing an easy 27-yard field goal). 

To what extent any of this could still put me into an emotional tailspin was an interesting question.  From many of my old attachments, whether to people's praise or to creature comforts or various desirable outcomes related to work or family, I had found myself abruptly and completely freed at the moment when God's reality and goodness had first impressed themselves on me, but over time they had returned (surprise!), so that I would have to make a deliberate and often prolonged effort to let go of them through prayer, confession, and other spiritual disciplines.  Bitter Vikings’ defeats were part of this.  I found I could let go (as I couldn’t back in the days when the Vikings were my religion) but if I didn't watch out, still, the whole Vikings football thing could ensnare me again in fruitless feelings of manic worry, despair and self-pity. 

More than once it occurred to me that if I had just opened myself more fearlessly to God's will for me I might have made a different decision altogether by now related to watching professional football:  I might simply have renounced it.  I strongly suspect this to be true, actually.  Yes, athletics meaningfully develop virtues in those who play them and showcase human talent and spirit in edifying ways for spectators.  But I know I'm not alone in having long thought, occasionally with disturbing clarity, that if we Americans collectively could somehow shut off our televisions on Sunday afternoons during NFL season and redirect our hope- and anxiety-laden energies and resources into serving the pressing needs in our local communities, in a short time all our towns and cities would be wondrously transformed, along with our souls.  We are indeed entertaining and distracting ourselves to death in all sorts of ways, not least through professional sports.  Our country and our world are in trouble, drifting along on terrible tides of indifference and despair -- yet I go on allowing myself to get worked up again over the nothing that is on the line when the Vikings play the Packers, the Bills or the Bengals?  "Faces along the bar / Cling to their average day: / The lights must never go out, / The music must always play, / All the conventions conspire / To make this fort assume / The furniture of home; / Lest we should see where we are, / Lost . . ."    

The question -- why keep watching this stuff -- has been all the more sharpened by the increased medical and scientific consensus of recent years about the physiological damage the sport has done to so many players.  As it turns out, one need not be a world-renouncing religious zealot to be moved to keep the TV off on Sunday afternoons, but just a concerned human being.  Yet somehow I’ve kept this concern at arm's length, too.  Exposés like League of Denial on the horrors of concussions in the NFL are abundantly available, and I have managed not to digest any of them in full, thereby giving myself a little more time to remain unsure whether being an NFL fan necessarily goes against the grain of loving one's neighbor as oneself.  When principled people I know say they've weaned themselves from football viewing, I tell myself they evidently never had the kind of genuine devotion to a team that I had to the Vikings, or, if they did, never the baggage of so much chronic and momentous loss.  As with other drastic life-changes I sometimes contemplate making, whenever the thought of this one has arisen I've typically met it in the spirit of Augustine and his prayer, "God, make me holy -- but not yet."  A 13-3 season anyway has not really seemed the right time to start on the straight and narrow in this particular regard.  I'm sure I'll be better prepared, without double-mindedness, to ask God if this sacrifice really is His will for me and (if so) to act on it the day the Vikings have finally won the Super Bowl.

…Which irrepressibly hopeful thought brings me to last Sunday's playoff game against the Saints and the miraculous pass from Case Keenam to Stefon Diggs and the latter's spectacular run into the end zone as time expired.  By then I was watching in the upstairs bedroom of some friends in the neighborhood who, not being into sports, had invited us to a dinner party they had outrageously set for right around game time.  The first half I had watched with my kids at home before joining my wife at the party with the Vikings up 17-0 and a TV upstairs that our friends had said I could go turn on if I felt I needed to, as indeed I did, after engaging in only a little elevated chit-chat over dinner.  The lead had shrunk to 17-14.  It was the start of the fourth quarter.  The Vikings hit a field goal next, but it was no surprise to me when the Saints a few possessions later blocked a punt and marched forty yards into the end zone -- "for the first time all game, the Saints take the lead, with 3:01 to go," intoned one of the announcers -- because everything since I’d sat down had been telling me I had seen this movie; I knew the script.  Nor did the Vikings' subsequent field goal (putting them back up 23-21), however impressive at 53 yards, fool me for a second into thinking anything different, because there was still 1:29 remaining on the clock.  I knew what Drew Brees and his receivers would do in that time to the Vikings' defense (forget its #1 rating in the league) and I was right; I'm always right; all Minnesota fans are always right in these kinds of circumstances.  A few crisp passes got the Saints well into position for the inevitable go-ahead field goal with 25 seconds left. 

Some Viking fans spare themselves further torture at this point.  (--A friend later told me he went downstairs then and there to throw in a load of laundry.)  I stayed watching to the end, perhaps more than anything in sheer awe of the predictability of it all.  From our 25, Keenam completed a pass over the middle that required us to use our last time-out with 17 seconds left; we were at our own 39.  The next play went nowhere; it was one of those complete and total expressions of feeble impotence; it used up another seven seconds.  Then there was the last play.  Whether, seeing it, I was in the body or out of the body I still don't know.  The Vikings' Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes was quoted the next day as saying he watched the replay at home "about a thousand times".  Keenam dropped back and threw toward the right sideline about 25 yards downfield to Diggs who somehow eluded a tackle as he caught it, turned and ran for the score.

Comparing notes with my kids (11, 8, and 5) back home, you’d have thought we’d all made it through the apocalypse, each with our own stories of it to tell.  "I thought we were finished!"  "It was so amazing, Dad!"  "I couldn't believe it!"  "I went running into the kitchen like a maniac!"  My son, the middle child, recounted in more detail what was going through his mind just before the last play.  "I said, 'God, I know this isn't something to pray over, but please...'"  He also mentioned, a little later, that he felt sort of sorry for the Saints afterwards. 

This reminds me of a perennial response of many of my college students to the story of the exodus; the drowning of Pharaoh’s pursuing army bothers them.  Only in their case, it isn’t just a troubling layer in an overall response of awe-struck gladness – as my son felt – at the victory that’s been wrought; it’s virtually the whole response, as if all that’s happened here is only bad.  My attempts to deepen their reading are tricky and often fail since I can easily seem merely to be saying, don’t care so much!  But of course it isn’t that empathetic identification with those suddenly cast down is to be discouraged, in principle.  (And let’s be clear:  without a good dose of healthy moral discomfort about some of Scripture’s violence and destruction, we know what kinds of uses it can be put to.)  The question is how deep the quick identification with the Israelites’ pursuers really goes and whether it has first come to empathetic grips with the suffering of the ones oppressed by them for four centuries and only now gaining a freedom too good to be true.  Matthew, my 8-year-old, didn't suffer through four Viking Super Bowl losses as a child, nor sit and watch the Saints steal the 2009 playoff game right out of the Vikings' grasp.  When you've been through these things (an AP news article on Monday referred to the Vikings as "one of the NFL's most agonized franchises"), it is decidedly secondary how the Saints, who’ve got their Super Bowl title, must feel after Sunday’s loss. 

For some, of course, the defeated opposition’s misery is precisely part of what makes being victorious over them sweet, but that has never been my experience as a Vikings fan.  With respect to whatever team we’re lined up against, it isn’t about beating them, but about beating it – the deeper thing “they” just happen to be representing at the moment.  In fact the pure euphoria of seeing Diggs run into the end zone was far too soaring to be tethered to, or buoyed up any further by, anything so paltry and small as revenge.  The point as I see it, whether in biblical accounts or on the playing field, never is and never was to relish seeing the Goliaths or the Yankees or the Patriots of this world eat dust (Nietzsche was wrong to see ressentiment at the heart of biblical faith – though it does, sadly, seem to characterize many Yankee-haters I know) but to stand amazed simply by the realization that the impossible is possible.   The reason why the great ones, the strong of this world, don’t have all humankind pulling for them is that theirs are the victories no miracle is needed to bring about.  I suppose that perennial winners do have, then, a sort of tough time of it in their own way, since their fans’ devotion to them even at its most fervent must intrinsically lack a certain qualitative depth, the nobility of heartache, the precious hope-beyond-hope that the habit of winning can know nothing of.  But this is just the way it is.  When was the last time, you might ask yourself, a villain was ever the underdog?  Vikings' coach Mike Zimmer hit it on the head:  "A heckuva game, wasn't it?" he said.  "And the good guys won."

Like all good sacraments -- like the Exodus story itself -- the Vikings' win on Sunday moves and exalts us because of its mysterious power to point beyond itself, beyond what one has just seen.  A moment like that can never be experienced again in full, though we may try a thousand times to replay it, because even the first time, it had in it something more than itself that comprised its essential and elusive content.  What is it about?  Its meaning lies in the primordial fact that we're all cooked, up against it, as the Israelites were at the Red Sea with the Egyptian army closing in fast, as the Vikings were with no more time-outs and their long luckless history; we're all running out of time, all feebly impotent to burst through what stands against us.  In the grand cosmic scheme we're luckless losers, each and every one of us, mired and powerless – Yankees and Cubs alike, Patriots and Vikings, Goliaths and Davids, all – powerless to defeat the evil that’s the real and fierce opponent around us and especially within us.  And yet the miracle -- in a game like the one this past weekend in Minneapolis – is shown to be possible, the miracle that snatches us the victory in defiance of everything we thought we knew about the laws of the universe.  Good luck, Vikings, on Sunday. 


Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Scranton and currently serves as President of the Orthodox Theological Society in America

Interfaith Dialogue: A Call to Respond to Millions on the Move

On November 8th, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America (the Assembly) and the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches (SCOOCH) held the Tenth Annual Orthodox Prayer Service for the United Nations Community, at the Holy Trinity Archdiocesan Cathedral in New York City.

This event brought together representatives of Member States, United Nation Agencies, Orthodoxy, and Civil Society, allowing them to enter the sacred space of the Church, thus providing them the opportunity to reflect upon their common work in prayer. During the prayer service, Archbishop Demetrios, chairman of the Assembly, offered prayers for the protection of the 65.3 million persons who have been forced to escape war and persecution. Those in attendance called to mind and prayer countless men, women, and children who have been uprooted from their homelands and rendered refugees, displaced or stateless people, too frequently denied a nationality and access to basic human rights. Many of which are now trapped in camps throughout the world, or worse, have lost their lives or disappeared during the arduous migratory journey from their homeland in search of a safe place for a chance at life. 

For many it is easy to see refugees and migrants as others or strangers. At best, most of us consider them helpless victims too far way for us to make a difference in their lives; at worst, a few consider them worthy of their plight and therefore undeserving of our care. The truth is that we are quite disconnected from these people because we can hardly imagine the circumstances under which they are forced to live. This lack of understanding often leads to fear and indifference.

Jesus Christ would tell us otherwise.

The movement of refugees and migrants displaced throughout the world is a humanitarian crisis, and a humanitarian call to action. It not only requires Orthodox Christians to lend a hand, but also other Christians- indeed all people of faith and good will. For this reason, the prayer service brought together people of all faith traditions, who answered the call to serve as agents of change and instruments that will help end this humanitarian crisis. We were also reminded that no one is excluded from God’s love, no one should be a leftover of our society.

Matthew 25: 31-45 reminds us of Christ’s mandate, namely to express love for our neighbor in tangible ways. There will be a time when each of us, irrespective of faith, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, will be asked, what did you do for the least of them? The next time you hear about migrants or refugees in the news or politics, fight the urge to judge or turn your back. Instead, ask yourself: what can I do for my brothers and sisters across the world?

 

 

Elaina Karayannis is a Fellow at the U.N. for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org).

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.

 

“Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman Icon”

Until the recent rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to political prominence, Turkey’s secular Kemalist order had for decades remained largely unchallenged.  This changed with the stunning landslide election victory that swept Erdogan and the AKP into power in 2002, producing enormous excitement and hope inside Turkey and abroad for genuine democratization and progressive reform. 

The initial optimism that stemmed from the AKP’s rhetorical affinity for genuine democracy, civic liberty, and religious freedom has disappeared in the fifteen years since Erdogan and the AKP have established their dominance over Turkey.  The nationalist secular authoritarianism that characterized Kemalist republican Turkey has been systematically undermined and transformed.  However, Kemalism has not been replaced by genuine democracy, civic liberty, and religious freedom.  Instead, it has been superseded by a new nationalist Islamist authoritarianism.  This new Islamist authoritarianism, that has extended its influence, if not outright domination, over Turkish society and state, continues to cautiously pay homage to Kemal but increasingly, and now openly, draws its real inspiration and aims from an idealized version of the Ottoman imperial past.   

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman vision—encapsulated, in part, in the phrase, “Turkey: From Sarajevo to Baghdad,” unabashedly first promoted by his influential former foreign minister, Ahmet Davtoglou—is premised upon Turkey’s return to its former stature as a world power, a project Erdogan himself is leading.  Unlike Kemal and his secular nationalists who saw the Islamic theocratic system as the root of the Ottoman Empire’s inability to survive in the modern world, Erdogan regards the later Ottoman Turks’ drift away from Islamism as the direct cause of the empire’s decline and dissolution. 

Consequently, although Islam under the AKP has remained an instrument to be utilized by the state, in order for Turkey to reach its full potential, Islam must again play an increasingly decisive role in culture, public affairs, and the life of the state, just as it did in Ottoman times.  This neo-Ottomanism, of course, represents a reversal of the secular Kemalist system.  According to the neo-Ottoman project, Islam will be privileged and harnessed by the state to help restore Turkey to its rightful place as a global force and as the leading country within the Muslim world.

Like Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror of Constantinople, and President Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Erdogan, whom many observers describe as a president who acts like a sultan, recognizes the importance of symbols and symbolism for forging Turkey’s Ottoman revival.  Similar to Mehmet, who used his forcible conversion of the great Byzantine Orthodox cathedral of Hagia Sophia to a mosque to showcase the superiority of Islam and the Ottoman Empire, or Kemal, who employed Hagia Sophia to demonstrate the secularization and modernization of republican Turkey, Erdogan has exploited Hagia Sophia to promote neo-Ottomanism and to mark his government’s public embrace of Islam.  In this sense, the AKP’s gradual re-Islamization of Hagia Sophia should be understood as a deliberate signal by Erdogan to the masses of his Islamist supporters of his commitment to realize a future in which Turkey, with Islam at the center of its public life, reigns supreme once more as a regional hegemon, a world power, and the leader of the Muslim community of nations. 

Given Turkey’s current neo-Ottoman orientation and its earlier provocations against the status of Hagia Sophia as a museum, the only thing surprising about the Erdogan government’s recent use of the historic Christian structure for Muslim religious purposes was that it produced any surprise at all.  The AKP’s consolidation of political power and its steady transition to Islamist authoritarianism has been accompanied by a corresponding campaign of incremental measures and steps aimed at the eventual conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque. 

As early as 2013, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, informed reporters that Hagia Sophia would be used again as a mosque, opining: “We currently stand next to Hagia Sophia Mosque…we are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia, but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”  In 2014, the Turkish parliament held exploratory discussions on how to change the status of Hagia Sophia in the future.  That same year, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom identified and condemned Turkey’s encroachment on Hagia Sophia as a “creeping conversion.”  Simultaneously, the United Nations expressed its disapproval, as it has many times since, over statements made by Turkish officials that have threatened the integrity of Hagia Sophia’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Undeterred by international criticism, Turkey has continued its aggressive policy of targeting Hagia Sophia.  This new phase of operations also witnessed a series of deliberate actions intended to insult and humiliate Turkey’s Orthodox Christians.  On April 11, 2015, one day before Orthodox Easter Sunday, a Quran recitation sanctioned by the Diyanet (the State Directorate of Religious Affairs), for the first time in 84 years, took place inside Hagia Sophia.  The following year, Turkish authorities appointed a permanent imam to Hagia Sophia.  The timing of the Diyanet’s announcement of the imam’s appointment was made on the same Sunday in November 2016 as Turkey’s Orthodox Christians celebrated the 25th anniversary of the enthronement of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I.

The AKP’s actions enjoy widespread popular support in Turkey.  Every May 29, increasingly extravagant celebrations of the conquest of Constantinople take place in Istanbul and across Turkey.  Leading up to May 29, endless barrages of television programs and films aimed at children and adults alike depict Greek Christians as treacherous and evil, provoking nationalist and self-righteous feelings of entitlement to Hagia Sophia as a mosque.  This sort of carefully stoked public “conquest mania” produced a mass rally of activists who gathered in front of Hagia Sophia on May 29, 2016, to demand that the building be converted to a mosque. 

A crucial step in that direction was taken on June 1, 2016, when the Diyanet announced that state television would broadcast a program, highlighted by readings from the Koran, from Hagia Sophia everyday during the month of Ramadan.  The first guest of the television program was Mehmet Gormez, the head of the State Directorate of Religious Affairs, who discussed the spectacular dome crowning Hagia Sophia and, with considerable imagination and invention, explained to a nation-wide audience of tens of millions the dome’s importance in Islamic history.  

Despite the annual revelries in May that celebrate the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the August and September commemorations that glorify the 1922 Turkish victory against Greece and the Entente Powers, Turkish nationalists, while sidestepping the genocide of Anatolia’s Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians, claim victim status for themselves.  Perhaps not surprising, albeit astonishing, Hagia Sophia is now being used to symbolize Turkey’s victimhood narrative.  In the view of Turkish nationalists, especially Islamist nationalists, the Ottoman Empire was a veritable paradise destroyed by Western imperialists and their Christian toadies within the empire.  Furthermore, because of Kemal’s eagerness to have the Republic of Turkey accepted into the modern Western community of nations, Ankara was supposedly cowed or coaxed by Turkey’s recent enemies into transforming Hagia Sophia into a museum. 

This nationalist myth concludes with the assertion that this mendacious manipulation by the Western Great Powers aimed to ensure Turkey’s psychological subservience to the West by denying the Turkish people the freedom to exercise their will over the most visible symbol and reminder of Turkish greatness and triumph: the Great Fatih, the “Great Conquest,” Mosque.  This popular narrative has most recently been expanded to incorporate the newly manufactured deception that claims Kemal never actually ordered the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum and that the state document and Kemal’s signature appearing therein that initiated this action are forgeries, a proposition Erdogan himself has publicly applauded. 

In coordination with the AKP, the ultranationalist Anatolian Youth Association, which has collected over 15 million signatures in support of its campaign to convert Hagia Sophia to a mosque, summarizes this thinking: “Keeping Hagia Sophia closed is an insult to our Muslim population…it symbolizes our ill-treatment by the West.”  Voicing an alternative, even if declining, perspective, a prominent Turkish scholar, who, fearing retribution from Erdogan’s supporters, commented anonymously in a June 2016 interview with Al-Monitor: “the matter of Hagia Sophia has been manipulated shamelessly in the last decade.  They [Erdogan and the AKP] are feeding the dream of an Ottoman revival…for pious Muslims everywhere, it is really sad to watch this opportunistic propaganda.”     

Widespread popular acceptance of these inventive victimhood narratives has contributed to a commonly held nationalist view that Turkey’s actual sovereignty is suppressed by the Western powers and that Turkey’s freedom, ipso facto, cannot be realized until Hagia Sophia is converted once more to a mosque.  According to this perspective, only then can Turkey become truly independent and fulfill its destiny, which means only then can Turkey regain both the glorious Ottoman inheritance and neo-Ottoman future to which it is entitled and has been denied by the West.  Hence, in the hands of the AKP government Hagia Sophia has become an uncompromising symbol, an icon and tool to mobilize Turkish nationalism and legitimize neo-Ottomanism. 

Continuing this escalating trend, Ramadan, in June 2017, was marked by a tangible increase in the aggressive use of Hagia Sophia by Turkish officials for Muslim religious and state purposes.  Abiding by the long-established practice of Western appeasement towards Turkey, most European governments and Christian religious establishments remained silent.  Only Greece’s Foreign Ministry, the United States Department of State, and UNESCO issued serious rebukes against Ankara for its provocative actions.

The Islamization of Hagia Sophia, like the Islamization of Turkish society and state, under President Erdogan and the AKP does not merely represent a simple partisan contest between secularists and Islamists for the control of Turkey.  Likewise, the plight of Hagia Sophia constitutes more than yet another example of Turkish nationalist contempt for non-Muslims and their history, a perennial feature, after all, of Turkish rule, whether secular or religious.  Instead, the significance and purpose of the recent provocations against Hagia Sophia should be viewed, and can only be understood, from a perspective that takes into account both the symbolic and utilitarian importance of the Great Fatih Mosque for Islamist Turkish nationalists. 

For Islamist Turkish nationalists, Hagia Sophia stands as the most powerful, visible reminder of Ottoman Turkey’s might and glory, a rallying standard for a return to that former greatness, and a national icon to help forge neo-Ottomanism under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  It is a religiously charged symbol that is inseparable from President Erdogan’s Islamist ambitions and imagined destiny for Turkey in Europe, the Middle East, and the world.  Moreover, the veritable re-conquest of Hagia Sophia for Islam serves as an important expression of Erdogan’s vainglorious neo-Ottoman place for himself in history.  As noted in a July 17 Financial Times International article on the anniversary of the July 15, 2016, abortive coup against Erdogan: “His [Erdogan’s] narrative means that the rise of the Turkish nation and the future of the global Muslim community hinge on Erdogan as a person and a politician.  The implication is that, if you don’t support Erdogan, you are neither a good Turk or a good Muslim.”  In this sense, the exploitation and use of Hagia Sophia by Turkey’s authoritarian Islamist government stands as a bellwether, one the international community should not continue to ignore.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

“Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Ottoman Icon”

It is no small irony that across the globe the edifice and image most widely associated with Turkey, Istanbul, and even perhaps Islam, is a sixth-century Orthodox Christian church—the magisterial Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, or “Holy Wisdom.” Built by some 10,000 workers between 532 and 537, its patron, Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, inaugurated the construction of Hagia Sophia in the imperial capital of Constantinople with the proclamation that the Church of the Holy Wisdom would be a cathedral like “one that has never existed since Adam’s time, and one that will never exist again.”

Remarkably, Justinian’s boastful claims proved to be as correct as they were visionary. For virtually a millennium, Hagia Sophia was Christendom’s largest, most revered and awe-inspiring church. Hagia Sophia was the unrivalled ecclesial hearth of the Christian Church before the Western schism, the physical epicenter of the Orthodox Christian world, and the wondrous, breathtaking symbol of Byzantine grandeur and purpose. Indeed, for both contemporaries and historians, Hagia Sophia constituted the greatest achievement of late ancient and medieval architecture, an enduring masterpiece that embodied Byzantine civilization’s quintessential, sophisticated respect and quest for symphony and balance between the ethereal and the physical, majesty and beauty, place and boundlessness, science and mystery, creative genius and humility. Despite Hagia Sophia’s present diminished and abused condition, it is not difficult for even today’s visitor to appreciate the description found in a famous Russian ambassadorial report sent from Constantinople in 987 to Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, of what one encountered upon entering the great cathedral: “We did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth.”

When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, virtually all of the city’s surviving cathedrals and churches were—after being desecrated and thoroughly plundered—forcibly seized and turned over to the Turks’ religious establishment to be converted to mosques and used as Muslim properties. The conquering sultan, Mehmet II, personally oversaw the conversion of Hagia Sophia. Crosses were demolished and exchanged for crescents, altars and bells were destroyed, icons were burned or hacked to pieces, mosaics and frescoes depicting Christian imagery were plastered over, and most of the cathedral’s priests were killed or enslaved. In time, four colossal minarets were erected to surround Hagia Sophia, producing the iconic image that has come to be globally associated with Ottoman Constantinople and Turkish Istanbul.

Mehmet took great satisfaction in his belief that he had fulfilled Mohammed’s prophecy articulated in the Hadith: “Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!” Thereafter, Constantinople and Hagia Sophia represented for the Ottoman Turks much more than merely their empire’s capital and preeminent mosque, respectively. The conquest of Christianity’s greatest city and church was understood by Mehmet and his successors as divine proof of the leading role in the Muslim world to which the Ottoman Empire was entitled, a belief also manifested by the Turks’ subsequent relocation of the Islamic Caliphate to Constantinople.

Indeed, the purpose for the construction of the massive minarets that now tower over Hagia Sophia was to project to the world Islam’s triumph over Christendom’s greatest empire, city, and church. The capture of Hagia Sophia confirmed and symbolized in the Ottomans’ imagination their belief in the superiority of their state and faith over all other nations and all religions, a putative affirmation of their providential role and destiny in history. Hence, the Ottomans formally dedicated their greatest, most celebrated single piece of loot—Hagia Sophia—as Great Fatih Mosque, or “Great Conquest Mosque.”

Despite the Turks’ conviction that their mastery over the great, coveted prizes of Constantinople and Hagia Sophia signaled their inevitable conquest of the remainder of Christian Europe, the Ottoman state showed signs of weakness by the sixteenth century and by the seventeenth century began a long, miserable decline and recession that culminated in the complete dissolution of their empire in the early twentieth century. Led by the Turkish nationalist, Mustafa Kemal, the Republic of Turkey, which emerged in the early 1920s to succeed the Ottoman Empire and to abolish the Caliphate, was premised on secularism. Kemal’s modern Turkey was a rejection of the Islamic theocratic system that he and his modernizing nationalists held responsible for the collapse of the old Ottoman order.

Kemalist Turkey did not, however, decouple Islam from its nation-building project. The Kemalist state’s efforts to create a homogeneous Turkish society included assigning a prominent role to Islam as a defining cultural feature of Turkish national identity, or “Turkishness.” In short, official “secularism” involved the use of Islam by the state as an instrument to impose conformity to a uniform model of “Turkishness.”

In modern Turkey secularism has produced neither freedom for all faiths nor separation of church and state. Instead, Turkish secularism has meant state control of religion through the official policy carried out by the Diyanet (the State Directorate of Religious Affairs, the governmental institution responsible for regulating and directing Islam in Turkish society). Likewise, the Kemalists’ non-Western, non-democratic version of secularism has also meant that Turkey’s non-Islamic religions and communities, inasmuch as they are regarded as impediments to universal “Turkishness,” are to be viewed with suspicion, treated with hostility, and subjected to a policy of steady, systematic persecution, with the goal being their final elimination.

Symbols and symbolism were, of course, very important to the Kemalist nation-building project. It was, consequently, neither a surprise nor a move that produced any resistance when Mustafa Kemal, presiding over Turkey’s one-party “secular democracy,” closed Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship in 1931 and reopened the historic structure as a museum in 1935. Just as Sultan Mehmet in the fifteenth century appreciated the symbolism of converting Hagia Sophia, the grandest of Christian cathedrals, to a Muslim Ottoman mosque for the furtherance of his imperial ambitions, President Kemal in the 1930s understood the symbolic value of transforming Hagia Sophia from a mosque—the quintessential iconographic symbol of the Ottoman Islamic past—to a Turkish museum for the advancement of his modern secular nation-building project at home and for the promotion of his country’s image abroad.

The second part, and conclusion of this essay, which explores the recent political and religious uses of Hagia Sophia by the current post-Kemalist, Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is forthcoming under the title “Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman Icon.”

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

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