By Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak & Micky Aharonson
Both in Turkey and in Russia, religion is making a comeback in terms of popular support for its institutions and as a consequence, as a means used by the leadership to achieve domestic and foreign policy goals.
Under his rule, Turkey began to go through an Ottomanization process. At home, Erdoğan managed to become Turkey’s ultimate leader or to be precise, the sultan. In 2017, he realized this vision de jure as well, when he replaced Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential system that lacked checks and balances. While taking this bold step, the Turkish president launched a top-down, gradual religionization policy. The most obvious evidence of this policy is the increasing budget and influence of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) which replaced the Caliphate institution in 1924. When Erdoğan came to power in 2002, the budget of Diyanet stood at 553 million Turkish Liras. In the eighteen years since then, the budget of Diyanet rose to 11.5 billion Turkish Liras.
By strengthening the Diyanet, Erdoğan has turned it into his own legitimacy and advocacy mechanism for enacting various laws and gaining public approval, similar to the way the Ottoman sultans utilized the Ottoman “Sheikh Al-Islam”.
Today, the Diyanet increases its influence on the Turkish public by issuing nonbinding fatwas, delivering sermons, and providing aid to the needy through its “Diyanet Foundation”. Besides daily services, the Diyanet also utilizes its generous budget for inaugurating new mosques and providing religious services abroad.
However, the Diyanet’s activities are not limited to these roles. The head of the Diyanet, Ali Erbaş, also acts as one of Erdoğan’s most important public relations agents. The most striking example was Erbaş’s recent unforgettable appearance at the pulpit of the converted Hagia Sophia with an Ottoman sword, symbolizing the surrender of the Christian cathedral to Islam. At the same event, as the “Imam of the Nation”, President Erdoğan also seized the opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge of religion when he led the Friday prayer at the mosque while the event was broadcast nationwide. Apart from Erdoğan’s political Islamic agenda, it should also be noted that his Hagia Sophia decision was made during the eastern Mediterranean standoff with Greece. Certainly Erdoğan’s harsh statements against Greece and his labeling of the Turkish armed forces as the “last army of Islam” fuel religious and national tension with Athens.
However, Greece was apparently not the only reason behind Ankara’s Hagia Sophia decision. Russia’s attitude toward the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul (Constantinople) also played a role. Ankara was very aware of the rift between the Church of Russia and the Church of Constantinople. In December 2018, despite Russian protests, the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomeos granted the Church of Ukraine independence from the Church of Russia. Aware of this rift, Ankara made its calculations—which later proved to be –correct—that Putin’s reaction to the conversion of Hagia Sophia would not lead to Russian sanctions against Turkey. In fact, Putin’s statement that the conversion of Hagia Sophia is an internal Turkish affair signified that other considerations, beyond religious ones, were involved. In this context, Russia’s Great Patriarch Kirill’s harsh statement that the threat to Hagia Sophia is a threat to the Christian civilization and that the Cathedral is one of the most sacred places for Russian Orthodoxy was understood by the Turks as lip service.
Nonetheless, in order to preserve its image as being the protector of Christianity, Putin had to introduce compensation for the Middle East community. Therefore, with the vocal support of some Russian parliament members, Russia announced it would support the construction of a smaller replica of the Hagia Sophia in Syria. With this act, Russia reached out to those who were disappointed with the West and its attitude towards minorities, such as the Copts who suffered from the Muslim Brotherhood government’s pressure in Egypt. In the same spirit, in 2015, just before the Russian military intervention in Syria, Putin made an official statement about the alarming state of Christians in Syria and in the Middle East as a whole. He then stressed that the international community was not doing enough to protect Christians against ISIS, thereby creating the moral justification for Russia to intervene.
Accordingly, following Turkey’s conversion decision, the media reported that Russian soldiers stationed in Syria had already begun working on the construction plans for the Hagia Sophia replica. It was also reported in September that the first cornerstone of the church had been laid, and that it included an engraved expression of gratitude to Russia and to Russian military personnel for assisting in the project. Local Syrian Christians expressed support for the project. Nadel al Abdullah, the leader of a Christian militia fighting Jihadists, declared he would donate land to have the Russians build the replica.
Russia’s backing for the Hagia Sophia replica is another example of how religious motives and strategic goals are intertwined in Russia’s policy. In the Syrian case, in particular, this approach serves to grant legitimacy to the Assad regime by portraying him as religiously tolerant. This was demonstrated during Putin’s visit to Syria in January 2020, when he stopped over, on the holy day of Orthodox Christmas, at the ancient Marian Cathedral, which dates back to the beginning of Christianity. The visit was meant to promote the Russian narrative that Assad is the defender of religious minorities, with the blessing and guidance of Russia. It is noteworthy that Putin traveled to Syria just the day before meeting with Erdoğan in Turkey, signaling to the Turkish leadership his ongoing support for Assad and his secular approach.
In conclusion, both Haghia Sophia’s conversion and the construction of its replica in Syria highlight the added value of religion in strengthening the authority and legitimacy of both Turkey’s and Russia’s regimes and policies. Moreover, as religion is considered an inseparable part of the glorious imperial histories of both Turkey and Russia, both regimes are expected to make growing use of religious symbols in order to realize Erdoğan’s and Putin’s (separate) desires to “make Turkey and Russia great again.”
Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is the Turkey analyst of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC) at Tel Aviv University. He received his doctorate from Tel Aviv University’s School of History and is a lecturer at the same institution and at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Dr. Cohen Yanarocak is the editor of Turkeyscope: Insights on Turkish Affairs. In May 2015 he was awarded the Dan David Prize Scholarship in the category of “Past: Retrieving the past, historians and their sources.”
Ms. Aharonson is a Research Fellow in the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and served as Senior Director for Foreign Policy in the National Security Council of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.