Opinion: Erdogan's folly

The modern-day sultan now also wants to be the modern-day caliph, but the decision to turn Hagia Sophia back into a mosque is a pyrrhic victory that divides rather than unites, writes Dennis Sammut in this op-ed for commonspace.eu

The decision of the Turkish Government, in the midst of combatting a pandemic and all its economic consequences, to change the status of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia from a Museum back into a mosque is nothing less than cheap pandering to  petty populism.

There is probably no more iconic building in the world than Hagia Sophia. For centuries it was the centrepiece of the Byzantine Empire, the direct successor of the Roman Empire in the east. It was here that Byzantine emperors were crowned, and it was here that the people of Constantinople gathered on the eve of the fall of their city to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. That event shook the Christian world, and perhaps also shook it out of the lethargy into which it had descended during the dark ages in Europe.

Mehmet II, the Ottoman Sultan who occupied Constantinople (renamed Istanbul) did not burn the Church of Hagia Sophia down as some other conquerors of Christian holy places had done before him - he turned it instead into a mosque and let the Islamic symbols and architecture, including four minarets, blend with Christian ones, a sign perhaps of what Istanbul was to become - a melting pot of religions, cultures, traditions and people. Whilst the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople remained in existence under Ottoman rule and its successor Turkish Republic, it never got Hagia Sophia back. In 1932 however, the secular government of modern Turkey under Kemal Ataturk recognised Hagia Sopia for what it was - a symbol of both Christianity and Islam and how they clashed and blended together. It turned the building into a museum. Since then millions have visited every year - Muslims, Christians, Jews and people of other beliefs or none to be awed by the architecture and the sense of history which inevitably grips you when you enter the building. It remains a unique and powerful edifice for both its beauty, its history, and for that it has come to symbolise.

The conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque by the Erdogan government is a gesture of conquest, imitating the steps of Sultan Mehmet II. But whilst Mehmet had conquered the successor of the Roman Empire, and could justify his actions on the fact that there were no mosques in the Istanbul that he conquered, Erdogan's appears to be a pyrrhic victory and cannot be justified by some urgent need to provide the Muslims of Istanbul with a place for prayer. There are hundreds of mosques in Istanbul, some even larger and possibly aesthetically more beautiful than Hagia Sophia. President Erdogan's government has built several dozen more, so it is not as if the Muslims of Istanbul need somewhere to pray.

The reason for the change is unfortunately more frivolous. Erdogan, already described by some as the modern day Sultan for the sweeping powers he has amassed for himself, has in recent years aspired also to become also a modern day Caliph, to who all Muslims look at for leadership and guidance. A gesture was needed to mark this, and Hagia Sophia's return as a place for Muslim prayer is meant to be that. It is unlikely to work, and indeed this looks more like Erdogan shooting himself in the foot rather than the act of the great Master of the art political astuteness for which he had justifiably developed a reputation over the years.

Domestically the move will please some diehards in the ruling AK Party which Erdogan leads. Yet even within that party there are many who think that the process of Islamisation of Turkey has gone too far. Some early measures that the AK party took when it came to power, such as enabling young women wearing the hijab to attend university - something from which they had been banned under draconian secular rules - and the reining in of the power of the generals who had a habit of mixing their military duties with politics and business, had widespread national support. But most Turkish Muslims are of a tolerant sort, and do not see the need for excessive presence of religion in public life and they do not see the decision as a victory, rather as an embarrassment. For the secularists and people of other religions the decision on Hagia Sophia is an outright slap in the face.

But it is externally that the move will have wider consequences. Under Erdogan Turkey has had its fair share of arguments with allies and neighbours, but these have largely been perceived as problems between diplomats and elites, in which most common people remained by and large uninterested. All the head banging of the Kurds, the interventions in Syria and Libya and the sabre rattling in the Eastern Mediterranean were hardly noticed by the Christian populations of Europe. The events around Hagia Sophia however has aroused feelings that would have best been left untouched. Pope Francis, on Sunday (12 July) perhaps summed it up well in just a couple of words: "I think of Hagia Sophia and I am very saddened." Others were using much stronger language. Those that have been putting great effort to ensure harmony in modern Muslim-Christian relations are left irritated and frustrated. Those on the right who have been stoking Islamophobia for years are gleeful shouting, "we told you so".

Will this decision however strengthen Erdogan's image among Muslims? After all this is what most likely triggered the Turkish government's decision. The answer is probably not. Most Muslim governments in the world are currently much more concerned about radical extremists within their own mosques, and busy trying to counter the damage that these hotheads have done to Islam's image in the world. They see Hagia Sophia as, at best, a distraction to more serious problems, at worst, another populist move aimed at consolidating the hold of certain groups on parts of the Muslim Ummah. By his unwise decision Erdogan has not only turned Hagia Sophia into a symbol of division between Muslims and Christians, but also between Muslims and Muslims. 

Source: Dr Dennis Sammut is Director of LINKS Europe and Managing Editor of commonspace.eu 

photo: Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (archive picture)


The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of commonspace.eu or its partners


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