A Nation in Fight with Itself: The Hagia Sophia between Ideas and Elites

By: Sinem Adar

August 3, 2020

Hagia Sophia: From Museum to Mosque

Most of the debate about the reasons for the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque so far has focused on either tactical motivations or the government’s ideological orientations. Even though the Hagia Sophia decision has clearly been useful for the AKP and the president to regain some of their lost popularity, as the METROPOLL’s July survey demonstrates, electoral logic falls short to explain the timing of the decision. After all, Turkey’s next elections do not happen until 2023. Similarly, ideological orientations alone are insufficient to explain the decision, given their increasing prevalence since at least 2016, if not already earlier.

Besides questions about the timing of the reconversion and its implications, there are broader issues at stake. Indeed, the Hagia Sophia decision provides useful insights into the mentality of the decision-makers in Turkey about the country’s place in the world. The decision is a nationalist, nativist, and transnationalist statement, all at once, displaying but also further intensifying the increasingly conflicting interests of the elite groups surrounding President Erdoğan.

​A Nationalist, Nativist, and Transnationalist Statement

Since the early days of the discussion in June ahead of the Council of State’s decision, the official narrative has been one of national sovereignty. According to the decision-makers in Ankara, it is Turkey’s sovereign right to decide the status of Hagia Sophia. For them, the Hagia Sophia’s reconversion is a manifestation of an “independent and strong” state at a time when the country is under various threats at its land and maritime borders in Syria, Libya, and the eastern Mediterranean. 

The decision is also a nativist statement. Not in the sense in which the term is used in the West with reference to immigration but insofar as it is perceived by Ankara as crucial in returning the nation back to its “true owners.” The conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1934 is remembered by Islamists and pious nationalists alike as a day when the nation was detached from its supposed spiritual essence. For these actors, the date of July 24, 2020, when Friday prayers were for the first time in 86 years held in the Hagia Sophia, will be remembered as the day when this historical mistake was undone, and the unity of the nation with the state was restored—a phrase that was repeatedly voiced by pro-government journalists and pundits on the day of the inauguration of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque. 

As a nationalist and nativist statement, the reconversion is a major symbolic enactment of the so-called Yenikapı spirit that drives Ankara’s domestic and foreign policy choices since the 2016 coup attempt. In a world in which everything solid seems to melt into air, the Hagia Sophia decision, together with the military incursions into northern Syria and the Turkish military engagement in Libya, manifests, in the mind of the decision-makers, the Turkish state’s capacity to re-position itself from a semi-peripheral country to an influential regional actor and pull itself by its own bootstraps. 

Yet, Ankara’s aspirations in this new world order are not only confined to exerting influence in its immediate neighborhood but has also a clear transnational dimension. Ankara claims to be the leader of the Sunni world in its quest to restore justice for and equality of Muslims worldwide. Hence, with the re-conversion of Hagia Sophia as a mosque, a giant step is taken, in the eyes of Erdoğan and his aides, towards making Istanbul and Turkey as the center of the Muslim world. Driven by this logic, President Erdoğan noted in his speech on July 10, after the Council of State announced its ruling, that the “resurrection of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque heralds the liberation of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.” The head of the Diyanet repeated the same on July 29 in a letter sent to the Muslim leaders around the world, on the occasion of the Eid al-Adha.

Conflict among Elite Groups surrounding President Erdoğan

With these transnationalist aspirations, however, also come tensions. The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia unleashes already existing conflicts among different elite groups that surround President Erdoğan, limiting his maneuvering space necessary to maintain a balancing act. 

These groups are highly diverse and include Erdoğan loyalists, various Islamic brotherhoods, ultranationalists, secularist Eurasianists, and economic opportunists close to Mr. Erdoğan and his family. Having been heavily criticized by Islamist circles after the 2016 coup attempt for his alliance with the ultranationalists and the secularist Eurasianists, President Erdoğan’s decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque could be interpreted as an attempt to appease the Islamist elites. 

The discussion about restoring the caliphate that accompanied the first Friday prayers at the Hagia Sophia is illustrative. Gerçek Hayat, a magazine owned by a pro-government media group, raised the question of the re-establishment of the caliphate on its July 27 cover page under the headline: “When if not now?” The cover page was tweeted within an hour of the issue’s publication by a pro-AKP journalist, Abdurrahman Dilipak, known for his advocacy for full-scale Islamization, and sparked immediate controversy on social media. Various columnists and thinkers from within the Islamist circles close to the AKP joined the conversation, emphasizing the need for restoring Islamic unity under the leadership of Turkey. 

The call was, however, not received with much excitement by others within and close to the AKP. In a tweet on July 27, Ömer Çelik, AKP’s spokesperson, emphasized the AKP’s commitment to the Republic of Turkey, “which is built upon the principles of democracy, secularism and rule of law.” Burhanettin Duran, the director of SETA Foundation and a columnist at the pro-government daily Sabah, noted on July 28 that evoking a debate about the caliphate was to misunderstand what a “strong nation-state” should entail. As Turkey “reconciled with its Ottoman past” and “simultaneously fortified a national stance” without being driven away by “ethno-cultural nationalism” or “globalist cosmopolitanism,” Duran reminded the readers, that Mr. Erdoğan, as the president of a strong Turkey, already dealt with the problems of Muslims “from Syria to Palestine, from Arakan to Somalia.” On July 29, Fahrettin Altun, Turkey’s communications director, echoed Duran in an interview, that “it is futile, on the basis of ideological motivations, to put our national and spiritual values in opposition.” 

At the moment, it remains unclear when and how the balancing act that the president tries to maintain between different groups will reach a tipping point, and how the power configurations would change afterwards. What is clearer is that a constant appeal to these diverging demands in order to remain in power renders Turkish leadership increasingly volatile and vulnerable. Ankara’s accelerating use of non-constitutional and suppressive measures is a direct consequence of this vulnerability despite all the rhetoric about a “strong and independent” Turkey. In this respect, the decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque symbolizes a nation that is in fight with itself.

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