Does Re-Converting Hagia Sophia into a Mosque Violate Secularism in Turkey?

By: Umut Azak

July 31, 2020

Hagia Sophia: From Museum to Mosque

Yes and no. Here is why:

Yes, if what we mean by secularism is the ideology associated with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—the founder of the republic—and a commitment to his ideal of political, social, and cultural Westernization.

After the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II, the Hagia Sophia became an imperial mosque. In 1934, 11 years after the foundation of the republic, it was converted into a museum, with a government decree signed by Atatürk. This act reflected how the government could discard the pre-republican symbolism of the mosque as a “sign of conquest.” It showed, moreover, that the new republic did not define itself on the basis of a national pride derived from an Ottoman/Islamic victory over the Christian world. Because the founders of the republic did not see themselves as heirs to the Ottoman dynasty (which was abolished by the Ankara Parliament in 1922), it was not problematic for them to acknowledge and value the building’s Byzantine legacy. As a matter of fact, from December 1931 onwards, a team of archeologists led by Thomas Wittemore (1871–1950), founder of the Byzantine Institute in the United States, was permitted to work on the restoration of Hagia Sophia and unveil its Byzantine mosaics. The conversion of the mosque into a museum enhanced the recognition of multiple layers of civilizations embedded in it. The republican government did not prioritize the mosque’s symbolism, constructed around ideas of “conquest” and a victorious Ottoman Empire. Instead, the site was reimagined to act as the protector of the Byzantine/Christian heritage as well. Transformed into a secular space, it was appropriated as a temple of universal science, displaying multiple historical and cultural layers. The current reopening of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque puts an end to this “secular” perspective and highlights its Ottoman/Islamic heritage. 

Today’s AKP government has long been dedicated to redefining the priorities of republican cultural policies by appropriating a reinvented Ottoman/Islamic legacy. Accordingly, it reclaims the Hagia Sophia as a symbol of national (Turkish/Islamic) sovereignty. The re-conversion of Hagia Sophia reflects the political agendas of conservative nationalist and Islamist groups that have been challenging Kemalist secularism since the 1950s. For these groups, who derive a sense of the national pride from the imperial past, Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum was a shameful betrayal of the Ottoman ancestors. As the influential poet and Islamist ideologue Necip Fazıl Kısakürek (1904–1983) remarked: The Hagia Sophia is not just a mosque but the “original spirit of the Turk” and its closure to Islamic worship means the captivity of this spirit. (Significantly, Kısakürek’s “Speech on Hagia Sophia” is currently widely re-circulated online.) 

In this narrative, the closure of the mosque shows Turkish/Islamic weakness vis-à-vis the “Christian West.” In response to the closure, from the 1950s onwards, various nationalist and Islamist campaigns have been held to demand the reopening of this “national temple.” These campaigns often emerged in times of crisis, when anti-Western/Christian feelings were being propagated, for instance in relation to the Cyprus issue or the Armenian Genocide. These campaigns challenged Atatürk as a national hero and contested the official narrative of the early republican era being a golden age for Turks. The AKP government’s 2020 re-conversion of Hagia Sophia shows a firm dedication to this conservative nationalist and Islamist tradition. It appeals to Ottomanist aspirations to challenge the Western world and rewrite the history of the early republican regime under Atatürk as a dark period of decay and oppression of Muslims.

The act of re-converting Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque can, therefore, certainly be viewed as a violation of Kemalist secularism. It can thus be placed in a long line of earlier anti-secularist moves, such as the opening of preachers’ courses by the Ministry of Education in 1949; the removal of the ban on the Turkish call to prayer in 1950; the inclusion of compulsory lessons on religion (based on Sunni understanding of Islam) in school curricula in 1982; and the gradual removal of the ban on Islamic headscarves in public institutions in the 2000s. Since the headscarf and the call to prayer are no longer strong symbols of “liberation from secularist oppression,” it is now the “unchained” Hagia Sophia that can serve as a site of memory for a much-needed sense of national and Islamic pride and glory. 

But, approached from a different angle, we might also argue the opposite, namely:

No, the re-conversion of Hagia Sophia does not violate secularism in Turkey. That is, if what we mean by “secularism” is the institutional organization of state-religion relations as instigated in the republican era. The opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque shows that the republican understanding of secularism is based on state control over Islamic practice. In 1934, the government decreed an intervention in the religious sphere by reshaping the function of an Islamic temple. Today, the same tool has been used to revert the situation, decreeing the museum back into a mosque. What looks like an anti-secularist intervention here can also be interpreted as a continuity of a state tradition of regulating religious spaces. 

Since the beginning of the republic, secularism has been accepted on paper as the separation of religion and state. Institutionally, however, there has never really been much of a separation. In the Turkish system of secularism, as institutionalized in the 1920s, the government controlled all mosques across the country through the Presidency of Religious Affairs (PRA), while marginalizing non-Sunni interpretations of Islam and non-Islamic belief groups. With three state-appointed preachers and five muezzins, Hagia Sophia is now one such mosque, in service of the government’s political agenda. 

In this sense, Turkish secularism, both before and during the AKP period, has never been totally secular. Sunni Islam, along with Turkish ethnicity, has been accepted in practice as the constitutive identity of the nation, while those who identify with other creeds or unbelief could never obtain a legitimate position or equal treatment. Not only the AKP but also earlier nationalist-conservative governments have been able to further their cultural and religious policies without making any radical institutional reforms within the state structure. The republican institution of the PRA—established to control and propagate a state Islam based on the Sunni-Hanafi school—has likewise proven highly beneficial to these governments. It not surprising, then, that its power has been steadily increasing, especially in recent years.

To conclude: The AKP government’s reopening the Hagia Sophia as a mosque can, on the one hand, be regarded as contrary to the Westernist secularist legacy of the republic. On the other hand, in terms of instrumentalizing Islam for political ends, and further marginalizing non-Muslim and non-Sunni citizens, the re-conversion can be said to be line with the republican understanding of secularism.

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