Hagia Sophia and Islamist Nation-Building: Hijacking the Conservative Architectural Imaginary

By: Bülent Batuman

July 27, 2020

Hagia Sophia: From Museum to Mosque

Erdoğan’s decision to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, especially only a year after defining the demands along these lines as “a ruse,” clearly indicates that the decision is one related to his desire to stay in power under conditions of declining electoral support. Nevertheless, the question I am interested in is less about the timing or the political currency of this decision and more about its relationship with architecture. In order to understand the meaning of the re-conversion of the Hagia Sophia, one has to consider the building’s place within the Turkish conservative imagination and the role of architecture in its making.

Turkish conservatism (labeled nationalist-conservatism) has always been an oppositional-yet-hegemonic discourse successfully blending nationalist and Islamist streams on the common ground of anti-communism. This ideological amalgam merged opposition to radical modernism and secularism (as well as any strands of leftism) while emphasizing the necessity of a powerful state to defend national unity. Hence, it was instrumental in expanding state hegemony while presenting itself as an oppositional discourse. The sixteenth-century Ottoman Empire at the zenith of its power was the prime referent for the nationalist-conservative imagination, representing the golden age of nation and Islam.

The city of Istanbul and its architectural elements have been significant components in the making of the conservative imagination. Two major symbols were (the reconversion of) the Hagia Sophia and (the desire to build) a mosque in Taksim Square. (It is worth noting that building a mosque in Taksim, the heart of modern Istanbul, was also a dream of Erdoğan, which he finally achieved in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt.) That is, one has to think the Hagia Sophia together with the Taksim Mosque as constituents of the conservative fantasy of Istanbul. The old city—Stambol, today’s historical peninsula—and its modern/cosmopolitan district—Pera—are linked within the conservative imagination through these real and imaginary buildings. The Hagia Sophia is a foundational element for the pathos of conservatism just like the dream to build a mosque in Taksim is for its ethos. As the conquest of Istanbul is imagined as the point zero of Ottoman glory, the former is instrumental in feeling for the loss of the edifice as a mosque. Meanwhile, the latter is vital for envisaging a symbol inscribing Islam in the secular public space (not to mention the association of Pera with the non-Muslim population of Istanbul in the early twentieth century). 

The question, then, is what is the relationship between the twentieth-century Turkish conservatism and the AKP’s Islamism. In my 2018 book, New Islamist Architecture and Urbanism: Negotiating Nation and Islam through Built Environment in Turkey, I argued that the AKP’s Islamist agenda should be understood as a nation-(re)building project and investigated the role of the built environment in it. This project, on the one hand, has defined itself as the antithesis of the secular nation-building of the early republican period and sought to redefine the nation in Islamic terms. On the other hand, Islamic nation-building under the AKP appropriated much of the tropes defined by its adversary. 

The crucial point here is the troubled relationship between the Turkish nation-state and Islam. Turkish secularism never attempted to erase religion but rather aimed at controlling it. This is also true in the instrumentalization of nationalist-conservatism. Islam and its populist instrumentalization especially in the hands of mainstream right-wing governments throughout the twentieth century kept the mutual relationship between the state and Islam alive. This was one of the mechanisms the AKP found at its disposal to use in reverse to remold the state (its institutions and ideology). For nationalist-conservatism the issue was to revive “Islam in the nation,” whereas for the AKP’s Islamism the issue is rather to reposition “nation in Islam.” The tropes kept alive by the state to manipulate conservative demands (such as the conversion of the Hagia Sophia) served for the absorption of Islam(ism) by the nation-state throughout the twentieth century. It has recently become operational for the exact opposite. Now it serves the absorption of nationalism and the remolding of the nation-state by the AKP’s Islamism. 

In addition to calling the national subjects to identification, an important component of nation-building is seeking recognition from the external others. The cultural performances of nation-building are also displays for the gaze of the (Western) other. One should look at the spectacle that performatively converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque from this point of view. The arrogant references to kılıç hakkı (the right of the sword) materialize in the act, and the photographs capturing this act, of the director of religious affairs giving the first sermon with a sword in his hand. What is at stake here is self-Orientalism as a conscious strategy to identify with the ahistorical orientalist image of Ottoman glory and to utilize it as an instrument of power. Within this context, the claim to situate “nation in Islam” imagines the nation as a privileged component of global Islam. The Ottoman reference here is not nostalgic; what we have is the representation of the sixteenth-century Ottoman power consciously deployed as an imperial(ist) image. 

But what about the predicaments of fulfilling the desire to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque? In one sense, it is a mistake to fulfill a desire that was deliberately kept unfulfilled (therefore alive) for so long, as its productive effect will be lost forever. In another sense, it wouldn’t really matter since desire is metonymical. It will move on to another object; possibly the Taksim Mosque, whose opening ceremony will turn into another spectacle. But perhaps what matters is that the built objects of desire prevail. They do prevail and continue to mediate the making of politics. We can only hope that the Hagia Sophia, who is now detached from the conservative obsession that has held it captive for so long, will someday become the object of a desire for friendship and understanding.

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