Hagia Sophia and Turkish Anxiety to Lead the Muslim World

By: Ihsan Yilmaz

July 27, 2020

Hagia Sophia: From Museum to Mosque

The founding fathers of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the Kemalists, had insecurities, anxieties, and fears vis-à-vis the West. They had deep suspicion of the European great powers’ perceptions of and intentions with Turkey. The Kemalists feared that, much as they tried at the end of the World War I with the Sevres Treaty, the Western governments wanted to decimate Turkey and, if possible, send the Turks back to where they came from, Central Asia. This fundamental fear has been dubbed as the Sevres Syndrome. On the other hand, the Kemalists were Westernists. They had a deep desire to be part of Western civilization. This was what I call “ambivalent Westernism.”

When Atatürk converted the Hagia Sophia to a museum, he wanted to give the message that Turks are self-confident, tolerant, and civilized—not semi-civilized or barbarians as frequently depicted in the West, which has resulted in the ontological insecurity of Turkey. With this action he wanted to decisively show that Turkey desired to be part of Western civilization despite this ambivalence.

The primary reason that Erdoğan re-converted the Hagia Sophia into mosque is the fact that he is a very committed Islamist. Atatürk’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a museum was one of the most profound traumas the Islamists have ever experienced. It was the agonizing symbol of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and end of the caliphate, the beginning of when the Islamists considered themselves as a “pariah in their own homeland.” This extremely powerful emotional status, victimhood mentality, and accompanying anti-Kemalist and anti-Western resentment together with a desire of revanchism can never be emphasized enough. 

Almost all of the Islamists consistently dreamed about opening Hagia Sophia as a mosque again. And Erdoğan has done it. A nephew of Erdoğan reported that his uncle told him that he was so shaken with emotion that he did not sleep until first light the next morning.

This move will also guarantee his continuing monopolistic control over the Islamist groups in Turkey, who are the backbone of his party’s mobilizational ability. They are also his most loyal men, who now hold strategic positions in the bureaucracy, media, Islamist foundations, and the big businesses. Without them, Erdoğan cannot control Turkey. And he never trusts non-Islamists. Competition coming from the new Islamist parties (Gelecek Party of Ahmet Davutoğlu and DEVA Party of Ali Babacan) has been stopped, at least for now. Also, a strong reaction from the West will embolden his declining popularity and votes because the overwhelming majority of the Turks are Turkish nationalists, and nowadays they have very strong anti-Western sentiments. 

However, the international dimension is equally important too. Until 2010, the AKP needed the support of the West against Kemalist dominance. But after the referendum, it has gradually moved toward value-free transactionalist relations with the West and toward also civilizational competition. Unlike the Kemalists, the AKP does not believe that Turkey belongs to Western civilization. 

Erdoğanists also have insecurities, anxieties, and fears about the West, which are deeper than the Kemalists’ emotions and collective memories. Unlike the Kemalists, the Erdoğanists also have a deep nostalgia about the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate, and they blame the West for the collapse of these two. Moreover, they see the Kemalist elite as well as the wider secular sections of society (the White Turks) as agents and pawns of the Western powers. Unlike the Kemalists they are not ambivalent about the West; they are unequivocally anti-Western. And for some time, the AKP has not cared about interreligious dialogue, seeing it as a Gülenist endeavor.

When the Gezi protests started in mid-2013, Erdogan was afraid that the Kemalists and their Western collaborators were trying to topple him like his brother, Mohamed Morsi of Egypt. He suppressed the peaceful protests with bloody violence and started openly blaming the United States, the European Union, the Jewish lobby, and so on for conspiring against Turkey and using its pawns, the White Turks and the Gülenists. This was the turning point from civilizational competition to confrontational civilizationism. In this Islamist populist imagination, the evil elite has international collaborators (the West) in devising conspiracies against the pure, native, and national people of Turkey represented by Erdoğan. This narrative also constructs him as the leader of “New Turkey” and leader of the Muslim world.

The New Turkey construction emphasizes a fully independent, powerful Turkey that is a leading global power. It is comprised of three factors: native democracy (rule by strongmen who are the embodiment of the national will), development, and independence. Independence means being unshackled from Western domination. This narrative reflects the insecurities and anxieties of Turks since the late-Ottoman times. These anxieties and fears have been fortified with Islamist anti-Western and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which argue that Turkey’s rise and leadership of the ummah disturbs the West. Accordingly, the West constantly conspires against Turkey to stop and destroy it. 

Thus, when Erdoğan reconverted the museum into mosque, he underlined the independence of Turkey from the West, its sovereignty, and its ability to stand up to the West while almost none of the other Muslim nation-states can do so. Erdoğan highlighted his claim to leadership of the Muslim world once more in a soft power move.

Erdoğan may have also calculated that a strong verbal reaction to this decision will not harm Turkey’s fragile economy but will boost his image as the leader of the Muslim world among Muslim audiences from Los Angeles to Jakarta, from Pakistan to South Africa. As a matter of fact, when announcing the decision, Erdoğan did not hide his pan-Islamist ambitions: “the resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the harbinger of the liberation of Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the footstep of the will of the Muslims from all over the world to get out of the interregnum.”

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