Hagia Sophia, Islamism, and Secularism in Turkey

By: Ahmet Kuru

July 17, 2020

Hagia Sophia: From Museum to Mosque

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque after its 80-year museum status. For many Erdoğan supporters, Hagia Sophia is becoming more than a mosque; it is becoming the symbol of Turkey’s re-Islamization or the counter-revolution against the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Starting with the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and other cities in June 2013, Erdoğan lost the hope of receiving the votes of secularist segments of society. Hence, he has increasingly used a populist Islamist discourse to energize his religiously conservative constituency and his new nationalist allies. Since the July 2016 failed coup attempt, Erdoğan has also succeeded in making all state actors—including military generals, judges, and university administrators—embrace a populist Islamist discourse. Consequently, the official Twitter accounts of major public universities, such as Istanbul University and Istanbul Technical University, celebrated the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. 

The conversion of Hagia Sophia has different meanings for Turkey’s already marginalized Christian citizens. It was always challenging to be a non-Muslim in Turkey. Yet recently the secular nature of the state has further diminished, which has made conditions for Christian citizens even more difficult. Turkey has experienced a sociopolitical Islamization as indicated by the increasing public influence of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which controls over 85,000 mosques, and the expansion of public Islamic imam-hatip schools, which now teach 14% of secondary and high school students in Turkey. Under these circumstances, the conversion of Hagia Sophia once again reminds Christian and other non-Muslim citizens of their complicated status.

Another worrisome aspect of Hagia Sophia’s conversion is its implications in world politics. Populist conservative leaders are now effective at the global level, as seen in the examples of Donald Trump of America and Narendra Modi of India. Turkey’s Hagia Sophia decision provides these leaders with an opportunity to mobilize their religiously conservative bases against the Muslim minority at home, as well as against Islam as a geopolitical rival. At a time when Muslim minorities—such as the Palestinians, Chechens of Russia, Kashmiris of India, Rohingya of Myanmar, and Uighurs of China—face persecution, it would be wise for Turkey and other leading Muslim-majority countries to promote interreligious dialogue, multicultural coexistence, and minority rights, rather than provoking interreligious tensions.

Defenders of Erdoğan’s Hagia Sophia decision refer to a large number of mosques that were either converted to churches or destroyed in Spain, the Balkans, and Crimea over the centuries. These historical misconducts definitely occurred, but instead of focusing on them, it is more fruitful to concentrate on avoiding future tragedies. Otherwise, the reciprocal conversions of mosques to churches and churches to mosques may continue.

In Turkey, the Hagia Sophia debate has energized the polarization between the supporters of Erdoğan and those of Atatürk. The latter claimed that Atatürk’s decision to make Hagia Sophia a museum reflected a great vision. In fact, despite their ideological differences, the leadership styles of Erdoğan and Atatürk are much more similar than their followers admit. Both Atatürk’s and Erdoğan’s Hagia Sophia decisions were products of one-man rule. Neither was discussed in the public sphere, or even in parliament. Moreover, Atatürk’s decision mostly erased the Ottomans’ six-century-long artistic legacy in Hagia Sophia’s inner design. It is now impossible to bring back those historical values. Additionally, the museum decision was part of top-down secularization reforms. For these reasons, the decision created a trauma among conservative segments of society, who today fully support Erdoğan’s “counter-revolution.”

My 2009 book, Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey, was critical of secularism in Turkey by defining it as “French-type” and “assertive” (in terms of excluding religion from the public sphere). I recommended for Turkey a transformation toward “American-type” and “passive” secularism (allowing public visibility of religion). Turkey did transform, but from assertive secularism to populist Islamism. It still has a secular constitution and secular laws, but Islamist discourses have dominated Turkish public life.

Nonetheless, there are still reasons to be optimistic about the future of secularism in Turkey. The recent rise of populist Islamism depends on conservative Muslims’ reaction to old assertive secularism, as well the global trend of populist conservatism. Once this domestic reaction and the current global trend weaken, populist Islamism may decline in Turkey. The Erdoğan regime is a one-man rule that lacks a consistent ideology for a long-lasting Islamist domination. Furthermore, this populist Islamist regime is now creating a reaction: a secularist new generation. I hope this new generation will embrace moderate, passive secularism instead of adopting assertive secularism as a reaction to Erdoğan. By avoiding the extremes of both Islamism and secularism, Turkey can truly uphold the first-class status of its non-Muslim citizens and make positive contributions to alleviate religious tensions worldwide.

Opens in a new window