Turkey’s Hagia Sophia Decision: A Stone That Hits No Birds

By: Ahmet Erdi Öztürk

July 20, 2020

Hagia Sophia: From Museum to Mosque

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s single-party regime decided to convert the Hagia Sophia, which was converted into a museum in 1934 under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s one-party rule, for worship services, reinstating the structure’s mosque status. That the Hagia Sophia, whose reopening for worship services is planned for July 24—the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne—has regained this status is important for Turkey’s Islamists and conservative nationalists, similar to the recapture of the “Red Apple,” the unifying element of the two factions. Nevertheless, it is further proof, for Turkish liberals and leftists, of the abolished wealth of co-existence, secularism, and multiculturalism during the reign of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. A similar disintegration also occurred beyond Turkey’s borders after the decision. On the one hand, there is a plurality of Muslims articulating on social media that Erdoğan is a great leader aiming to fly high the flag of Islam. On the other, a group that includes Greece, Russia, the European Union, and the United States has met the decision with despair and condemnation. It would be useful in this context to underline that, while social media amplified the rejoicing, criticism was raised through diplomatic channels.

Beyond mere reactions to this distinction between East and West, Muslim and non-Muslim, it is important to debate the broader objectives of the decision in order to correct some misconceptions: How has this controversial decision targeted the Islamism-secularism division? What does the decision hope to accomplish in Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy? To what extent can these objectives be reached?

​The Final Trump Card to Stay in Power?

Erdoğan’s regime, having come to power on a comparatively reformist agenda in 2002, has both grown more authoritarian over the years and begun using religion more frequently in the political space. This accompanied Turkey’s departure from the Western world, in which it had positioned itself. Despite having altered the domestic landscape and shifted the political system to an à la Turca presidentialism, Erdoğan’s administration was unable to deliver on its promises of economic development for the nation. To the contrary, the economy, which has been deteriorating since summer 2018, and a strain of authoritarianism with unclear limitations have caused the rapid evaporation of the ruling party’s electoral support. In addition, Erdoğan is a part of an unofficial alliance with nationalists on one side, Islamists on another, and a faction of anti-West Kemalists known as Eurasianists on a third, though his party, on paper, is the sole party in power. The ruling bloc is implementing a harsh governance strategy that encompasses military strength in foreign policy and securitized practices in domestic politics. This has culminated in a prominent ongoing tension with which society has grown weary. This is also causing the administration to lose electoral support.

Under these gloomy circumstances, the Hagia Sophia decision exists at the intersection of interests for Islamists, anti-Western factions, and nationalists. A historical ambition of the Islamists has been materializing the provision of mosque status to the Hagia Sophia. The nationalists and Eurasianists are also pleased, revealing how sovereignty rights can be employed in spite of objections from foreign powers. The action of hitting two birds with one stone certainly aims to bolster the rapidly vanishing electoral support and to prevent departures from the coalition bloc to newly established political parties.

Here, it would be better to ask one big question: Could this situation trigger a permanent increase in the falling shares of votes? The answer to this question does not paint an optimistic picture for the ruling bloc. For instance, according to a survey that MetroPOLL Research Company conducted in June, only 46% of Turkish voters said they expected the Hagia Sophia to gain mosque status, suggesting that this situation will have little impact on voting behaviors. To be succinct, this decision will not lead to any outcomes apart from briefly altering discussions of current affairs and being used for a short while as a discourse of ethnicity and religion. 

​A Response to the Rest of the World?

Though the Hagia Sophia occupies no directly sacred position for any religion, it is incontrovertible that it bears historical importance, particularly for the Orthodox Christian world and as a cultural monument of world heritage. It is also symbolically important for the Muslim world, identifiable with the conquering of Constantinople (thereafter Istanbul). Nevertheless, the extent to which this will be a determinant for the current foreign policies of Turkey, the region, and the world remains a mystery. This situation undoubtedly will provoke the reactions of conservative and nationalist Orthodox Christians around the world—especially in Greece and Russia—and will trigger a more pejorative dimension in perceptions of Turkey. But this was already the case around the world because of Turkey’s aggressive and reactive foreign policy choices. Nevertheless, Turkey’s decision will not directly impact its relations with the countries with whom it has periodically fostered collaboration or incited contention, places such as Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

Another notable point is that Turkey is presently engaged in a battle over who will rise to the position of leader of the global ummah with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran, in a manner that is fundamentally normative and has substantially strayed from reality. Some analysts claim that Turkey has leapt ahead in this struggle, but it is difficult to expect any provision of this in real life. For a globalized and diversified Muslim world, such a maneuver could only constitute propaganda material to sway domestic public opinions.

However, there is a crystalized situation in which recent developments will noticeably strike down the claim that Turkey is an Islamic soft power, a status which it has crafted since the late-twentieth century. Presently, the Hagia Sophia decision has triggered the clarification of this situation, though this image may be controversial because religion is frequently wielded in domestic politics and Erdoğan is outwardly expressing his aggressive authoritarianism.

​The End of a Multicultural, Secular Turkey?

Allegations were lobbed after the decision that this was a step taken towards a reckoning with Kemalist Turkey and that the end of a multicultural, secular Turkey had officially come. This is, no doubt, one instance of revenge these Islamists seized from the Kemalist system. But we must not forget that Erdoğan’s administration has enacted substantial changes in the state reasoning and identity and has realized a degree of societal transformation during the 20 years it has remained in power. This type of revanchist discourse will find use purely for the purpose of propaganda, because even greater changes have already been achieved.

The issue of secularism and multiculturalism is a more intricate matter. Turkish secularism, much unlike other examples, relies on the state control of religious spaces based on a single type of belief. The statuses of mosques, Alevi cem houses, and other places of worship are dependent on decisions the state makes in line with its own interests, and this is dubbed a form of Turkish secularism. These present circumstances are now no different to this, at least methodologically. This is also applicable for Turkey’s multicultural structure. It is imperative that we discuss on a deeper level what exactly multiculturalism means in Turkey, a rigid nation-state that has throughout its history experienced the September 6–7 events; maintained extensive practices of Turkification and guided its citizens towards Turkish Sunni Islam; and has restricted the native language rights of its people, particularly the Kurds.

When we consider these points, we see the state as the practice a dominant regime, which has endured through its institutions and weaponized religion and nationalism in order to ensure its longevity. But it is not evident that this practice, apart explaining pejorative comments and a certain amount of temporary support, has delivered any benefit for Turkey or for the ruling bloc that presently governs it. Nevertheless, we can understand in discussions of contemporary Turkish society that there is no going back from Turkey’s Hagia Sophia decision.

Opens in a new window