Ramazan Kılınç is associate professor of political science and director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is the author of Alien Citizens: State and Religious Minorities in Turkey and France (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and a co-author of Generating Generosity in Catholicism and Islam: Beliefs, Institutions and Public Goods Provision (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s move to (re)convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque created two responses from American Muslims. Figures such as Sayyid M. Syeed, president of the Islamic Society North America, found the move un-Islamic and counterproductive to Muslim interests globally. Muslim leaders such as Yasir Qadhi defended the move and provided justifications in Islamic jurisprudence for the conversion. I will focus on the political implications of Hagia Sophia’s reconversion into a mosque for global Muslims. Hagia Sophia’s (re)conversion is detrimental to Muslims on three grounds.
Detrimental to the Turkey Brand
The move undermines Islam’s legacy of tolerance toward minorities. During summer 2014 and 2015, I taught a study abroad course in which I took 26 students from Nebraska to Turkey. My students considered the visit to Hagia Sophia as one of the highlights of the course. They were impressed with the imprint of both Christian and Muslim history on the iconic structure. Perhaps because of this, I chose a picture of Hagia Sophia as the cover of my book in which I discussed the status of Christians in Turkey and Muslims in France.
Although Mehmed II, in line with the norms of his time, converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque after the conquest in 1453, he provided religious minorities with strong protections as compared to his contemporaries. His son, Bayezid II, welcomed the Jews who escaped from Spain after the Reconquista. For so long, Istanbul manifested itself as a tolerant metropolis where Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexisted peacefully. Erdoğan frequently referred to Istanbul's multicultural legacies in international forums.
Muslims contributed to the city with great architectural works. Only a few hundred feet away from Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, a jewel of Ottoman architecture, stands. A mile away from Hagia Sophia, one can lose herself with the beauty of the Süleymaniye Mosque. Converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque will not add much to exhibit Ottoman heritage. It will damage the multicultural legacies of the past and showcase past conflict.
The Hagia Sophia decision will fuel Islamophobia across the world and put Muslim minorities at risk. The root causes of Islamophobia are based on stereotypes, and the Muslim actions will not end it. However, Erdoğan’s move will offer another opportunity to those political entrepreneurs who capitalize on anti-Muslim discourse.
Yasir Qadhi argues that Hagia Sophia’s conversion is not detrimental to Muslims living in the West because they live under secular constitutions that guarantee their religious freedoms. He writes, “We are asking America to live up to its own standards, and we state clearly and unabashedly that Muslim-majority lands should live up to their standards, based on the Quran and Sunnah,” which, for Qadhi, allows the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Qadhi’s statement is not only morally unacceptable but also factually incorrect.
First, it is immoral to defend equality in the United States and inequality in the Muslim world. Even if we accept Qadhi’s theological reasoning for the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, that it is permissible does not mean that it is compulsory, wise, or moral. Leaders should choose to act morally when there is room to do so. This is especially so because the conversion of places of worship is an unsettled issue in Islamic law, as Mustafa Akyol surveys in his recent New York Times piece.
Second, the majority of Muslim minorities do not live in democratic Western countries, and living in a secular democracy in itself is not sufficient for protection. To repress Muslim minorities, oppressors around the world can employ Turkey’s sovereignty argument to change the status of Hagia Sophia. Millions of Muslims are being persecuted in China. The rise of Hindu nationalism puts both Indian democracy and almost 200 million Muslims under threat of survival.
Public opinion matters in established democracies. As a report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding demonstrates, legal limitations do not prevent Muslims from opening new mosques in the United States but societal resistance makes it difficult. The recent anti-Muslim policies in France are a good reminder that Muslim minorities are not secure even in secular democracies.
The Rise of Religious Nationalism and the Decline of Religion
Finally, Erdoğan’s move contributes to religious nationalism that relegates religion into an ideology and detracts it from being a moral compass. Religious nationalism forms its identity against other religions or against secular nationalism. In the Turkish case, Islamists positioned themselves mainly against Kemalism, Turkey’s founding ideology of secular nationalism. Anti-Westernism is also a constituting element of Turkish Islamism since the West is considered as complicit in Turkey’s top-down secularization process.
A motivation for Erdoğan to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque is to reverse Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s decision to convert it from a mosque to a museum in 1934. Islamists considered Atatürk’s decision as part of an orchestrated campaign to cleanse Islam from people’s minds. However, Erdoğan’s revanchist move intensifies domestic and global tensions around religion.
Further, when Islamists use religion to mobilize popular support, they undermine religion in the long run. This is particularly the case when leaders employ religious feelings of the masses to mitigate criticism of their economic and political failures. Erdoğan used the Hagia Sophia issue to boost his popularity at a time when the Turkish economy was slowing down and when there were splintering conservative parties to challenge him.
The use of religion in political contestations creates a backlash against not only those who use religion but the religion itself. Religiosity is decreasing among Turkish youth under the Islamist government. An “Islamist” government that is associated with corruption and injustice led to “the decline of piety among certain segments of Turkish society,” as Ahmet Kuru wrote in this forum. This trend, what Mucahit Bilici calls “The Crisis of Religiosity in Turkish Islamism,” is typical in other contexts such as Iran and Sudan in which religion is politicized to justify government policies.
In short, the decision to (re)convert Hagia Sophia to a mosque will damage the tolerant Muslim legacies of coexistence, fuel Islamophobia, and contribute to the rise of religious nationalism that undermines religion in the long run.