Revenge of the Hagia Sophia

Ankara wants to play the “Leader of the Muslim world card” — but there is more to Hagia Sophia’s conversion than just that. Just like the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “West Bank annexation” policy, Ankara banks on the strategy of “creating an international problem to overshadow debating domestic grievances and making national politics dependent on the existing government through isolation” strategy.

Had the title of this column belonged to a thriller, it might have made an alluring summer read. But, in 2020’s Turkey, this title is in the non-fiction section. Overnight, the museum status of Hagia Sophia was revoked and Turkey’s Council of State ruled that the Hagia Sophia will be used only as a “mosque.” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan subsequently announced that the first Muslim prayers to hail the new status of Hagia Sophia. will be held on July 24.

Symbolism lurks over that choice of date: July 24 is the anniversary of the signing of the Lausanne Treaty — the treaty that determined, more or less, the current borders of the Republic of Turkey. 

The government-friendly Daily Sabah announced the “conversion” of Hagia Sophia as follows:

“On July 24, the Hagia Sophia museum, a Byzantine landmark which was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, will be reopened as a mosque on the 97th anniversary of the treaty between Turkey and world powers,” read the article from the Daily Sabah. “‘It is about our sovereignty rights,’ Erdoğan said in his speech on Friday evening as some countries rushed to criticize Turkey for the decision.”

Back in 2016, President Erdoğan abruptly criticized the Lausanne Treaty in one of his regular meetings with elected neighborhood representatives (muhtar). He said:

“They presented us with the Sèvres [Treaty] in 1920, and made us agree to the Lausanne [Treaty] in 1923. Some tried to make us chisel Lausanne as a victory. We gave off the islands so nearby even a shout would be heard as a result of Lausanne. What makes up the continental shelf, what will happen up in the air, what will happen on land — we are still struggling with this. This is because of those who were at the negotiation table during that agreement. Those who were sitting at that table could not make it right. Now we are experiencing trouble because they could not manage it. I have a hunch that if the coup (July 15, 2016) were successful, they would come up with an agreement that would make us long for even Sèvres.”

His criticism was directed at the founding fathers of the Turkish Republic. It specifically targeted İsmet İnönü, but also Mustafa Kemal Atatürk indirectly, as he designated İnönü with the task of chief negotiator at Lausanne. 

Ironically, İnönü, who was in fact a devout Muslim who slept with the Quran by his bedside, is cast as the main historical villain by the Turkish Islamists. He was perhaps found to be a softer target as compared to Atatürk. For Islamists, inter alia, İnönü is the malevolent culprit behind the loss of 2.5 million square meters of land that belonged to the Ottoman Empire due to the Lausanne Treaty. That area included Egypt, Libya, Syria, Palestine, the Greek islands of the Aegean, Mosul and the Balkans. 

There was no way for the Ottoman Empire to have been preserved or those lands to have been “Turkish” — but historical revisionism, by nature, rests on illusions. 

Similar illusions are not shared by Turkey’s public, though: According to MetroPOLL’s June 2020 data, a majority of around 44% of the population believes that the government brought forward the debates on the Hagia Sophia’s status in order to divert attention from the ongoing economic crisis in Turkey. Moreover, an additional almost 12% thought that the Hagia Sophia issue became an item on the news agenda to produce an argument that the government thinks will be useful prior to possible early elections. 

The public’s view on the Hagia Sophia’s status was mixed: 46% supported its conversion into a mosque, and 44% thought it should remain as a museum. Meanwhile, 10% had “no idea.” While the public was divided almost evenly in its views, let us also consider that the opposition from all sides of the spectrum shied away from engaging in a clash of cultural and ideological tug of war with Erdoğan over the Hagia Sophia matter and supported its conversion into a mosque. Hence, had the opposition produced a viable counter-argument pointing out the real issue underlying the Hagia Sophia controversy, i.e. to distract from economic troubles (in other words, if they had advocated what the public already agrees upon), the public opinion may have swayed even further towards the “keep as a museum” side. 

Mind you that according to MetroPOLL’s data, even the majority of nationalists who voted for the Nationalist Action Party and İYİ Party did not support the conversion — it was only the 70% of the ruling AK Party voters who backed the move. And the majority of the public (around 70%) affirmed that their views of the government would either not be affected at all or would be negatively affected by the Hagia Sophia’s conversion. 

An “anti-Western” policy

Evidently, Ankara wants to play the “Leader of the Muslim world card” — but there is more to Hagia Sophia’s conversion than just that. Just like the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “West Bank annexation” policy, Ankara banks on the strategy of “creating an international problem to overshadow debating domestic grievances and making national politics dependent on the existing government through isolation” strategy. Moreover, Ankara’s power circles do really believe that “the West is declining” and such policies heralding the “ascendancy of the East” will cast Turkey as a bastion of rising power — so, Hagia Sophia is beyond Islamist policies. Rather than an Islamist move, we may better define the conversion of the Hagia Sophia as a policy of countering the West.

This is why the “revenge of the Hagia Sophia” is an apt definition of this policy.

Naturally, the biggest toll of this “revenge” will concern the highly-strained relations between Greece and Turkey. Greek policymakers and the public did not really think that Ankara would actually convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, let alone on the anniversary of the Lausanne. So, there has been a shock indeed. 

“Turkey” would already be at the center stage due to the agenda of the European Union's Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) meeting taking place on Monday, July 13. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell reaffirmed this upon his arrival for the meeting in Brussels, but had the Hagia Sophia conversion not happened, debates over Turkey would have been somewhat sugar-coated. After Borrell’s visit to Ankara, there seemed to be a window of opportunity for the initiation of talks between Turkey and Greece over resolving tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Borrell stated that “Our relations with Turkey are not particularly good at this time," and added that he expected "an interesting discussion.” 

Borrell’s reference to “interesting” must have been shaped by his tense sidelines conversations at the beginning of the FAC meeting with the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and his Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides. Prior to the FAC meeting, Dendias said Greece would ask the EU to prepare a list of “very powerful measures” against Turkey.

With Borrell’s “EastMed negotiation table” mission and the prospect of gathering Ankara, Athens and Nicosia collapsing, the EU Commission and the EU Council President Germany will have to walk a tightrope and reconsider alternative approaches to Turkey. France was already throwing its weight behind tighter stances against Ankara, demanding a discussion within the European Union regarding relations with Turkey “with nothing ruled out” after tensions flared over the Libya conflict.

As can be recalled, back on July 9, the European Parliament held the debate titled “Stability and Security in the Mediterranean and the negative role of Turkey.” There were calls for a complete end to accessions talks with Turkey, and arguments that Turkey should no longer receive payments from the EU budget as part of pre-accession support.

September 29, 2021 A post-Merkel Turkey