If the reference for the justification of turning the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque is to “the bounty of the conquest” and “the right of the sword,” then the truly devout person should ask this: “Can a house that has been seized be the house of Allah?”
But this question will not be asked. Those who dare to ask this question will not be welcomed even in Kemalist circles, let alone religious ones — even though everything is revolving around openly taking revenge against the founders of the Turkish republic.
The opening of the Hagia Sophia to worshippers and mass prayer was one of the dreams of Turkish idealism and Islamism since the ‘50s and ‘60s. Erdoğan and his friends come from a school where the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum is considered a “betrayal to Islam” and the “oppression of Muslims.” Ending the mourning of the Hagia Sophia and going down in history as the “Second Conqueror” was something passed down within the group and heralded as glorious.
All types of Islamist, conservative and sectarian communities and organizations, from the Association to Fight Communism (Komünizmle Mücadele Derneği) and the National Turkish Students Union (Milli Türk Talebe Birliği), to the series of political Islamists that have emerged due to the Milli Görüş (National Vision) and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), have been using the Hagia Sophia for decades in their talks, conversations, sermons and rallies. This is a dynamic desire to settle accounts. Unsurprisingly, there is a vengeful background to the decision. The fact that the first prayers are scheduled on July 24 is another symbolism in the showdown, coinciding with the anniversary of the Lausanne Peace Treaty.
It is difficult to estimate the response to the decision by the wider masses, but in certain segments, Erdoğan will be carried to a place where he will be loudly applauded. Of course, the fact that the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has accepted the situation may dishearten Erdoğan’s pleasure in enjoying his victory to the fullest. Anyway, it is not up to me to write about the brain death in the CHP. The approach of “not providing a trump card for Erdoğan” is a political trap the opposition has confined itself within.
Leaving aside the background of the Hagia Sophia struggle, “conquest” as a metaphor is a guise of religious legitimacy for building an empire. Current political motives are also very important in turning this into a recurring discourse and practice centuries later. The change of regime in Turkey and the efforts by Erdoğan to make his reign permanent have not created the desired reputation and legitimacy domestically or internationally.
Tantrums and slips caused by this are here to stay. For the new regime to settle, there is a need for “the past to be turned into the fuel of the present,” and this need continues.
What is being attributed to this move is huge. However, Erdoğan refrained from taking this step when he was at the height of his reign. When related demands reached him while he felt most assured of himself, he put some distance, saying, “I have not lost my direction in this game.” The rematch came at a time when the economy was choking, when the treasury was out of money, when threats and blackmail became the main tools in foreign relations, when isolation grew and new parties made cracks in the AKP base, and when the unsatisfied voter went into the waiting room. This decision is perceived as a show of strength toward the domestic and international public, but this does not conceal the need for collecting strength.
In fact, I used to think the Hagia Sophia was the trump card that would be kept until the very end — for a twilight period. There is a provocative deviation between the circumstances that made Erdoğan think opening Hagia Sophia was a game and the circumstances that made him sign the July 10 decision. Hagia Sophia was the dream of Erdoğan’s youth, but it was also a factor he took into consideration in his relations with the West. Erdoğan expressed this sensitivity through his fear of the possibility of mosques being closed in the Christian world. Of course, he knows that there will not be a response to these types of calls to go back to the Middle Ages. However, recently, there must have been a breaking point in Erdoğan’s mind. Besides the return of hostility with Greece, the EU lifted travel bans due to the pandemic with 15 countries, but excluding Turkey. He sent Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to Berlin in vain. Merkel did not provide any hope for Erdoğan — a huge disappointment while waiting for tourists during a foreign currency shortage. There is also a domestic bottleneck. There is disengagement with the West. And, as a golden shot, the Hagia Sophia, a move that took advantage of a low point of a disunited Europe.
A leader who has made the threat of Islamophobia a main theme in his contacts with Western leaders and in political rallies, has, for some time, in his rhetoric and actions, become the source that nourishes hostility to Islam.
The Hagia Sophia may not turn into a visible burden in interstate relations, but it will be a destructive factor in horizontal relations and interreligious hostility. The pain that struck the hearts of the Orthodox can clearly be seen from the reactions coming from Greece and Russia. The Patriarch of Moscow described the move as a blow to Orthodox Christianity. He reminded that what St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome means to Catholics, the Hagia Sophia means to the Orthodox world. Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of Catholics, said “I think of the Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened.” His words will be reflected on several levels. The World Council of Churches, which counts 350 churches as members, has called on Erdoğan to reverse his decision. Even though Erdoğan’s political life is full of positions open to negotiations, after this moment, he will most probably not answer this call.
This course of events has a side that involves the future of Turkey. Now, everyone is pondering what is next in order to consolidate the Islamist-conservative-nationalist base. Will they start with the Istanbul Convention and continue with amendments to civil law? They are almost there.
Could it be that Erdoğan declares himself the “Caliph” through a symbolic formula? The image of a president reading the Quran from start to finish in the month of Ramadan is now followed by the wish about the first president to lead prayers at the Hagia Sophia. Isn’t this building up, step by step, an undeclared bid to be a caliph?
Or maybe, it is the adding of an article to the constitution that says, “Laws cannot be contrary to sharia (Islamic Law),” like in Egypt?
We are living in a time in which those who say “No, this cannot happen. This is too much,” are mistaken over and over again.
As Erdoğan said in 2019, Istanbul does not need an additional mosque. However, Turkey needs, in terms of forming healthy relations with history, civilization, the outside world and those it has marginalized within its own society, to protect the Hagia Sophia as a shared value of humanity. The governing style of this land is one that makes historic animosities preferred topics for politics and has no problem convincing the masses through their use. This governing style is based on, under all circumstances, the dominance of the majority, on this land where much of its diversity has been eradicated. The opposition also is not one millimeter outside this toxicity.
This step involving the Hagia Sophia has totally destroyed the deception that Turkey has preserved its multi-religious, multicultural and multi-identity features as a country. Since we have passed the expiry date of lies, what is next now? Is there another topic of victimization left?
While I’m writing, several words are passing through my mind, words that sound empty in the abstract world of Islam. These are the words that are related to the real agenda of the country: corruption, pillage, squander, lies, slander, massacre, torture, cruelty, injustice, unlawfulness, deceit, inequity, poverty, unemployment, desperation, suicide, femicide, work accidents, hostility against nature, hostility against humanity, hostility toward history and civilization that I cannot link to Islam…
For the person who prays, if these words do not make sense at all, then considering the Hagia Sophia to be a masjid does not make sense at all either.