The decision to open Hagia Sophia for Muslim worship caused reactions from the West and especially from the Christian community, which was exactly what President Erdoğan was hoping for. Erdoğan, with the support of his ally Devlet Bahçeli, came up with yet another hot topic that allows him to scorn the West, and which will boost his popularity among pious and nationalist voters. 

But will it? 

According to Metropoll’s “Turkey’s Pulse” results for June 2020, 44% of people believed that the debate to reopen Hagia Sophia for worship was raised in order to prevent discussion regarding the country’s economic crisis. 11% believed that the government would use the Hagia Sophia decision for a potential snap election. 

Meanwhile, another poll published in July showed that while support for Erdoğan stood at around 52%, his party was losing ground. Had there been an election in June 2020, the AKP would have gotten 30.3% of the votes, maintaining its majority though at a record low. 

It remains unclear whether or not there will be a snap election. President Erdoğan needs to ensure he stays in power. Every step he and his allies took showed that there is no rule or boundary constraining them. After all, Erdoğan’s famous motto is: “There is no stopping, we’ll continue on our quest.”

Hagia Sophia appears to be a significant step in that quest. It sends a message to both Muslim and Christian communities. But Erdoğan’s quest is not purely religious; it has a fiercely neoliberal dimension.  

One recent and striking example of this was Hasankeyf, an ancient site located in eastern Turkey. It could also be a shrine for Muslims, because Hasankeyf has been known as the place from which Muslims first entered Anatolia. Recently, it was sunk under water following the completion of the Ilısu Dam. And the world ignored it while it was being built, for 12 years. 

The New York Times recently published an article which told part of the Hasankeyf story with tragically beautiful pictures. The article stated: “In his push for economic development, Turkey’s president has flooded the archaeological gem of Hasankeyf and displaced thousands of families.” That’s correct. Yet when the dam was being built, Erdoğan was not yet regarded as an authoritarian leader. 

In fact, the dam project dates back to 1954, when Erdoğan was born. However, no Turkish government was able to start its construction. In 2006, when Erdoğan was still hailed as a “democratic hero fighting Turkey’s Kemalist elites”, with the West’s total support, he kick-started the dam project. 

Both local and international organizations campaigned to protect the ancient valley. Some European investors withdrew financing as a result of it. But that was it. 

As construction slowly started, local banks could not resist Erdoğan’s wishes and nobody paid attention to Hasankeyf. The AKP twisted and turned legislations for their own gain and went on with the construction for years.  

Hasankeyf was a world gem, meeting 9 out of 10 criteria to belong to UNESCO’s World Heritage. Archaeological findings of the first human traces dated back to hundreds of years. A case was brought to the European Court of Human Rights to save it. But as stated in the NYT, it was lost because “none of the plaintiffs were residents of Hasankeyf.” 

Destroying ancient sites with bombs is shocking and caused great reaction, as it did in the Syrian war. But if one uses the “economic development” card and carries on with the destruction at a slow pace, it does not seem to be a problem. 

Hasankeyf’s loss is irreversible. Hagia Sophia’s frescos are to be hidden for Muslims to pray. 

The quest continues, but how far will it go?