Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire to convert Hagia Sophia, a landmark of Istanbul and Turkey’s most popular tourist attraction, into a mosque is a most high-profile endeavor on his part to re-Islamize the country.
Built as a cathedral in the sixth century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, converted into a mosque after the Muslim conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453, and transformed into a museum by the founding father of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in 1935, Hagia Sophia stands as a symbol of secularism in Turkey. Ataturk, who tried to de-Islamize and modernize Turkey, wanted it to be a museum to subdue Muslim fundamentalism.
Ataturk—literally, ‘father of the Turks’—was not just the father of the republic but also its maker. He was like Gandhi and Nehru rolled into one. Erdogan wants to undo all that Ataturk stood for—modernization, progress, de-Islamization. All that has enabled Turkey to emerge as a modern, democratic nation with a per capita income of around $27,000.
Hagia Sophia as a museum symbolizes Turkey’s tryst with secularism and modernity; as a mosque, Hagia Sophia will fuel jingoist-jihadist fantasies of the conquest of Christendom, identified with not just Europe but the entire West. It did so in the past: after his victory, Sultan Mehmed II immediately converted it into a mosque. Thus began Ottomon rule, which tyrannized the Christian peoples of eastern Europe for hundreds of years. It ended only when Ataturk took over the reins Turkey in his own hands. Erdogan wants to be the new caliph—or something like that.
Erdogan is the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which wants to assert Turkey’s Islamic identity. The party wraps up its Islamism in a nationalist cover. “Hagia Sophia is our geographical property. Those who conquered it by the sword also own the property rights,” the AKPs deputy chairman, Numan Kurtulmus, was quoted by a news organization. “Hagia Sophia is under our sovereignty.”
Erdogan echoed similar views in his meeting with the representatives of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey. He said, “You say to us: ‘Please don’t turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque.’ Do you mean Turkey should bow to your will? We await the decision of the Council of State. After that, the necessary steps will be taken.”
Erdogan justifies his party’s Islamization drive by saying that its instincts are akin to those of Christian Democratic parties in Germany. “We are Muslim Democrats” (https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/ataturks-legacy-debated-80-years-death-180527201132031.html).
But, Mr. Erdogan, Christian Democratic parties don’t convert mosques or museums into churches.