On 10 July, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan issued a decree reconverting the Hagia Sophia Museum to a mosque, thus realizing a long-cherished dream of conservative currents in Turkish society. Originally built as a cathedral by the Romans, the Hagia Sophia functioned as Istanbul’s main mosque of throughout the Ottoman era. Its conversion into a museum in 1934 was one of a series of moves intended to distance Kemal Atatürk’s new secular republic from the Islamic heritage of the defunct Ottoman Empire – and became a totem of conservative resentment towards the Kemalist regime. Reconversion should therefore be considered a significant symbolic achievement for the conservative side and a settling of scores with the early republican period. Erdoğan is also seeking political gain by treating this issue as an identity battle between conservatives and secularists.
According to a poll conducted in June, a majority of the Turkish population regards the Hagia Sophia controversy as an attempt by the government to divert attention from economic problems and reverse its declining support. Only 30 percent said they felt it was really just about a change of use from museum to mosque. This means that even among supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ultranationalist junior partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), significant numbers consider the move to be more tactical than ideological – even if they ultimately agree with the outcome.
Erdoğan’s earlier statements also suggest that this is a tactical move. During local election campaigning in 2019, he responded angrily to a crowd that raised the topic of Hagia Sophia, pointing out that the adjacent Sultan Ahmad Mosque (Blue Mosque) is almost always empty during prayer times. He told his audience that he would consider reconverting the Hagia Sophia if they first filled the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Given that this was consistent with previous remarks and little has changed since the exchange, political expediency now seems to have outweighed religious or ideological considerations. Erdoğan expects reconversion to produce three political benefits.
The first benefit is to energize the more conservative segments of his power base by meeting one of their longstanding symbolic demands, in particular in light of the emergence of two splinter parties from the AKP with potential to appeal to this electorate. The prominence of the controversy suggests he has succeeded in this. The second benefit would be to distract the public from the country’s serious socioeconomic problems. Where the unemployment rate – including those who have given up seeking work – has reached 24.6 percent, the government would like to talk about anything but the economy. Here, Erdoğan has gained relief, but probably not to the extent he hoped.
The third and most important benefit would be to establish yet another identity battle between conservatives and secularists. This is the arena where Erdoğan feels most secure, and the Hagia Sophia issue appeared ideally suited for the AKP’s identity wars. Its symbolism is multi-layered. First of all, a fight over mosque versus museum slots easily into a religion/modernity binary. It can also be used to create an Islam/Christianity binary as Hagia Sophia was originally built as a church and functioned as such for nine centuries until the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. Secondly, it awakens historical allusions and underlines the real or perceived dichotomy between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic. Reversing a decision taken by Atatürk also inflames existing debates over the early republican reforms. Finally, the move is also expected to provoke adverse international reactions, thus offering a perfect opportunity for Erdoğan to breathe new life into his narrative of Turkey encircled by enemies, with Western powers subverting its sovereignty.
Domestically Erdoğan would expect the reconversion to provoke uproar among secularist circles and lead the secularist People’s Republican Party (CHP) in particular to condemn the decision and mobilize public opposition. This would create another opportunity for him to stir the “culture wars”. In fact, however, the CHP and most of the other opposition parties avoided this ploy and either supported the reconversion or remained neutral. This approach is in line with the new strategy of CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has been careful to avoid such traps in recent years. While he has received much criticism from his party base – especially the secularist intelligentsia – for his calculated lack of interest in cultural conflicts, Kılıçdaroğlu seems to have been successful in preventing Erdoğan from picking his fights.
In light of the lack of domestic push-back, Erdoğan will focus on international condemnation to fan the flames of identity conflicts, presenting these reactions as interference in Turkey’s internal affairs – if not outright Islamophobia. Given that certain European countries have their own problems with accommodating Muslim places of worship, European criticisms can easily be framed as hypocritical and anti-Islamic. In that sense, Hagia Sophia is the perfect fight for Erdoğan: it is symbolic, emotionally charged, politically polarizing, and consolidates political camps. And all this is achieved with scant real-life consequences. European policymakers should follow the example set by the opposition parties in Turkey and deny Erdoğan the trivial rhetorical fights he clearly seeks.
This text has also been published at fairobserver.com.