Deconstructing a Homage to Secularity: A Reflection of Turkey’s Changing Political Identity

After 85 years as a secular museum, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decreed the 1,500 year old Hagia Sophia will return to its former use as a Mosque. Hagia Sophia represents Turkey’s varied history; for a thousand years, the dome covered the largest indoor space in the world and remains a focal point of the Istanbul skyline.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of a grand cathedral in 537 CE. Remains of one of the two previous cathedrals which were destroyed during riots, such as the 532 Nika Revolt, remain buried under the modern structure. The cathedral symbolised the Emperor’s dominance over those opposing his reign. 

The Hagia Sophia. (Credit: David Spender, via Flickr)

Hagia Sophia represents the prevailing ideology of the day, being used as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Cathedral, and most recently a Mosque. In 1453 CE, Ottoman Sultan Mehemet II conquered the Christian city of Constantinople and claimed the cathedral as a personal possession, thereby demanding that Hagia Sophia be converted into a Mosque. The mosaics were plastered over and Islamic features, such as minarets, were added. Hagia Sophia is now a physical manifestation of centuries of interaction between Islam and Christianity, East and West. 

The building’s dedication to secularity despite its fickle past indicated the identity of contemporary Turkey, ushered in by the foundation of the Turkish Republic and the Atatürk administration. The building became a recognition of Turkey’s varied religious history and a prime tourist attraction. In 1934, Hagia Sophia was converted into a secular museum and has since been a symbol of Turkey’s multiculturalism, religious tolerance, and status as a safe haven for Christians in the region. Christian mosaics plastered over in the 1400s were uncovered. Commitment to secularity and multiculturalism has meant that no religious practice has been undertaken inside Hagia Sophia (excluding the staff prayer room) since then.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decreed the building be converted back into an operational Mosque on the 24th July. This is something many see as a culmination of his seventeen years of conservative leadership and an attempt to gain favour from pious Muslim voters, some of whom resent the strict secularity of the country. The decision was affirmed by the court on the basis that Hagia Sophia was owned by a foundation established by Ottoman Sultan Mehment the Conqueror and was presented to the country as a Mosque, the property deeds therefore irreversibly label the building as a Mosque. 

The decision represents the battle for Turkey’s identity. Erdogan seeks to deconstruct the secular profile built by the revolutionary Atatürk administration. He is appealing to his core voter base, the conservative nationalists who are receptive to Erdogan’s policies of Islamic revivalism. The President has previously said ‘If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey’. Last year, he lost the municipal elections in the city.

In Turkey, Erdogan’s decision has stirred tensions between those who favour sectarian politics and those committed to secularism many of whom are concentrated in Istanbul. The AK Party of which Erdogan is a member is the predecessor to the Virtue Party which was shut down by the country’s constitutional court for its anti-secular policies. Erdogan has previously run on the idea of protecting pious citizens in Turkey, some of whom see the enforced secularity introduced to the Republic of Turkey as a repression of the muslim majority.

On a global scale, Erdogan has presented the decision to convert Hagia Sophia as a statement of national sovereignty. The natural allies of Turkey in Europe do not support the transition. The already ill-fated Turkish application to the EU now looks consigned to failure and Turkey’s troubled relationship with their Christian neighbour Greece has been worsened by this decision. The strongmen leaders such as Christians Putin and Trump, who also practice brands of populist politics, also do not view his decision favourably.

Erdogan has used the repurposing of Hagia Sophia to indicate which part of his country’s history his values are compatible with. Much like the right-wing governments of the US, UK and Russia, the President is alluding to a more ‘glorious’ past. The Atatürk reforms are associated with the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate. Similar to the anachronistic messaging of sections of the Brexit campaign and the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, Erdogan is harking back to a time when the region was a more powerful actor on the world stage and presenting himself as the leader of this revival. While the conversion of Hagia Sophia has been an issue on the agenda for a number of years, the decision has come when it is rumoured that elections could be called next year and Erdogan is keen to appeal to the nationalist sentiment becoming ever more present in the global political landscape. 

Reversing the secularisation of Hagia Sophia is a demonstration of Erdogan’s values and his appeal to Islamic revivalism in the Republic of Turkey. The President has rebuked commitment to secularity one of the foremost monuments to secular Turkish history. In a statement of national sovereignty, Erdogan is using the conversion of Hagia Sophia, Atatürk’s homage to secularity, to appeal to pious and nationalist sentiment in the country and assert himself as national leaser in an evermore and nationalistic political landscape. 

Emerald McLaughlin

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