Erdoğan Drops His Mask, and the Hammer, on Hagia Sophia: The Caliphate Is Back

NEWS ANALYSIS: When Turkey’s president announced the historic church would revert to a mosque, he effectively declared an end to modern Turkey’s identity.

The extraordinary cathedral is designated a World Historical Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The extraordinary cathedral is designated a World Historical Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (photo: Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — Visiting the miraculous Hagia Sophia, the Roman Empire’s first Christian cathedral, I gave thanks for at least two things. First, the regal presence of Mary with the Child Jesus, a life-size mosaic presiding over the entire cavernous space; floating high up in the apse of a semi dome, she is the inerasable icon that all visitors immediately see.

In addition, the massive commingling of Christians and Muslims who fill the great ark is a blessing. Hagia Sophia attracts more than 3 million visitors a year; our ability to share a religious landmark, designated a museum in 1934, is a testament to reconciliation.

Yet what’s perfectly reasonable for regular people — coexistence — tempts leaders who prefer divisive tactics as paths to greater power.

When President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on July 10 the museum would be re-converted into a mosque, he effectively declared an end to modern Turkey’s identity.

He also signaled restoration of the Ottoman commitment to conquest because Hagia Sophia is the preeminent historical symbol of Islamic triumph over Western culture, since Sultan Mehmet II crushed Constantinople in 1453.

Pope Francis described himself as “very saddened” by the action, but no Holy See statement breaks down the potential implications of Erdoğan’s decision.

To understand this audacious reversal requires looking at a wider array of Turkey’s recent actions and how the move connects to Erdoğan’s vision of restoring Ottoman power and territory.


Mobilizing His Base

Signs the Turkish government was toying with this idea have been evident for years.

In 2014, I wrote a blog for the Register titled “Re-Islamization in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia Next?” after visiting the country and noting the presence of thousands of Muslim protesters praying outside the splendid structure — demanding its return.

At the time, Erdoğan offered the crowd reasonable advice: First fill the giant Blue Mosque, located next door to Hagia Sophia, before demanding more sacred space. What changed?

“First, this is a symbolic move to mobilize his domestic base,” Ahmet Yayla, a professor at DeSales University and Georgetown University, explained to the Register.

“The economy is not doing well, and many of his adventures [abroad] have not yielded results. So, Erdoğan’s satisfying a demand that’s on his supporters’ agenda,” said Yayla, a former Turkish counterterrorism chief.

The flight of foreign investors has also created pressure on the president, who has been in power for 17 years.

Erdoğan’s support for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is an example of dubious military engagement.

Turkey provided equipment, financial assistance, medical aid and training to ISIS forces, according to a nonpartisan 2015 report from Colombia University researchers. Some 50,000 foreign fighters transited Turkey to join ISIS.

Yayla believes Erdoğan should be tried by the International Criminal Court for enabling this barbaric force. Yet, so far, Erdoğan has faced just a mild verbal challenge from French President Emmanuel Macron.


Burying Ataturk

Besides appealing to his nationalistic base, the controversial decision shows Erdoğan engaged in parallel discourse with distinct audiences: Turkish people (including a diaspora of more than 6.5 million), the West and the Muslim world.

For his nation — not just his most extreme supporters — the main point of making Hagia Sophia a mosque is to declare an end to the country’s secular mission, designed and enforced by the Republic of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a military leader who was its first president (1923-38).

Recall the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I. European powers were poised to carve up its lands, with the last sultan’s consent.

Remnants of the Ottoman military officers, led by Kemal, fought a War of Independence with Soviet support.

Triumphant, the victors reacted against elite corruption, including that of religious leaders, and declared the Republic of Turkey a secular nation, even forbidding men to wear the traditional Islamic “fez.” Following the Soviet Union, faith was considered regressive.  

Ataturk — his honorific surname meaning “Father of the Turks” — is a presence still felt across the country. His portrait is in shops and private homes. In Washington, D.C., realistic statues of the man guard the Turkish embassy and the ambassador’s residence a few blocks away.

By reclaiming Hagia Sophia for Islam, Erdoğan negates Ataturk’s vision of a Europeanized Turkey. More proof that the president’s goal is to surpass the founder is the date selected for the first Muslim prayers in Hagia Sophia: July 24 is the anniversary of the 1923 Lausanne Peace Treaty, which recognized the republic’s new borders.

In fact, that treaty’s principles and map have been unilaterally altered by Erdoğan. He often criticizes it for shrinking national borders.


Distain for the West

Erdoğan knows his actions vis-à-vis Hagia Sophia are an affront to the West. He doesn’t care.

The extraordinary cathedral is designated a World Historical Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), giving it international legal protection. As UNESCO’s statement points out, the Turkish government failed to consult with others with a stake in the site’s universal status.

Erdoğan retorted: Turkey has a “sovereign right” to determine Hagia Sophia’s purpose.

One analyst who supports his position goes further, explaining that “the Western victory phase has now been ended. The restoration was long a dream of the Turks as a means to get rid of colonialism.”

Colonialism? If anything, Ataturk defeated potential colonial powers. It was his decision to designate the landmark a museum!

This revisionist narrative even posits that Sultan Mehmet II purchased Hagia Sophia from the Orthodox patriarch.

Undoubtedly, Ankara’s move is bigger than recategorizing a cultural treasure from “museum” to “mosque.” Despite assuring the West that Christians are still welcome to visit — curtains are being hung to conceal Mary and other Christian symbols during Muslim prayer — the Erdoğan government’s actions demonstrate shrinking tolerance for Christianity in Turkey.

Earlier this summer, German media reported that some 35 Protestant ministers and their families have had trouble with residential status, as they are being labeled a national security threat.

Harassment of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, based in Istanbul, long predates Erdoğan. When the Turkish government closed the country’s only seminary in 1971,  thereby jeopardizing the Church’s very existence (law requires the patriarch to be a Turkish citizen), the U.S. hardly used its great leverage to protest. 

But under Erdoğan, religious tolerance has steading narrowed. Chillingly, assassins of a Catholic priest and Protestant ministers have been released from jail.

“Our community is terrified,” recounted a Greek Orthodox priest with ties to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Speaking to the Register from Athens by phone, he said Orthodox Christians in Istanbul fear being attacked if they protest. He felt fearful to use his name.  


Message to Muslim Brothers

By reconnecting contemporary Turkey to its Ottoman past, President Erdoğan is also sending a message to Muslim-majority nations. “Turkey has become a powerful regional actor at a scale never seen in its recent history. … Once we safely carry our country to 2023, we will have made Turkey an unstoppable power,” he stressed early in July.

He continues to wage war against the Kurds and take territory in northern Iraq — ever since the U.S. withdrew. Turkey’s posture in Syria is to grab territory as a so-called “peace corridor.”

Meanwhile, Erdoğan has played an increasingly pivotal role in Libya’s civil war since 2011, when the U.S. helped remove Prime Minister Muammar Gaddafi. As The New York Times reported in May, “In Stunning Reversal: Turkey Emerges as Libya Kingmaker.”

A map captures how Ankara views its relationship with Libya, across the Mediterranean, as a bridge to Northern Africa and the rest of the continent. Between 1711 and 1835, Libya was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Erdoğan’s strategy is, again, restoration of the caliphate.

A map captures how Ankara views its relationship with Libya, across the Mediterranean, as a bridge to Northern Africa and the rest of the continent. Between 1711 and 1835, Libya was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Erdoğan’s strategy is, again, restoration of the caliphate. Credit: Michael Reagan


Stronger relations with Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, similarly, signify a new vision of foreign relations in which Turkey harkens back to past glory more than mimicking the West.

Perhaps the boldest example of Erdoğan’s irredentist plan was buried in his July 10 announcement regarding Hagia Sophia: He pledged to “liberate Al-Aqsa Mosque” from Israeli control. Located in the Old City of Jerusalem, it’s a holy site and the source of endless conflict, especially between Palestinians and Jews.


Weak Response From US

At a mid-July European Union meeting of foreign ministers, member states expressed concern about Ankara’s Hagia Sophia decision in the same forum as complaints about the Turkish government’s oil exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean — where navy frigates accompany drilling vessels off the coast of Cyprus, to the consternation of Greece and others — without noting the possible link between the two developments.

Meanwhile, France and Greece have vigorously protested evidence that the Turkish navy is protecting illegal arms shipments to Libya in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.

When a French warship on a NATO assignment tried to search a ship suspected of transporting arms, Turkish naval frigates used radar to threaten a missile strike, causing the French to back off. Although the French government called the incident “extremely aggressive” and “unacceptable by an ally” such as Turkey, NATO’s investigation favored Ankara. The fact is, few mechanisms exist to hold NATO members accountable to each other.

Regarding Turkey, Washington has displayed an almost schizophrenic attitude. As a National Public Radio headline described it, “Trump Sweet, Congress Sour on Turkey.”

That’s because late last year, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan resolution condemning Erdoğan’s invasion of Northern Syria and his purchase of a Russian air defense system — designed to knock out American F-35 jets. At the same time, the White House hosted Erdoğan for a state visit, quickly ending Syria-related sanctions.  Reuters described the relationship as a “bromance.”   

How did the administration react to Erdoğan’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque? The State Department’s mild-mannered statement was matched by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s gentle description of  the U.S. as “disappointed.”  

“Erdoğan is unpredictable,” observed Emre Celik, an Islamic studies analyst who has led Turkish cultural organizations. “It’s hard to know how to influence him positively, but something stronger is needed from the White House and Congress.” 

Celik pointed out a disturbing practice emanating from Ankara that has gotten little attention: Ever since an attempted 2016 coup d’etat against Erdoğan, he has targeted thousands of Turkish citizens living abroad, seeking to confiscate passports and have them deported, often using Interpol, according to a German investigation.     

“There have been no repercussions” for the president’s paranoid response, explained Celik, “but the Human Rights Court should take this seriously.”


Infrastructure for the Cause

The president has more than just a big dream. He has infrastructure to facilitate his ambitions.

Hagia Sophia’s new status entailed a transfer of management from the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism to the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet). Since Erdoğan came to power, Diyanet has quadrupled its budget while increasing its authority. It reports directly to the president.

Although Ataturk created Diyanet to make religion subservient to the state, Erdoğan has turned this transnational network of some 100,000 mosques into an instrument of the state. Imams are paid and directed from Ankara. As state employees, each Friday, they mouth a message approved by central command.

“In the past, Diyanet was semiautonomous,” explained Yayla. “Erdoğan shifted this understanding to a political version of Islam. His mosques around the world have become centers where Erdoğan’s agenda is openly supported.”

Register senior correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning international

correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.

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