On July 24, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan presided over the commencement of Muslim prayers in the purpose-built church of Hagia Sophia. The Great Church, as it is known to history, is an architectural marvel built in 537AD by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. It is Orthodox Christianity’s most revered church, and legend holds its magnificence catalyzed Russia’s conversion to Christianity. In 1453 Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople and converted the Great Church into a mosque. After the fall of Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire expanded greatly, and the Ottoman Turks became the only non-Arabs to ever control the Islamic Caliphate. History has given Hagia Sophia the unique distinction of being at the heart of Christianity for nearly 1000 years, and at the center of Ottoman era Islam for nearly 500 years. In 1934 it became a museum of universal heritage.
By transforming Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Erdogan simultaneously elevates his leadership role in the Islamic world and marks his victory over Kemalism. Erdogan’s reconquest of Hagia Sophia evokes the Islamic conquerors of yesteryear who captured non-Islamic places of worship in the name of their faith. The Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site was a place where pagans and others worshiped until Muhammad conquered it. The Al-Aqsa mosque was constructed on the Jewish Temple Mount after Jerusalem fell to Islam. Indeed, the importance of Hagia Sophia to Islam is rooted in the assertion that the Prophet Muhammad had prophesied Islam would conquer Constantinople.
Erdogan is using his symbolic reconquest of Hagia Sophia to further elevate his leadership role in the Muslim world. It is no coincidence that upon declaring Hagia Sophia a mosque, he went on to challenge Israel’s control of Jerusalem by asserting that “the resurrection of Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of the Al-Aqsa mosque.” By now, Erdogan’s anti-Semitic tropes are to be expected, and for those paying attention, Turkey long ago aligned itself with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and even the jihadist fighters in Syria and Libya. The Turkish president dreams of a different Jerusalem.
Erdogan’s transforming Hagia Sophia into a mosque is also the moment he may claim victory over the legacy of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the political ideology long governing Turkey known as Kemalism. Kemalism, is a nation building process that incorporates a form of secularism unlike the separation of church and state of America, but rather the control of religion by the Turkish state. As part of Kemal’s secularizing efforts and to deflect from the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Turkey’s Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christian populations, he converted Hagia Sophia into a museum.
For decades there was hope for Turkey’s democratic trajectory, but Turkey’s democratic aspirations have never materialized. This is so, because Kemalism and Erdogan both see Islam as a fundamental component of Turkish national identity, and as a mechanism of social control. Kemalism sought to contain Islam, and Erdogan seeks to mold a society guided by its precepts. It is the abuse of religion by both political forms that is at the core of Turkey’s pernicious authoritarianism.
It is not just the undoing of Hagia Sophia as a museum of universal heritage that interests Erdogan. Erdogan intentionally chose July 24 as the day for first prayers because that date commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne. The Lausanne Treaty ended hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the allied powers, and as well established the borders of modern Turkey. Erdogan has publicly denounced the Lausanne Treaty as unfair. His creeping disavowal of the Lausanne Treaty is aimed at undermining the legitimacy of Turkey’s borders with Greece, especially the maritime border of the Aegean Sea. Thus, for Erdogan, Hagia Sophia is a symbolic weapon to be wielded on many levels.
By exploiting Hagia Sophia as a Muslim shibboleth, Erdogan inflames an already divided Turkey and invites worldwide religious conflict. The revered temple now stands as a symbol of conquest and division. For those embracing Erdogan’s revanchism, they may wish to consider the meaning of the words Hagia Sophia, which are Greek for Holy Wisdom. In the Orthodox Christian Church, Holy Wisdom is the revelation of the Divine Logos. Thus, the sacrosanct temple is dedicated to the very essence of the Christian faith. While Erdogan plays the erstwhile conqueror, his hubris tracks that of bygone dictators who divided people for the sake of power and plunged humanity into great conflict and suffering. Sadly, as Erdogan shows contempt for Judeo-Christian values and ill-will towards Western civilization, Washington and Brussels, do nothing more than threaten a slap on the wrist.
*Andreas N. Akaras, is an attorney and is the founder of the Saint Andrew’s Freedom Forum, a secular initiative inspired by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, he has previously served as a foreign affairs advisor in the US House of Representatives.