Turkey’s President Recep Tayyep Erdogan has never lost his laser-like focus on staying in power while claiming electoral democratic legitimacy. His decision to end Hagia Sofia’s status as a museum and reopen it as a mosque serves as a cheap demagogic victory to keep his ethno-religious political base energized. Capturing the iconic cathedral – the “Great Church” of Christianity until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 – symbolized the Ottoman Empire’s arrival on the world scene as the heir to the power of the Roman Empire. Mehmet II, the Conqueror of Constantinople, like any great leader, understood the power of symbolism. So did Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. His decision to close the Mosque of Ayasofya (in the Turkish vernacular) in 1931 and reopen it as a museum in 1935 coincided with his determination to tie Turkey closer to Europe and to build an alliance with the Ottoman Empire’s bitterest enemies, the Orthodox Christian states that had won independence from the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk found a willing partner in the greatest modern Greek political leader, Eleftherios Venizelos. Ataturk closed Aghia Sofia as a mosque in 1930 during a tense period in Venizelos’ last stint in power (1928 – 1932). At that time Greek politicians had attacked Venizelos for “giving away too much” trying to reconcile with Turkey. Ataturk then reopened the Great Church in 1935 with fanfare as a museum when Venizelos appeared set on a political comeback. Do not regard this as just coincidences. Leaders like Ataturk don’t do coincidences.
Nor can we divorce converting Hagia Sophia back into a mosque from Erdogan’s political strategy. Erdogan has never hidden his ambitions to achieve in the 21st century what Ataturk accomplished in the 20th. He obsesses at building his legacy as the Leader who will have restored Turkey’s position as a world power and leader of the Islamic world. He got off to a good start growing Turkey’s economy dramatically after coming to power in 2003. Then the Great Recession struck in 2008 and his many subsequent missteps tarnished his reputation as an economic leader. As the luster wore off, others including the old Kemalist military and intellectual establishment and his erstwhile ally, the Islamist educator Fethullah Gülen, challenged his authority. In 2013, he turned on Gülen, whose supporters dominated the police and judiciary at the time. In 2016, Erdogan crushed a coup by the remnants of Kemalism in the military in 2016 that he has since turned to prosecution of Gülen’s followers.
Erdogan linked Kemalists to the coup and initiated a systematic campaign to erase the legacy of Kemal Ataturk. He denies any ambition to become an Ottoman Sultan (despite building an 1,100 room palace), but contrasts his embrace of Islam and Turkey’s Ottoman history with Ataturk’s ferocious campaign to impose secularism on the new Turkish Republic. Erdogan accuses Ataturk of destroying the proud history of the Ottoman Empire and surrendering Turkish territory in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. He rants about Aegean islands “so close I can shout to them,” that were “given away” to the Greeks by the “alcoholic” former hero now recast a traitor.
Reestablishing Hagia Sofia as a mosque accomplishes several objectives. It not only appeals to his religious base but also resonates with more secular nationalists who saw Ataturk’s converting Istanbul’s greatest mosque into a museum as a concession to the hated Greeks. Foreign criticism allows Erdogan to conjure up more enemies. He tars Turkish intelligentsia, who do criticize the action, as infected with the Kemalist legacy. His base thrives on criticism from Christian countries. Erdogan is confident they will do no more than wag their fingers. Constrained by the close personal relationship between President Trump and Turkey’s leader, Secretary of State Pompeo’s can only express America’s “disappointment.” Does anyone seriously believe that the U.S. Government will impose sanctions on Erdogan for this action? It may gratify Orthodox Christians to hear the world protest but Erdogan delights in the empty rhetoric that adds to his domestic appeal.
However, there may be a better way of responding. Erdogan has stated that he will keep Hagia Sofia open to tourists and will limit prayers in the edifice to certain important dates. (It is, after all, the most visited tourist site in Turkey.) Take him at his word. The Ecumenical Patriarchate should demand that Erdogan also open the Great Church to Christians and let him conduct services. If Erdogan keeps the edifice as a place of worship to the God sacred to Christians and Muslims alike, he would gain no little international support. If Patriarch Bartholomew and other Orthodox leaders can persuade Putin – who professes a great attachment to the Orthodox faith – to lend his voice it would place Erdogan in a difficult place. He needs Moscow as he stumbles from one foreign policy crisis to another.
I have no illusions. As in the United States and elsewhere, domestic politics always ‘trump’ international concerns in Turkey. Erdogan will not go along but such an enlightened and emotional appeal from the Christian world would certainly contribute to the political isolation of Turkey, especially if American evangelicals can be persuaded to support the cause. President Trump might then reconsider his bromance with Erdogan in light of his parochial interests in maintaining his evangelical political base. And that would resonate in Erdogan’s 1,100-room palace.