The regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned the Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Istanbul, the most iconic church of the Orthodox Christian world, into a mosque last weekend.
Through this initiative, Turkey declared its intention to confront the Western world and to bring back to life the dynastic reality of the former Ottoman Empire and its geopolitical aspirations. The decision carries specific historical and ideological connotations, is another manifestation of Turkey’s Islamist identity, and is a direct assault on religious pluralism and history itself.
On 10 July, the Turkish president signed an executive decree that turns the historical Christian church of Hagia Sophia located in modern-day Istanbul’s central Fatih district into a fully-fledged mosque, reclassifying it from a museum. The Hagia Sophia had been functioning as a museum from 1935 after a decree issued in November 1934 by then Turkish president Mustafa Kemal and members of his cabinet.
Erdogan used a decision by the Turkish Supreme Court that deemed Kemal’s decree as void. In a hasty meeting that lasted just 17 minutes, the court ruled that the Hagia Sophia was owned by a religious foundation established by the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, the conquering Ottoman ruler of Constantinople, the former name of Istanbul.
According to the court’s reasoning, the Hagia Sophia was presented to the community of the faithful as a mosque, and thus its status cannot be changed, making the 1934 decree invalid and needing to be annulled. In a speech after the signing of the decree, Erdogan said that the Hagia Sophia would open as a mosque for Friday prayers in two weeks’ time, in other words on 24 July.
The manipulation of justice by Erdogan’s autocratic regime meets Islamist aspirations. The very fact that the Supreme Court invoked an Islamic perception of a law issued hundreds of years ago before the foundation of the Turkish Republic demonstrates the fundamental transformation of the underlying ideological structure of the Turkish state under the Erdogan regime. In the past, the same court has on numerous occasions ruled that the use of the Hagia Sophia as a museum is legal, with relevant rulings being issued in 1945, 2005, 2006 and 2008.
The Hagia Sophia is officially recognised by the UN cultural organisation UNESCO as part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul that were added to its World Heritage List in 1985. Turkey is a member of the World Heritage Convention (1972) that oversees such registrations, which it ratified in 1983.
According to Article 6 of the Convention, “each State Party to this Convention undertakes not to take any deliberate measures which might damage directly or indirectly the cultural and natural heritage referred to in Articles 1 and 2 situated on the territory of other States Parties to this Convention.” The use of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque entails endangering its cultural legacy, as it changes the historical identity of this church and monument. There have already been reports of considerable damage to the mosaics in the interior over the years, as the Hagia Sophia had been partly used on specific occasions as a mosque.
The Hagia Sophia is a unique monument and is unlike any of the other Byzantine churches scattered across modern Turkey. Although it has not been used as a church for centuries, the Hagia Sophia is the ideological and symbolic centre of Orthodox Christianity, having served as its main church for nearly a thousand years.
Its symbolic and spiritual importance equals that of St Peter’s in Rome, forming twin ideological centres of eastern and western Christian culture. The formative principles of Orthodox Christianity are intricately linked to the symbolism and the special historical identity of the Hagia Sophia church. By turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, the Turkish regime is explicitly declaring its Islamist identity.
Turkey’s decision was greeted enthusiastically by Islamists and extremist ideologues. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood were joyful at the decision. In early July, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader and former MP Mohamed Al-Sagheer wrote that “prayers were performed [there] for more than 400 years, and Mehmet the Conqueror bought its land [of the Hagia Sophia] and its surroundings.” Will “Erdogan revive the conqueror’s methods, and will we hear Allahu akbar in the mosque again,” he asked.
Another prominent Islamist writer, the Qatari national Faisal Al Thani, went a step further by denying the Christian historical identity of the Hagia Sophia, writing that the “Hagia Sophia has ended its ties with the church, and since four centuries ago it has only been a mosque.” According to Al Thani, echoing the Turkish arguments, “the decision to do so [to change the Hagia Sophia into a mosque] is a matter of sovereignty for the Turkish people. It will be joyful news that will reinforce pride and identity. It will be considered a historic day and the beginning of a new phase. Its title is Turkey’s independence and a bright future.”
The militant Islamist Palestinian group Hamas in the Gaza Strip also expressed its support for Ankara’s decision. According to an official statement issued by Rafat Murra, head of the international press office, “the opening of the Hagia Sophia to prayer is a proud moment for all Muslims.” The decision fell solely under Turkey’s sovereign rights, he said, and “it demonstrates Turkey’s self-confidence and its place in the international arena.” Hamas, active on the borders of Egypt, is increasingly becoming a proxy for Turkish influence and is undermining Egyptian national interests in the Sinai region and the greater Middle East.
In the wider Islamic world, Erdogan’s decision was not fully supported and met with different reactions. The Egypt-based Global Fatwa Index, a foundation that aims to counter terrorist fatwas, or religious rulings issued all over the world, issued a statement in June saying that the Hagia Sophia had served as a Christian church for 916 years from its construction in the 6th century CE until 1453 when the Ottoman army conquered Constantinople and turned the church into a mosque.
According to the statement, “the Turkish regime is exploiting the issue of converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque as an electoral weapon” for Erdogan’s domestic political ambitions. In Saudi Arabia, the national Al-Arabiya news network said that Turkish plans concerning the Hagia Sophia “sow religious strife between the followers of the different faiths around the world.”
The decision to turn the historical Christian church of the Hagia Sophia, the epicentre of the Orthodox faith, into a mosque is a direct attack on the historical and cultural legacy of the Orthodox world. Turkey aims to resurrect the notion of an ideological caliphate just a few years before it celebrates 100 years of the Turkish Republic. The transformation of Turkey has been unfolding steadily ever since the Erdogan regime took power. Now, Turkey is plunging itself fully into the Ottoman past through such symbolic gestures and its illegal intervention in Libya, once a province of the former Ottoman Empire, against the interests of Egypt, the centre of the Arab world.
The world needs to wake up to the dangerous revisionist entity that Turkey has become, an aggressor against the Arab world and against the Christian world and its historical and religious symbols. The decision to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque has been met by strong reactions by the Orthodox Church and the international community, especially the US, the EU, UNESCO, Greece and Russia. But such reactions are of limited use unless accompanied by diplomatic measures that can safeguard the historical realities of religious pluralism and respect for the symbols of religions.
The writer is a lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens in Greece.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly