Rethinking Europe

Erdogan’s Ploy to Convert Hagia Sophia into Votes

Erdogan’s rhetoric on converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque could rock his relations with Russia, given its growing interest in the Orthodox Church and its adherents.

Credit: Brookings Institution (www.flickr.com)

Takeaways


  • Erdogan announced plans to open the Hagia Sophia as a mosque. He presented his move as retaliation for Trump’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
  • Erdogan’s rhetoric on converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque could rock his relations with Russia, given its growing interest in the Orthodox Church.
  • Erdogan’s sudden change of heart regarding the Hagia Sophia seems to be triggered by his anxieties about the upcoming elections.
  • Erdogan seems to be more interested in converting the Hagia Sophia issue into votes than actually converting it into a mosque.
  • Given his near-total control of the Turkish media, and the country’s post-truth climate, Erdogan can spin the Hagia Sophia issue any way he wants.

Less than a week before Turkey’s March 31 local elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested to convert the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque.

The sixth-century Byzantine imperial church has had its fair share of transformations over the course of its history. Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II turned it into a mosque in 1453, marking his conquest of Constantinople.

Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk made it a museum in 1934. To him, this was part of his efforts to build a secular polity and ethos.

Erdogan’s stated intention is to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. In a desperate attempt to hold on to power and municipal spoils, his primary motivation was to win votes whichever way he can.

In order to have his way, Erdogan is willing to go to any length. After all, following a series of national-level votes in recent years, the 2019 municipal elections held this weekend are the last ones until 2023, Turkish Republic’s centennial year. Despite the continuing economic crisis, Erdogan very much hopes for clear sailing in the political realm.

Erdogan’s circuitous path on the Hagia Sophia conversion

Over the last decade, there have been numerous rallies and petitions demanding to convert Hagia Sophia into an active mosque.

Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has set an alarming precedent by converting Hagia Sophia’s namesakes, the Hagia Sophias of Iznik (Nicaea) and Trabzon into mosques in 2011 and 2013, respectively.

Both used to serve as museums for decades, just like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Yet, until his change of heart earlier this week, Erdogan long kept a strategically ambiguous position vis-à-vis the status of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia.

In March 2018, when he posed under the glittering mosaic of Virgin Mary and the Islamic calligraphy panels of Hagia Sophia to deliver the opening speech for an arts biennale, he did not offer any hints as to the future of this world heritage site.

This ambiguity was in stark contrast to his former position, when as a mayoral candidate for Istanbul from the Islamist Welfare Party in 1994, he offered to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

Since the AKP’s rise to power in 2002, however, Erdogan acted with restraint in discussing Hagia Sophia. In 2014, for example, he scolded a citizen demanding Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque by telling him to fill up the neighboring Sultanahmet Mosque first.

He repeated the exact statement at a political rally, just a week before he offered to convert Hagia Sophia on live TV on March 25.

Erdogan goes all in

However, the very next day, at a campaign event, he announced his plans to open Hagia Sophia as a mosque. He presented his move as retaliation for President Donald Trump’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

The Turkish president’s sudden change of heart seems to be triggered by his anxieties about the upcoming elections.

Until this week, Erdogan’s silence also served him well internationally, helping him maintain his moderate credentials and tolerant façade, as he tried hard to prove that he had left his Islamist past behind.

He knew all too well that his rhetoric on Hagia Sophia could rock his relations not only with the Western world, but also with Russia, with its growing interest in the affairs of the Orthodox Church and its adherents.

Back to religion to dazzle the masses

Evidently, amid Turkey’s economic crisis and the AKP’s diminishing support in the polls, Erdogan has adopted a campaign strategy that is radically different from his previous elections.

The Turkish leader used to dazzle his followers with his “crazy” projects, such as the Canal Istanbul, which would add a parallel seaway to the Bosporus. His current campaign, however, lacks ambitious projects, and has proven to be the most polarizing campaign in Turkey’s history.

Instead, Erdogan has relied on repeatedly showing snippets from the Christchurch shooter’s footage at his political rallies. He claimed that the murderer “targets all Muslims, along with our country and myself,” emphasizing the assailant’s intention of “removing the minarets of the Hagia Sophia.”

Given the recession in Turkey, triggering double-digit inflation, unemployment and lira devaluation in 2018, the Hagia Sophia could be Erdogan’s last resort.

After all, he can no longer offer Canal Istanbul, a project he has failed to launch since 2011 despite repeated promises, and the new Istanbul airport he is building as a vanity project is in serious financial and technical trouble.

Still, Erdogan is a shrewd politician. His Hagia Sophia promise on live TV was vague enough that he can take it back after the elections. Given his near-total control of the Turkish media, and the country’s post-truth climate, Erdogan can spin the issue any way he wants come April.

Conclusion

Erdogan seems to be more interested in converting the Hagia Sophia issue into votes than actually converting it into a mosque.

Following this Sunday’s elections, the Turkish president is likely to reassess whether he needs to exploit the issue any further, either to cover up an electoral defeat or to divert the Turkish voters’ attention away from the economic crash that his mismanagement brought about.

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About Tuğba Tanyeri Erdemir

Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir is a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Anthropology and the coordinator of the Anti-Defamation League’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities.

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