Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to declare that the Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul is once again a mosque has roused an international ruckus.
Pundits, researchers and historians see this as a significant step in the direction of the Islamification of Turkey. The pope has expressed “deep sadness.” Turkish commentator Selim Koru’s opinion piece in The New Yok Times is entitled “Turkey’s Islamist Dream Finally Becomes a Reality.” And an editorial on the opposition website Ahval, published on July 11, made the case clearly: “The current alliance ruling Turkey under the banner of a 'Turco-Islamic Synthesis' is determined to drive a wedge between the country and the rest of the civilized world... the case of the Hagia Sophia tells us that an era is over, and that the Islamists have nearly won their historic battle to conquer Turkey.”
As expected, Erdogan is not impressed. “The revival of Hagia Sophia presages the liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” he proclaimed in a festive speech on the occasion of the rededication of the mosque. “Its revival is the voice of the footsteps of Muslims all over the world when they are enthused. The revival of Hagia Sophia is the flame of hope for all the oppressed, the exploited and the downtrodden in the world together with the Muslims. The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is an expression of the fact that we, as a Turkish nation, as Muslims and as human beings have a new message for the world.”
Islamification is a catchy and understandable slogan, especially when it comes to Erdogan. However, the splendid Christian church that became a mosque during the Ottoman period, then a museum and is now reborn as a mosque, has been a piece in the political game as much as a sacred religious site. In 1935, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk made the Hagia Sophia Mosque a museum, to international enthusiasm and great anger among the Islamic movements in Turkey, he explained that “it would be logical to make Hagia Sophia a museum open to visitors from all nations and all religions instead of it being a place that belongs to one religion and one group.” Ataturk made no bones about his opinion of Islam when he said’ “Islam in the society and in the Islamic politics was responsible for the failure of modernization … Unity of religions is not essential for creating a nation … A nation is shaped by people who share a rich historic heritage and a serious aspiration to live together and preserve that shared heritage.”
It is easy to contrast Ataturk with Erdogan, and depict the current president as wanting to Islamify a state that in its very constitution is still defined as secular and democratic. However, the museum, which to the new Turkey symbolized a turn towards the West, did not stop the Islamic narrative even back in the 1950s. With the rise of the Democratic Party to power in 1950, the political atmosphere changed. Hoping to better its relationship with Europe and the United States for diplomatic and economic reasons, the new regime targeted the leftist and Communist movements, hoping to show determination in fighting anything that could be perceived as a partner of the Soviet Union. Religious movements were an integral part of the that effort, and enjoyed massive support from the government. Even then, there was talk of bringing religion back into Hagia Sophia.
Thirty years later, the status of the museum also changed. The military government that took over after the 1980 coup took the Cultural Properties and Museums Authority away from the Education Ministry, and incorporated it into the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. From a symbol of a unifying cultural heritage as Ataturk had envisioned it, the museum became an important source of income form tourism.
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A decade after that, the museum was once again endowed with a new political role. In the wake of the first Gulf War and the European Union’s refusal to admit Turkey to its ranks, the Turkish administration sought ways to shape its image as a regional power that the West should want to attract. The strategy was to position Turkey as a bridge between East and West, and Hagia Sophia began to star along with the Blue Mosque (the Sultan Ahmet Mosque) in documents displaying the Istanbul skyline as a national logo.
This was still the case until recently. The merchandising for Turkey’s unsuccessful 2020 Olympic Games bid, for example, featured Hagia Sophia as a represention of secularism and the West, and the Blue Mosque, as a symbol for Islam and the East; beneath, the slogan read “Bridge Together.” But even then, this harmonious show window encountered objections from Turkish nationalists and Islamists, who never quit demanding the restoration of the museum’s past religious glory.
So why now?
The movement has existed for a while. In 2014, a whopping 40,000 worshippers held a mass prayer service at Hagia Sophia, calling for re-establishing its status as a mosque. Before that, in 2012, Salih Turan, the chairman of an Anatolian youth association, claimed he had collected 15 million signatures on a petition with the same demand. Erdogan’s response, as prime minister, was fascinating: “We have the Blue Mosque, right next to Hagia Sophia. Let Hagia Sophia be – go fill the Blue Mosque.” In fact, Muslims were able to worship in Hagia Sophia even when it was a museum, as, under public pressure, the authorities turned part of it into a mosque back in the 1980s.
So what prompted Erdogan to take this step at this particular time? Some think he might be attempting to boost his electoral chances, although the next elections are not until 2023. Others suggest it is an attempt to obscure the failures of his economic plan, and the endless entanglement in Syria. Or, this might just be him trying, once again, to depict himself as the leader of the Islamic world, a kind of modern sultan or caliph, casting shade on the status of Saudi Arabia and challenging the Christian world.
Erdogan has promised Russian President Vladimir Putin that the decision will not affect the freedom to visit the mosque, or threaten the splendid Christian elements that adorn it. The decorations will be covered during worship and revealed again upon the completion of the prayers. It is clear, however, both from Putin’s query and Erdogan’s answer that Hagia Sophia is henceforth a Muslim Turkish property owned by the ruler.
This comes as a cost, and not just for maintenance, restoration and preservation. The holder of the concession to sell tickets is the Swiss company SICPA, owned and managed by Philippe Amon, a Swiss citizen from a Jewish family whose father founded the company in the 1920s. The company is not only secretive (it does not publish its financial records), it is also world-famous for having invented the security ink used to print currency bills, securities and documents that require a unique signature. It is estimated to hold about 85 percent of the world security ink market. Amon himself is also a philanthropist who sits on the board of the World’s Jewish Museum project in Tel Aviv and many other Jewish institutions. Despite many objections in Turkey to granting the concession to a “Jewish” company, in 2018 SICPA won the franchise for seven years for about $3.9 billion.
Upon the transfer of control of the mosque to the Religious Affairs Ministry, the company is expected to demand compensation for the expected loss of income. The government of Turkey will also forgo about 400 million Turkish lira (more than $58.3 million) annually from share of the ticket sales it was promised.
“At a time when Turkish citizens are facing economic difficulties that are worsening day by day, their tax monies are being directed to astronomical compensation payments and huge projects,” charged lawmaker Filiz Kerestecioglu of the pro-Kurdish HDP party. She expressed serious concern with regard to the funding of the renovation of the mosque. Hagia Sophia is on the list of World Heritage Sites, and as such enjoys funding from the United nations and other international organizations for maintenance and renovation. Since UNESCO denounced the fact that Erdogan’s decision was taken without prior consultation, the concern is that this support will cease.
When it comes to the ruler, money is no matter
Apparently, Erdogan does not see funding for the reinstated mosque, or even for the routine management of Turkey, as a problem. This week, Turkish journalist Burak Tuygan published a long and detailed article about the transformation Erdogan and his party have undergone during 18 years of their rule, turning from the hope of the hopeless into the party of decadence. Tuygan tells of the luxury cars, the large private homes, the bathrooms with gold-plated faucets in the offices of top party people, which have become the norm and a status symbol. Mehmet Salih Sarac, leader of the youth branch of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the city of Sanliurfa, near the Syrian border, faced backlash earlier this month after he was filmed in his jacuzzi, telling poor people not to bother him. Sarac resigned after the video found its way to social media, and claimed that the clip was intended for distribution only to a private group.
Tuygan also mentions the yachts owned by Erdogan’s sons that came to light in the Panama Papers leaks, the list of demands presented by his daughter Sümeyye Erdogan for her luxurious homes in western Turkey, and of course did not forget the purse owned by Erdogan’s wife Emine, a Hermes Birkin bag worth an estimated $50,000, along with a brooch valued at $15,000.
Another member of the inner circle is YouTube influencer Busra Nur Calar, who created outrage after she threw an extravagant baby shower. Her husband is Deputy Health Minister Ahmet Amin Soylemez, whose father, Ugur Suleyman, was killed in the Israel Defense Forces attack on the Mavi Marmara ship during the May 2010 Gaza flotilla. The list goes on. It includes Ayse Buharali, a founder of the AKP who won government tenders for bids amounting to about $200,000, and Erdogan’s media manager, Fahrettin Altun, who leased a plot of land overlooking the Bosporus Straits for $40 a month. Several hundred websites that reported the story were closed down as a result.
“The oppressed and downtrodden Muslims” whose voice a revived Hagia Sophia is supposed to carry, as Erdogan said, blatantly does not include the top layer of the AKP, his family members and his cronies. The president, sitting in his huge palace behind a special presidential guard wearing traditional uniform, has forgotten his difficult childhood and the millions of his voters who came from the distressed classes. Despite this, as it is too in Israel, which he has marked out as an enemy and a terrorist state, the same downtrodden folk continue to vote for their distant ruler and see him as the savior of the nation. Ostentatious corruption, it turns out, is a mark of honor and a symbol of success.