President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent remarks that Hagia Sophia, a famed Istanbul landmark, could be reverted to a mosque have fueled both controversy and curiosity. Islamist, conservative and nationalist quarters in Turkey have long called for the ancient edifice — currently a museum — to be opened for Muslim worship.
As Turkish journalist Rusen Cakir, who closely follows Islamist movements, recalls, conservative and Islamist groups in Turkey used to raise three main demands in their demonstrations prior to the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) ascent to power in 2002. They included the lifting of bans on the Islamic headscarf, an end to restrictions on the imam-hatip religious schools and Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a mosque.
Originally built as a church, Hagia Sophia was the place where Byzantine emperors were crowned. It was converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul — then Constantinople — in 1453. At the behest of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, Hagia Sophia became a museum in 1935.
Under the AKP’s 16-year rule, all demands concerning the headscarf and the imam-hatip schools have been met, but Hagia Sophia has remained a museum off-limits to Muslim worship. On various occasions and grounds over the years, Erdogan would reject the calls to transform Hagia Sophia to a mosque. At the reopening of a restored Istanbul mosque in 2014, for instance, he responded to chants for Hagia Sophia’s conversion by telling worshippers to use the existing mosques in the vicinity, including the famed Blue Mosque. “The Blue Mosque is right next to it. Let’s fill this place first and we will see thereafter,” he said.
The controversy flared up again after the mosque massacre in New Zealand in mid-March as it emerged that the assailant referred explicitly to Erdogan and Hagia Sophia in messages shortly before the mayhem. With Turkey heading to local elections on March 31, chants for Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a mosque began to rang out again at Erdogan’s rallies. Responding to such chants at a March 16 rally, Erdogan said, “You should fill the Blue Mosque first and then we’ll see. … This issue has a political dimension. … Let’s not fall for those games. … We know how and when to act.”
By “political dimension,” Erdogan meant the outcry that changing Hagia Sophia’s status would trigger both at home and abroad. In a March 18 TV interview, he elaborated further, pointing to the downsides of making Hagia Sophia a mosque, which, he said, would amount to a “heavy price” outweighing the gains. “Let’s not forget that we have thousands of mosques across the world,” he said, adding that the proponents of making Hagia Sophia a mosque failed to consider “what could then happen to those mosques” and lacked understanding of world affairs. “We carry the burden of the Muslim world … hence we need to be cautious and careful,” he said.
In less than a week, however, Erdogan was singing a different tune. “Hagia Sophia could be removed from its museum status. Entry to Hagia Sophia could become free after the elections. We could rename it from Hagia Sophia Museum to Hagia Sophia Mosque and open it to visitors free of charge,” he said March 24 in a TV interview.
Erdogan did not explicitly say that Hagia Sophia would be opened for worship, but by speaking of a “Hagia Sophia Mosque” he made it clear that the edifice’s museum status would change. And once qualified as a mosque, other obstacles to worship in the structure would be, no doubt, removed.
So, what changed in several days that Erdogan decided to brave the downsides and “prices” that he himself had mentioned? Naturally, the March 31 municipal elections are the first thing that comes to mind. As previously explained in Al-Monitor, Erdogan and his allies have framed the elections as a "matter of survival" for the nation, presenting themselves as the real patriots, while vilifying the opposition. With Turkey in the grips of an economic crisis, various signs suggest that Erdogan is seriously worried about the election outcome.
Despite his well-known penchant for opinion polls, Erdogan this time says he does not trust them. As Al-Monitor’s Kadri Gursel recently wrote, Erdogan has gone as far as to threaten opposition leaders and candidates with jail. Polarization is at an unprecedented level, with the opposition being criminalized. Most recently, pro-government papers portrayed a number of opposition candidates as linked to terrorist groups, although no judicial rulings exist against them.
Given all those developments, the issue of Hagia Sophia, which Erdogan has not used in elections before, could be read as the last card he is trying to play days before voters go to the polls. Looking from this perspective, one could argue that Erdogan sees a big risk in the elections and has fielded his last trump to the battle. In sum, this appears to be the most logical explanation of the Hagia Sophia move.
Yet given certain developments beyond Turkey’s borders, the Hagia Sophia move could have other meanings as well. Ankara is annoyed by cooperation between Israel, Greece and Cyprus on developing and marketing natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. Some recent developments are perhaps linked to this annoyance. On March 19, for instance, Turkey’s Ministry of Defense released a photo of Turkish naval command posing with a Turkish flag undersea off the Greek island of Crete during a NATO exercise.
The photo, which drew angry reactions from Greece, was followed by another development that encourages reading the issue of Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a mosque in a context other than the elections. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said March 25 that Turkish jets harassed his helicopter as he flew to the island of Agathonisi for independence day celebrations that day. The Turkish security forces rejected the accusation.
Given all those developments, Erdogan’s Hagia Sophia move could mean more than just a panicked step taken in desperation. On the one hand, the move could indeed be a populist gesture to consolidate the AKP base. Simultaneously, it could be seen also as another revanchist move against the Kemalist regime. On the other hand, however, it could be a message to the outside world, most notably Greece. What Erdogan has in mind and whether his words will translate into action is hard to tell.
Still, Hagia Sophia — a magnificent 1,482-year-old structure that, experts say, is endangered by even speaking loudly in it — might become the focus of heated controversy, both domestic and international, in the coming days, depending on political developments.
The statements and moves that Erdogan makes after Sunday’s elections should be carefully observed. Only then could we understand the real meaning of his remarks on converting Hagia Sophia to a mosque.