The AKP's Hagia Sophia campaign

Recent campaigns calling for converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque are aimed at asserting the influence of Islamists and distracting the public from other issues.

al-monitor Workers are seen on a minaret as they take part in the restoration of a mosque in Istanbul, June 20, 2013. The Byzantine monument of Hagia Sophia (L) and Ottoman-era Sultanahmet mosque (R), known as the Blue mosque, are seen in the background.  Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.

Topics covered

turkey, orthodox church, mosques, islam, hagia sophia, christian church, akp

Jun 3, 2014

The “Kemalist secular Republic” — the mother of all traumas of Turkey’s Islamists — had given birth to three main issues of victimhood: the headscarf ban in universities and the public sector, the restrictions on imam-hatip [religious] high schools and the transformation of the Hagia Sophia to a museum.

With the political power it acquired, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) resolved the first two issues, leaving the “cause” of transforming Hagia Sophia back to a mosque as the only victimhood issue available for use in politics. This cause often comes handy as a political tool to mobilize conservative masses, divert attention from other issues and change the agenda. The “Hagia Sophia issue” is also an area of competition in Islamism.

In recent months, various groups and individuals have been fueling the rivalry. The latest example was the mass morning prayer demonstration, organized the day before [May 31] outside Hagia Sophia by the Anatolian Youth Association, considered to be a youth branch of the [Islamist] Felicity Party.

On May 2, independent parliament member Hilmi Yildirim had submitted a draft law to reopen Hagia Sophia for worship as a mosque. Yildirim, a former AKP member who quit his party on Dec. 31, 2013, is known to be close to the [Gulen religious] community.

Zaman columnist Mustafa Armagan has also attracted attention with articles advocating Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a mosque, while campaigns for holding [Muslim] prayers in Hagia Sophia have sprung up on Twitter.

But let’s recall that the most powerful message on the issue in recent months came from Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc. In a speech at the inauguration of a carpet museum adjacent to the Hagia Sophia complex on Nov. 15, 2013, Arinc said: “We have reopened to worship two mosques of ours by the name Hagia Sophia. … A mosque should not be used for purposes other than worship. And we are looking at this droopy Hagia Sophia now, wishing from Allah that the days it will cheer up are, hopefully, near.” The metaphor of “droopy” Hagia Sophia “cheering up” again yields no other meaning but the reopening of the edifice to worship as a mosque.

The accomplishments Arinc referred to were two other Byzantine churches bearing the name Hagia Sophia, which had been converted to mosques in Ottoman times and then to museums during the Republican period and finally put back into service as mosques [under the AKP]. The “Hagia Sophia Mosque” in Iznik was opened to worship on Nov. 6, 2011, and the “Hagia Sophia Mosque” in Trabzon on June 29, 2013.

Five days after Arinc’s speech, we had learned also of a decision to convert to a mosque the John the Baptist Church, the largest surviving structure of the Studios, one of the biggest Byzantine-era monasteries in Istanbul.

Reopening Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship is an issue of historic score-settling, for which the now-empowered Islamists await conditions to mature to avenge the secular Republic’s closure of the edifice to worship.

The “Hagia Sophia Mosque” is the great symbol of the political and ideological significance Islamists attribute to “re-conquering Istanbul,” that is appropriating and transforming the city for themselves.

Hagia Sophia — the most coveted and grandiose Christian shrine until 1453 when it became a mosque [following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul] — was transformed to a museum as a message by the Republic’s founders that modern Turkey wished to build peaceful ties and mutual respect with the Christian world.

Those who in 2005 spearheaded the Alliance of Civilizations initiative are supposed to be aware today that converting Hagia Sophia back into a mosque will do service to a Huntingtonian “clash of civilizations.” Does the AKP’s Turkey need one? Hopefully, they will not be carried away by the zeal of their Islamist rivals and their own.

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