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Interpreting the Desecularisation of the Hagia Sophia: Islamisation, neo-Ottomanism, anti-Imperialism or Preservation of Cultural Heritage?

The imposing complex from the early 6th century is one of the most important buildings of Christianity. Until the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Hagia Sophia was the cathedral of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. With the conquest, it was converted into a mosque and extended according to Muslim conventions. It was secularised in 1934 and opened as a museum in 1935.

By Markus Dreßler

Based on an error of jurisdiction, the Turkish Higher Administrative Court on 10 July 2020 annulled a decision by the Turkish Ministerial Council from 1934, which had secularised the Hagia Sophia mosque, as a consequence of which it was reopened as a museum in 1935. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan followed up swiftly, tweeting that the mosque would immediately be handed over to the Directorate for Religious Affairs, in Turkey responsible for mosques and religious services. The corresponding decree followed promptly and thus the secularisation of the Hagia Sophia was reversed after 86 years. On Friday, 24 July, the historic building was reopened as a mosque for Friday prayers. That much is a fact, but interpretations of this reconversion differ widely. In the international press, especially in Western Europe, it is perceived not the least as a sign of a progressive Islamisation as well as an increasingly intolerant authoritarianism, and as a provocation to ‘the Christian world’. This perception is not completely wrong, but it tends to ignore the role of other parts of the story – above all the impact of an inwardly directed nationalism, whose unifying force Erdoğan needs to maintain power, and further the significance of the act as a demonstration of Turkey's strength as major force in the region.

Not only parts of the European public, but also many secularly-oriented citizens in Turkey perceive the AKP's Islamisation policy as a threat and the erosion of democracy as well as continued state repression against opposition members of various factions divide the country. With regard to the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia, however, other patterns of interpretation are in the foreground in Turkey. Critical voices see this as a populist attempt to divert attention from an economic crisis that has been further exacerbated by the Corona pandemic, steadily declining poll ratings and signs of disintegration within the ruling party AKP. The reconversion would be intended to bind right-wing conservative and nationalist milieus more closely to Erdoğan and the AKP. Other critical voices articulated from a pluralistic perspective on history and in solidarity with religious minorities – whose numbers have shrunk considerably but who are still being connected to memories of a more diverse past – defend the museum status, or even demand the return of the building to the Greek Orthodox Church (such as the pro-Kurdish HDP).

Still, there certainly is evidence for the thesis that the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia and the accompanying rhetoric in Turkey can be read as another example of the thesis of the ‘return of religion’. Religious metaphors play an important role in the debate. Erdoğan himself gave a speech on the evening of the historic decision, in which he recalled in detail the original conversion of the Orthodox Cathedral during the conquest of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmed Fatih ("the Conqueror"). In this narrative, the conversion of the Hagia Sophia stands as a symbol of the conquest of Istanbul, heralding a new era of prosperity and tolerance. Even more so, "the resurrection of Hagia Sophia is also a harbinger of freedom for the al-Aqsa mosque and the will of the Muslims to break out of a time of discord." Thus memory of a glorious past and expectations of an even more glorious future are being connected in the present moment of reconversion, which may be interpreted as an utopian moment.

If we stay within the Turkish context for the moment we can regard the de-secularisation of the Hagia Sophia as completing a policy of Islamisation of public space, which has been continuously advanced by Erdoğan and its AKP in recent years. The opening of the impressive Çamlıca mosque, in classical Ottoman style, on a prominent hill of Üsküdar in March 2019, the new mosque on Taksim Square, one of the landmarks of Kemalist and secular Turkey, which has been under construction since 2017, and the Hagia Sophia Mosque form a spatial triangle with high symbolic significance: It links the Byzantine-to-Muslim ancient Istanbul (Hagia Sophia) with the historically Christian and then secularly modernised Beyoğlu (Taksim Mosque) and the Anatolian Istanbul east of the Bosphorus (Çamlıca Mosque). Erdoğan stages himself as the new "Fatih" ("the Conqueror") in the footsteps of Sultan Mehmed Fatih, repositioning Turkey in a neo-Ottoman historical imagination and thus as post-Kemalist. The imperial Hagia Sophia in combination with the new prestige mosques in the classical Ottoman style impressively reflect the neo-Ottoman claims of the Erdoğan/AKP era, branded by its supporters as the "New Turkey".

However, what is this neo-Ottoman empowerment of public space about? The revaluation of the Ottoman tradition goes hand in hand with a devaluation of Kemalist heritage, without attacking it directly. On the level of symbol politics, the project of post-Kemalist "New Turkey" is restorative: the re-Islamisation of the Hagia Sophia fits into the Islamic movement’s struggle to extend its authority over public space. While this struggle has been initiated by earlier incarnations of the movement, especially the Welfare Party of former prime-minister Necmettin Erbakan, it has been pushed further in the first decade of the millennium with the struggle against the headscarf ban in universities and other public spaces. The fact that Erdoğan seeks to inscribe his reign in the Istanbul metropolis not only in the form of major infrastructure projects (third Bosporus Bridge, Istanbul Airport and now the Istanbul Canal), but also through religious and sacred buildings, fits the picture. It reflects a paternalistic and authoritarian political style that the AKP did not introduce in Turkey, but perhaps perfected. Mustafa Kemal "Atatürk", the "Father of the Turks" and "senior teacher" is still the paradigmatic example of the paternalistic leader who protects and educates his nation – believed to be in need of such protection and guidance. With the de-secularisation of spaces once secularised by Atatürk, Erdoğan, himself revered as "reis" ("the Leader"), puts his policies above those of Atatürk. Furthermore, Erdoğan inscribes himself directly into Ottoman history by connecting his with the original act of conversion by Sultan Mehmet Fatih, thus presenting himself as worthy heir of the conquerer sultan. In the mentioned address, Erdoğan tells the story of the Hagia Sophia consistently from a Muslim perspective. From this perspective, the Kemalist phase is reduced to a historical interlude within a far more significant longue durée of Turkish-Islamic grandeur, in which, however, as Erdoğan consistently emphasizes, tolerance towards non-Muslims played a constitutive role.

Although there is much religious pathos in the neo-Ottoman staging of the re-conversion of the Hagia Sophia, this should not make us overlook the striking dominance of nationalist rhetoric in the discourse preparing and accompanying the act in Turkey. This nationalist rhetoric establishes different fronts  than the Islamisation/secularisation debate. Anti-imperialist schemes of interpretation, which are in continuity with Kemalist discourse, unite right through left nationalist discourses. In this discursive field, the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is primarily seen as a performative sign of Turkish sovereignty in the face of continuous foreign, and primarily ‘Western’, attempts to interfere in internal Turkish affairs. From this perspective, the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum was the product of a quasi-colonial dictate and a sting in the country's independence. The dominant narrative insinuates that the sovereignty of the country, which had been made possible by Atatürk, has been injured by the secularisation of Istanbul’s most significant mosque, presented as a token of Turkey’s modernity. This theme was also taken up by Erdoğan in the mentioned address: "I invite everyone to respect the decision on the Hagia Sophia taken by the legal and executive bodies of our country...The reopening of the Hagia Sophia for worship under a new decree is a result of the sovereign rights of our country.“

The notion of restoration or perfection of the sovereignty of the Turkish nation, in nationalist rhetoric perceived as a nation of Muslims (thus excluding non-Muslim Turkish citizens), is directed both at a national and at international audiences. This notion has been adopted and pushed by the Turkish president, since 2016 dependent on support by the ultra-nationalist MHP, to bind right-wing conservative and nationalist milieus more closely to his leadership. Igniting nationalist causes as a means to divert the public gaze from other challenging political problems has worked for Erdoğan in the past and again seems to do the job, at least for the moment, in times of an economic crisis that has been further aggravated by the Corona pandemic, and steadily declining survey results. On the other hand, the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia is also interpreted as an emphatic sign of Turkey's claim to leadership over the post-Ottoman Muslim nations of the MENA region. Turkey's military engagement in Syria and Libya underpins this claim and the aforementioned announcement of the liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem points in the same direction.

Adding the discourse of cultural heritage to the mix of nationalist, neo-Ottoman and Islamist rhetorics that govern the discourse of the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia, Erdoğan has given the discussion yet another twist that may have come as a surprise to many. In a deplorably poor condition at the time of the conquest, the Ottomans would have taken care of the Hagia Sophia as the first and most important Istanbul mosque. They would have carefully preserved its historical treasures and even its name (in Turkish: Ayasofya), renovated the building and changed and extended it according to its new function. Therefore, Erdoğan continues, "the right of the Turkish nation over the Hagia Sophia is not less than that of those who first built this building about 1500 years ago.” With the transformation into a museum during Kemalist one-party rule, the Hagia Sophia would once again have been "exposed to a historical destruction. Attached to the mosque, the Ayasofya madrasah, which was built by Sultan Fatih as the first Ottoman university, was destroyed without reason...The precious carpets laid out on the floor of the Ayasofya were cut and distributed randomly. The ancient chandeliers were taken to the smelting plant." There would have even been plans to destroy the minarets.

Erdoğan thus delegitimises the Kemalist conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum as an act of destruction of cultural heritage. The fact that he—in addition to the dominant neo-Ottoman and nationalist rhetoric that has shaped both his approach and right-wing-conservative discourses on the status of the Hagia Sophia in recent years—makes use of international cultural heritage discourse to legitimise the reconversion may be taken as a sign that, despite the dominant rhetoric of sovereignty,  he is not indifferent to international public opinion. The cultural heritage rhetoric, the emphasis on religious tolerance as part of the Ottoman-Islamic tradition and the promise to keep the Hagia Sophia, UNESCO World Heritage Site, open to all visitors, point to an interest in soothing international publics with strong Christian sensibilities who are discomforted with the reconversion. European and North-American audiences (“the West” in Turkish parlance) were not the main addressee of the reconversion. Erdoğan is currently more concerned with strengthening his political capital elsewhere: domestically as champion of national sovereignty and in the post-Ottoman Muslim international as a beacon of hope for the political independence and the honour of Muslims.

An earlier version of this article was first published in German as entry #22 of the ReCentGlobe-Blog.

Markus Dreßler has also given a radio interview on Deutschlandfunk on the topic.