Turkey’s Erdogan ignores international opposition to Hagia Sophia mosque conversion

Turkey’s Erdogan ignores international opposition to Hagia Sophia mosque conversion

Turkey’s Erdogan ignores international opposition to Hagia Sophia mosque conversion
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, listens to an official as he visits the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Sunday, July 19, 2020. (AP)
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A controversy that has been on Turkey’s political agenda for decades is now disposed of, but debates on it and its international implications are likely to continue for some more time.

The Council of State, which is Turkey’s highest judicial authority on administrative matters, this month concluded that the decision adopted in 1934 to convert the Hagia Sophia into a museum was unlawful. It stated this was because Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Istanbul, had in 1453 converted the Byzantine cathedral into a mosque, established a pious foundation, and donated the Hagia Sophia mosque to this foundation. Therefore, the allocation of the Hagia Sophia for a purpose other than a mosque was considered by the court to be inconsistent with the will of the founder of the pious foundation.

In fact, Sultan Mehmet, in the extremely long act of foundation, used harsh language, saying: “Whoever attempts to amend, modify or obliterate one single sentence of this (act) or explain it away or cancel the pious foundation status of Hagia Sophia or anyone who helps him doing so would be committing the biggest sin. May God’s biggest curse, that of the Prophet and those of all Muslims, be eternally upon him. May their sufferance in hell never diminish. May nobody have pity on them on the Day of Judgment. May God’s fury remain on them.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his public address immediately after the court’s decision, reiterated some of the sultan’s words. He said: “The decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque allows us to redress a mistake that was committed 86 years ago and set us free from Sultan Mehmet’s curse.” He said the mosque will be inaugurated on July 24 with Friday prayers.

Erdogan did not need a court decision to convert the museum back into a mosque, as he had the sovereign right to do so. The entire exercise looks more like an effort to undo what Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did in 1934. However, in order to avoid any reaction among the Kemalist public opinion in the country, Erdogan avoided any direct reference to Turkey’s former leader. Instead, he focused on harshly criticizing the policy. 

The entire exercise looks more like an effort to undo what Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did in 1934.

Yasar Yakis


Last year, Erdogan used an entirely different narrative. In a special TV program broadcast ahead of the March 31 local elections, commenting on those who were asking for the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, he said: “It is not a problem for us to overcome these hurdles. But we have to weigh its advantages and disadvantages. We may have to pay too costly a bill. We have thousands of mosques all over the world. Can those who voice these wishes figure out what would happen to these mosques? They utter their wish without thinking of this aspect of the question. They do not know the world. They do not know their counterparts. As a political leader, I did not lose my direction to engage unnecessarily in such a game.”

It is difficult to guess how Erdogan’s calculus evolved to bring him to this decision. One possibility is that, because of the continuously weakening support for his ruling party, he may have thought that such a move could contribute to regaining the support of conservative segments of his power base. 

Another possibility is that he may have been encouraged by his close advisers. Parliament Speaker Mustafa Sentop, who was this month re-elected to this prestigious post, probably at Erdogan’s behest, said in a recent interview that the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque had been his dream since a young age. Erdogan expressed the same feeling with exactly the same words. Many others repeated similar sentiments after Erdogan spoke out. This shows that the Hagia Sophia issue has remained deep in the hearts of many in Erdogan’s inner circle.

Despite these reasons, we have to keep in mind that Erdogan is a leader who very closely follows the trends in public opinion. He carries out regular polls and must have done so for the Hagia Sophia. So he must have decided to cater to domestic public opinion rather than the international community. Even countries with a predominantly Muslim population have refrained from supporting Turkey’s decision. So far, only Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia and Hamas have publicly extended support. But Erdogan has ignored the silence of the Islamic Ummah. Stepping back from this decision now has to be considered almost impossible.

Whatever the eventual outcome, choosing this moment for such an important decision is bound to have negative repercussions on the international stage. 

  • Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar


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