Turkey ‘re-conquers’ Hagia Sophia amid international disapproval

President Tayyip Erdogan attends Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, for the first time after it was once again declared a mosque after 86 years, in Istanbul, July 24, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 25 July 2020

Turkey ‘re-conquers’ Hagia Sophia amid international disapproval

  • The monument is on the UNESCO World Heritage list and last year attracted 3.7 million visitors
  • Curtains hide Christian mosaics and symbols at prayer times

ISTANBUL: Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia on Friday hosted its first Islamic prayers in 85 years, despite fierce criticism of the Turkish government’s campaign to revert the building to a mosque after being a museum for decades.
For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the much-publicized congregational worship represented the “conquest” of the 1,500 year-old domed monument.
Curtains hide Christian mosaics and symbols at prayer times. The head of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, Ali Erbas, gave the Friday sermon with an Ottoman sword in hand. He read verses about conquest from the Qur’an and gave a stirring, almost provocative speech about “the ones” who turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum being “damned,” an indirect reference perhaps to the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Supporters of the conversion campaign saw its successful outcome as a source of national and religious pride, while opponents were concerned about keeping modern Turkey’s secular legacy intact.
The monument is on the UNESCO World Heritage list and last year attracted 3.7 million visitors, making it one of the top tourist destinations in the country.
UNESCO as well as authorities in Washington, Moscow, Brussels and Athens expressed their concerns about Turkey’s unilateral actions.
Berk Esen, a political analyst from Ankara’s Bilkent University, said that although there had been strong objections in some quarters to the conversion, the international response had mostly been mute.
“Obviously, the decision is generally unpopular abroad but few governments took strong notice amid the continuing pandemic,” he told Arab News. “Nonetheless, converting the Hagia Sophia’s status to a mosque will be seen by many international observers as yet another move by the Erdogan government to destroy Turkey’s secular regime and its links to the West.”
There were protests in Greece on Friday against Turkey’s decision and, according to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, what happened at the Hagia Sophia was “not an indication of power” but a “sign of weakness.” Athens said that the latest move would burn bridges between Turkey and the West.
Esen added that Erdogan appeared to have failed to generate sympathy and support in the Muslim world.
“On Erdogan’s part, this decision was taken straight out of the populist playbook of changing the public debate and energizing one’s voter base by exploiting a cultural significant issue.”
He regarded it as a “desperate attempt” to reassert control over the public debate and cater to the Islamist base.
“When coupled with the opposition’s decision to not challenge the Hagia Sophia move, Erdogan is left with few opportunities to exploit this issue to mobilize his base and polarize public opinion,” he added. “The government’s decision does not resolve any of the major problems facing Turkey in the coming months and may turn into a Pyrrhic victory for Erdogan, who finds himself more removed from the swing and undecided voters.”
According to Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the Ankara office director of German Marshall Fund of the United States, Erdogan’s push to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque and start hosting prayers had two main goals.
“Erdogan’s first goal was leaving a strong legacy as the leader who re-Islamized Hagia Sophia which he would be remembered by right-wing conservatives for generations to come,” he told Arab News. “I believe that he has reached this goal.”
His second goal was to trigger a culture war which he could not lose and the opposition could not win.
“However, the opposition rejected being lured into such a controversy, denying Erdogan his culture war. The international impact of the decision will be limited as Turkey’s image in the West is already very negative and there is not much room for worsening,” he added.
EU-Turkey relations are already strained by Ankara’s energy exploration in disputed East Mediterranean waters. The issue of the Hagia Sophia has added to the caseload, showing Turkey’s defiance on contentious issues preoccupying the international community.
During the past few weeks, the EU’s top diplomats urged Ankara to hold off on the conversion project, but Turkey insisted it was a national sovereignty issue.


Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

Updated 26 November 2020

Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

  • Erdogan defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts
  • Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq: analyst

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied the country has a “Kurdish issue,” even as he doubled down on his anti-Kurdish stance and accused a politician of being a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Erdogan was addressing members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Nov. 25 when he made the remarks.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an insurgency against the state in 1984, and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and US. Erdogan accuses the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of links to the PKK, which it denies.

Erdogan told AKP members that Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s former co-chair who challenged him in the 2015 presidential elections, was a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Demirtas has been behind bars since Nov. 4, 2016, despite court orders calling for his release and faces hundreds of years in prison over charges related to the outlawed PKK.

The president defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast region since local elections in March 2019.

He also said the AKP would design and implement democratization reforms with its nationalistic coalition partner, which is known for its anti-Kurdish credentials.  

His words are likely to disrupt the peace efforts that Turkey has been making with its Kurdish community for years, although they have been baby steps. They could also hint at a tougher policy shift against Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

According to Oxford University Middle East analyst Samuel Ramani, Erdogan’s comments should be read as a reaction to Tuesday’s resignation of top presidential aide Bulent Arinc, who urged for Demirtas to be released and insisted that the Kurds were repressed within Turkey.

“This gained widespread coverage in the Kurdish media, including in Iraqi Kurdistan's outlet Rudaw which has international viewership,” he told Arab News. “Erdogan wanted to stop speculation on this issue.”

Ramani said that Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

“It is also an oblique warning to US President-elect Joe Biden not to try to interfere in Turkish politics by raising the treatment of Kurds within Turkey.”

But Erdogan’s comments would matter little in the long run, he added.

“Much more will depend on whether Turkey mounts another Operation Peace Spring-style offensive in northern Syria, which is a growing possibility. If that occurs during the Trump to Biden transition period, the incoming Biden administration could be more critical of Turkey and convert its rhetoric on solidarity with the Kurds into action.”

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been a key partner for the US in its fight against Daesh. During a campaign speech in Oct. 2019, Biden criticized the US decision to withdraw from Syria as a “complete failure” that would leave Syrian Kurds open to aggression from Turkey.

“It’s more insidious than the betrayal of our brave Kurdish partners, it’s more dangerous than taking the boot off the neck of ISIS,” Biden said at the time.

UK-based analyst Bill Park said that Erdogan was increasingly influenced by his coalition partners, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

“He might also believe that both the PKK and the HDP have been so weakened that he doesn't have to take them into consideration,” he told Arab News. “The Western world will not respond dramatically to this announcement but they are tired of Erdogan. There is little hope that Turkey's relations with the US or the EU can be much improved. The Syrian Kurdish PYD militia are seeking an accommodation with Damascus, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan, is indifferent to the fate of Turkey's Kurds and has problems of its own.”

The HDP, meanwhile, is skeptical about Erdogan’s reform pledges and sees them as “politicking.”

“This reform narrative is not sincere,” said HDP lawmaker Meral Danis Bestas, according to a Reuters news agency report. “This is a party which has been in power for 18 years and which has until now totally trampled on the law. It has one aim: To win back the support which has been lost.”

Turkey’s next election is scheduled for 2023, unless there is a snap election in a year.