People celebrate behind a Turkish national flag in front of the Hagia Sophia after a court decision to revoke its status as a museum. Photo: DPA
Serkan Yolacan
Serkan Yolacan

Why Hagia Sophia move spells trouble for Turkey’s President Erdogan

  • Converting the iconic building back into a mosque reveals a powerful vein in Turkish politics – the right-wing Turkish-Islamic Synthesis ideology
  • But while Erdogan’s decision allows him to keep the political centre onside, it is a sign of his reliance on symbols in increasingly uncertain times

After an 86-year pause, Friday prayers will resume at the Hagia Sophia this week, following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decree to convert Istanbul’s iconic museum back into a mosque.

The decision, which has been greeted with dismay around the world, has been interpreted by many as an Islamist attempt to undo Turkey’s secularist legacy – Hagia Sophia’s status was changed from mosque to museum in 1934 by a cabinet order signed by the country’s secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

In Turkey, however, there has been little opposition to the move from Erdogan’s political rivals, even secularists. In fact, in a rare display of agreement with the government, all opposition parties save one have applauded it.

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia to become mosque after court ruling, says Tayyip Erdogan

This surprising response reveals a vein in Turkish politics that is more powerful than either Islamism or secularism, yet is overshadowed by both: the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, a right-wing ideology which holds that Islam is indispensable to Turkish identity and that Turks have a privileged role in the spread of the religion.

Hagia Sophia, known to Turks as Ayasofya, was inaugurated in 537 as the state church of the Roman Empire. It later became the patriarchal cathedral of the Eastern Orthodox Church before being ransacked by Latin crusaders in 1204. Some 250 years later, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II turned the majestic building into a mosque and built his seraglio, the Topkapi Palace, next to it upon conquering Constantinople. Until last week, these historic structures were by far the two most visited museums of Istanbul. No more – the church-turned-mosque-turned-museum is, once again, a mosque.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: AFP

Erdogan is not the first leader to open Hagia Sophia to Muslim prayer. That distinction belongs to Turgut Ozal, the former Turkish president whose centrist political legacy Erdogan openly embraced in carrying his party to power in the early 2000s.

In 1991, Ozal dedicated the Sultan’s Pavilion, an 18th-century annex of the iconic building, to Muslim prayer without changing the Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum. Although this was a symbolic act, it went a long way towards showing how the long-held dreams of Turkey’s Muslim conservatives could be addressed without openly attacking Ataturk’s legacy. To walk this fine line, Ozal leaned on the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis.

Although Ataturk and his secularist reforms sat uncomfortably within this ideology, its proponents, unlike the Islamists, did not take issue with the modern Turkish state’s founder. After all, he was the defender of Gallipoli, a major historical symbol for nationalists and Islamists alike, and saved Istanbul from allied occupation after the first world war. In their eyes, serving Turks meant serving Islam.

As Erdogan prepares to reopen Hagia Sophia, Turkey is more influential but has few friends

Ataturk thus belonged to the pantheon of Turkish leaders who brought glory to Islam, never mind his secularist bent. The Turkish-Islamic Synthesis provided a bridge between Islamists and nationalists, and seeped into the mainstream over the past 30 years – nearly two-thirds of which has passed with Erdogan in a leadership role. It now defines the broad parameters of what passes as legitimate politics among both the right and left.

Whether it is the conquest of Istanbul, the battle of Gallipoli, or the Hagia Sophia, such symbols of Turkish-Islamic Synthesis are now the cornerstone of majoritarian politics in Turkey. No political actor can openly defy the ideology without risking the chance to occupy the political centre – hence the broad acceptance of Erdogan’s move. But while this seems like a win-win situation for the president, it also signals trouble ahead for him.

The Hagia Sophia: the church-turned-mosque-turned-museum is, once again, a mosque. Photo: AFP

For one, Erdogan’s politics increasingly rely on polarisation, and consensus is not an advantage for him. The international opposition is also a worrying sign. The president has an image problem in the West, and this decision, if anything, will worsen it. More importantly, the country is reeling economically, and cannot afford any fallout. Erdogan knows this well. Last year, he dismissed suggestions to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, saying it was a political trap. Yet he is now willingly entering the trap. Why?

Of late, Erdogan has had nothing to offer but symbols. Some have come in the form of megaprojects, like the country’s biggest mosque in Camlica, Istanbul, completed and inaugurated in 2019. Another mosque is being completed in Taksim, the symbolic square of the republic which was the epicentre of the massive Gezi Park protests in 2013. The Hagia Sophia move is the latest example. In the meantime, the state he is running is tangled in webs of nepotism and is unable to arrest the economy’s free-fall. The patronage networks he has spearheaded have made Erdogan unpopular with the majority, and he is using symbols to touch base with his constituency and rally support.

Erdogan knows he is on thin ice.

In the past, as an unrivalled strongman leader, his favoured instrument of rule was the presidential decree. This time, instead of annulling Ataturk’s 1934 decision via this route, he chose to wait for the Council of State, the highest administrative court in the country, to act first. Although nobody mistakes the court’s decision for a legal proceeding independent of Erdogan, his decision to invoke the judiciary’s authority shows that he is uncertain of his ability to face down international pressures, and that he knows he does not have the political capital to take full responsibility for the move.

Despite Turkish Islamists’ joy at the move, these are ever more uncertain times for Erdogan. When he was asked how he slept on the night of his historic decision, he said he could not sleep until first light.

He did not say why.

Dr Serkan Yolacan, a Turk, is a research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore