Hagia Sophia and the Role of Religion in Turkey’s Politics

Source: AP News

Hagia Sophia, also called Church of the Holy Wisdom or Church of the Divine Wisdom, is one of the world’s most famous Byzantine monument, built in Costantinople (today Istanbul, Turkey) in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian I.

Consecrated in the year 360 by Costantius II, its history is made of destroying and reconstructions. In 1453 it has been repurposed as a mosque and only in 1934 it has been secularized by President Kemal Atatürk, becoming a museum. Now, Hagia Sophia is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Historic Area of Istanbul. Lately, the monument appeared on the news all over the world following the decision of the current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to turn the site, once again, into a mosque. The announcement found a strong negative response, especially in the West.

To understand these reactions, it is necessary to analyze the role of religion in Turkey, and how much it affected and still affects its politics, through the everlasting opposition between secularism and Islamism.

Hagia Sophia and the Role of Religion in Turkey's Politics
Credits: AdonisTravelTurkey

The Republic of Turkey was born in the aftermath of the World War I, based on the ideology also known as Atatürkism or Kemalism, from the name of its leader and then first Turkey’s President, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This founding ideology had as its main goal the separation from the Ottoman predecessors and their religion-based monarchy, with the modernization of the Turkish society through a series of cultural, religious, political and social reforms. Amongst those reforms, one of the most important has been the abolition of many of the traditional institutions of the former Islamic State (e.g. the Caliphate in 1924) and the establishment of a modern version of Islam submitted to the Turkish nation, which maintains the sovereignty above religion. President Atatürk started the laicization of Turkey.

The death of Kemal Atatürk and the World War II both came without affecting this new equilibrium, with Turkey joining the UN in 1945 with its new President İsmet İnönü. After an initial economic boom with the government of Adnan Menderes, who had also been more indulgent with the Islamic, in the 1950s the country entered an economic crisis that brought some antidemocratic pushes to silent the opposition.

The following years will be characterized by the opposition between the Kemalist party (CHP, Popular Republican Party) and the Democratic Party, which eventually won the elections. Then, two coup d’état in the 1960s and 1970s, and a strong political instability led to the raise in the 1970s and in the 1980s of the National Salvation Party (MSP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The main intent of the MSP was the Islamization of Turkey and the reinstatement of the Islamic law. The Islamic party opposed to the liberal economy and, while reinforcing the bond with the other Islamic states, worked to undermine the relationships with the Western Bloc.

Hagia Sophia and the Role of Religion in Turkey's Politics
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Webtekno, Istanbul). Source: Richard Lang Worth

The 2002 elections saw the winner in Erdoğan, leader of the Justice and Development party (AKP), first as Prime Minister and then, from 2014, as the country’s President. Several riots have shaken the country since then, and the repressive methods used by Erdogan’s in reply to those demonstrations have caused the deterioration of the relationship between Turkey and the EU.

Over the years, Erdogan started the neo-ottomanization of Turkey and to restrict the country’s democracy. One of the most famous act have been the passing of the Internet laws, with which the government tightened its control over the Internet, expanding the national telecom authority, after having already given to the same authority the power to block access to certain web pages without a prior court order, undermining the freedom of speech.

But as we stated at the beginning of this article, there is no politics in Turkey without religion. And the very differentiation between secularism and Islamism fills the political history of this country. Secularism, or laicism, was first introduced in 1928 with the amendment to the Constitution of 1924 which declared that the Islam was the State religion, this way separating religion from the State. Over the years, Erdogan has not been the only one to try to swift the country religious balance in favor of the Islamism, and the very monument Hagia Sophia has been at the center of several propositions to become the symbol of Islamism in Turkey.

But what seem to be important is not the country’s religion per se, rather how Erdogan could be using Islam to dismantle democracy and to bring the country into a new authoritarianism, reducing, amongst others, religious pluralism, which was also one of the conditions set by the European Union to grant access to Turkey amongst its now 27 Member States. Or at least this is the western perception: those who defend Erdogan’s politics claim his government has actually brought to a new pluralism, allowing the creation of several religious movements and associations and improving the dialogue with the Cristian representations over the country, at least until the coup d’état of 2016. This vision is based on an historical interpretation of Turkey’s secularism through the years of the Republic of Turkey, according to which it was actually a repressive and closed system only necessary to find a unifying vision for the newly born Republic.

Yet, the failed coup d’état of 2016 changed the situation for the worse, inaugurating an era of repression, political instability and the need for Erdogan to reinforce his powers over the country. This situation gave him the pretext to legitimize his pushes to the constitutional reform which would have transformed Turkey from a Parliamentary Republic into a Presidential one, expanding Erdogan’s powers. In 2017, after a referendum often defined as shady by the opposition, the amendments proposed by the AKP were ratified and the most important transformation of the Country began.

Hagia Sophia and the Role of Religion in Turkey's Politics
Taksim, Istanbul. Source: AP Photo/Emrah Gurel

The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque has always been one of Erdogan’s dreams, as stated by himself. But in the context of Erdogan’s reforms, the neo-ottomanization of the country, we can see how symbolic this decision is in the path of dismantling Atatürk’s legacy. For some, the announcement served as a distraction from the damages that the COVID-19 has brought to the Country; for others, like UNESCO, the monument belongs to the world heritage and not to Turkey. On his side, Erdogan’s defended his choice by stating that Turkey only applied its sovereignty over the monument, hence exercising its right.

Nevertheless, it could be read as part of a bigger political plan. With this move, Erdoğan is trying to gather consensus from the conservative forces in a delicate situation such as an economic crisis exasperated by the pandemic. To position himself and the country as a point of reference for the Islamic, also means to gather hegemony in the Middle East. Finally, with this act, he is stepping away from the EU, refusing to be influenced by the West as it has been the case at the beginning of the Republic of Turkey.

  • What will be Erdogan’s next move?
  • Are the reactions over Hagia Sophia becoming a mosque justified or is Erdogan right when he says it is Turkey’s business?
  • Will Turkey be able to join the EU in the future?

Suggested Readings

BBC, Erdogan’s Turkey

BBC, Hagia Sophia: Turkey turns iconic Istanbul museum into mosque

BBC, Turkey referendum grants President Erdogan sweeping new powers

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4 Comments

  1. Ronaldo Konmaz

    There are glaring errors in this piece;
    “ In 1402, after Costantinople was conquered by the Turkish”
    First of all, besides the grammatical error (Turkish is an adjective), it was conquered by the ottomans not the Turks. The ottomans were comprised of ethnicities besides Turks and can not be referred to as the same. Secondly Mehmet conquered Constantinople in 1453 not 1402 which is a very basic mistake for someone to make while writing on this topic.

    1. Dear Ronaldo Konmaz,
      Thank you for your valuable feedback! The author of this piece has already revised and rectified potential misstatements, which we ensure have been out of unintentional mistakes rather than willingness to deceive our readers.
      For this reason, we always welcome readers’ observations and thank you again for your comment.
      – TNGO Editorial Board

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