Wannabe Khalifa and Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is going bonkers with his ambitions to relive the brutal glory of the Ottomans of the Medieval era. On Thursday, Turkey’s top court convened to decide the fate of Hagia Sophia and examine a 1934 decree that converted the 1500-year old Cathedral into a museum.
The court has reserved the verdict and is expected to announce its verdict within 15 days. It will decide whether the Byzantine-era monument should remain a tourist spot or be converted into a place for Muslim worship. The verdict is a mere formality for Erdogan to find greater legitimacy for his move to make the monument a place for Muslim worship.
The monument, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was constructed in the sixth century during the reign of Justinian I, a Byzantine ruler. It was the main seat of the Greek orthodox Church, and remained so until the conquest of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire by the Ottomans.
In 1453, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) was captured by the Ottoman ruler, Mehmed the Conqueror. And the Cathedral, Hagia Sophia located here was plundered and converted into a Mosque. Later in 1935, the secular founder of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Atatürk altered the building into a museum. It attracts millions of tourists every year and serves as a symbol of pacification of sorts.
But Erdogan wants to make Hagia Sophia his latest political battleground at both domestic and international levels.
When Erdogan entered active politics thirty years ago, he was indifferent to the demands for converting the structure into a Mosque. But then he lost the local elections in Istanbul last year and his narrative changed. Now, he wants to politically weaponize extremist Islamism within his country.
The move is being seen as a tactic to drum up political support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in religious and fundamentalist constituencies.
At an international level, this is a part of his ambition to antagonise the West and seek political legitimacy for radicalism which involves celebrating the brutality and ruthlessness of Islamist conquerors. The Ottoman Empire had plundered and looted the Eastern Romans. Hagia Sophia’s status as a monument observes pacification, but its conversion into a Mosque will exhibit a sense of historical domination.
Erdogan insists that this is a matter of Turkey’s national sovereignty. The Turkish President said, “They dare tell us not to transform the Hagia Sophia into a mosque,” and added, “Are you ruling Turkey, or are we?”
Needless to mention, Hagia Sophia remains close to orthodox Christians. Four popes have visited the monument, and countries like Greece are going to be profoundly hurt by Turkey’s new move owing to the historical connections.
The West is bound to get perturbed, especially due to the presence of the evangelical Christian elements who are not going to take this lying down. They are going to turn reactionary. Turkey has already fallen out of favour with the governments of these countries but an extremist move of this level is going to have some serious repercussions.
Every country with a significant Christian population is going to feel affected. Even countries like Italy that share a historical affinity with the 6th-century Cathedral are going to turn against Erdogan.
Similarly, Russia would end up opposing this move as 71 per cent of the country’s population identifies itself as Orthodox Christian. Putin himself shares a relationship of dominance over Erdogan, which he will in all probability re-assert amidst the latter’s Hagia Sophia move.
In fact, Greece which already shares far too much of acrimony with Turkey has unsurprisingly made a big issue out of the plans to convert the ancient Cathedral into a Mosque. The country has been invoking Christian sentiments since May when Erdogan allowed recitation of Quranic verses in Hagia Sophia.
The Greek Foreign Ministry had said, “Today’s [Friday’s] reading of passages from the Quran inside Hagia Sophia, a global monument protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site that has functioned as a museum since 1935, is not only an unacceptable attempt to alter the site’s designation as a monument, but also an affront to the religious sentiment of Christians throughout the world.”
Greece has also invoked Turkey’s UNESCO obligations, though Erdogan might not really be concerned about it.
The United States too has spoken up. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability — so rare in the modern world — to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.”
This is Erdogan’s message to the West- he is going to openly target the West. Turkey is challenging the liberal world order and openly moving towards the loose strategic axis of countries like Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela. It is a different matter that this loose strategic axis itself is going to get riddled with fissures given the inherently fundamentalist character of the Hagia Sophia move.