Hagia Sophia in Turkey’s culture wars
Was Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque about short-term electoral interests? Certainly, he needs to boost his popularity, fast waning due to a declining economy, perceptions of corruption and highly contested authoritarian rule. At the same time, a historical reading of Erdogan’s decision shows how competing narratives and culture wars between pro-West modernising elites and counter-elites imbued with Ottoman nostalgia have played out in the symbolic attribution of Hagia Sophia.
The story of modern Turkey, founded by the pro-West Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) in 1923 as a successor to the Ottoman Empire, is one of contested memories of Ottoman nostalgia on the one hand and Kemalist triumphalism on the other. Top-down Kemalist reforms in the 1920s and 30s, such as the adoption of the Latin alphabet and western dress codes, aimed to distance the new republican state from the ancien regime and to build a new national identity embedded within western civilisation with secular values and practices — a far cry from the old Ottoman-Islamic civilisation.
Ataturk’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia — built as a Christian Byzantine cathedral in 537 and turned into a mosque in 1453 after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (Mehmed the Conqueror) — into a museum in 1934 was part of this vision of Turkey as an equally recognised member of the western nations. Yet the War of Independence against Britain and France following the First World War tempered the new regime’s aim with a certain scepticism and anxiety towards western intentions.
If Ataturk wanted his new nation to be Muslim but secular, Turkish but European, it was not built on wide societal consensus. His revolution faced opposition, particularly after the transition to multi-party elections in 1950, from those with a different imagined community in mind: Muslim with Ottoman pride, Turkish with native and authentic culture not relying on western civilization. Modernisation congruent with Islamic and Ottoman civilization has been the essential ideological toolkit for such opposition.
This oppositional political thought mostly consists of right-wing conservative and nationalist political movements, as well as leaders seeking to restore pride in the Ottoman past and achieve new national glories to wield against ‘alienated’ ruling elites at home and the patronising West. Such opposition has long sought to achieve a counter-revolution against Kemalist triumphalism on the one hand and a symbolic declaration of a new psychological independence from the West on the other. Recep Tayyip Erdogan comes from this ideological blend of Islamism, Turkish nationalism and Ottoman nostalgia.
Erdogan’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque after 86 years should be read as a part of this movement against Kemalist modernisation and an attempt to seize the upper hand in this almost-century-long culture war — though support for the Hagia Sophia conversion did not come from Erdogan’s pious Muslim constituents alone: some secular far-right nationalists have joined in the euphoria. In this sense, Erdogan’s motivations could be considered more nationalist than religious.
Yet all of this plays to Erdogan’s Caliphate-like ambitions within the global Muslim community: in the Hagia Sophia decision, he also mentioned ‘liberating’ the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. This ambition is blended with Turkish nationalism according to which the Turks would be the leaders of the Ummah. Increasing Turkish military activism in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere has been part of this vision.
Turkey is stuck within this culture war where revanchist policies strengthen authoritarianism and polarisation, which, in turn, weaken the societal peace in the country. Unless Turkey finds a way to move on from the competing narratives and memories of the Kemalist/Ottoman dichotomy, the construction of a democratic Republic where diverse lifestyles and identities can co-exist peacefully will remain an impossible project.
By: Serhun Al
Serhun Al is a political scientist at Izmir University of Economics in Turkey and the author of Patterns of Nationhood and Saving the State in Turkey: Ottomanism, Nationalism, and Multiculturalism (2019).
Source: Le Monde Diplomatique