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OP-ED: Is Turkey going backwards?

  • Published at 02:00 pm July 13th, 2020
Hagia Sophia Turkey
Photo: Reuters

Converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque appears to be the latest blow to the country’s secular beliefs of old

I have been a regular visitor to Istanbul. I have travelled to Turkey, both as a tourist and also as a student of history -- in search of reasons leading to the decay of the Ottoman Empire. There was a time in history when Turks had ruled half the planet. 

Then, the glory of the Empire gradually eroded, till it finally collapsed. Ancient Constantinople is an enchanting city, which spreads out on both banks of the Bosporus -- perhaps a magical binder, which has united Europe and Asia, since biblical times.

A few days ago, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan boldly announced that Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia should go back to being a mosque from a museum. This decision has caused anguish on both sides of the Bosporus -- and beyond. Has the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan reversed the clock on Turkey? Or was he merely continuing the march of faith and power the monument has been so used to since birth?

Though the order had come from the country’s highest administrative court, are we watching just another flailing statesman’s last-ditch, indirect attempt to win favour with his lately displeased people? After all, though the next national election is due only in 2023, according to a recent poll conducted in Istanbul, Erdogan’s popularity rating has fallen to its lowest level since October of 2018.

The Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first Turkish President, in 1934. The site on which it stands, had first birthed a church in 360 CE. There was a fire, causing a second church to come up in its place. Another fire and destruction, and thereafter, came up what is known as the Hagia Sophia today.

The structure, with its huge dome and towering minarets, has long played a pivotal role in the culture of the city and in Turkey at large. It was built as a Christian temple by the Byzantine empire, then became a mosque after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, as Istanbul was previously known, in the mid-15th century.

In 1934, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, had the Hagia Sophia turned into a museum as part of his efforts to modernize the country and encourage it to compete with European powers.

Last week however, the Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, passed a judgement that the edict that converted the structure into a museum was illegal, which effectively turned Hagia Sophia back into an Islamic place of worship, Turkish law experts said. This had ultimately delivered Erdogan a moral victory he had long pursued.

The beautiful structure was built by Emperor Justinian I between 532 and 537 CE and was an Eastern Orthodox Church. 

Somewhere along the way, it became a Roman Catholic cathedral and then Orthodox church once more. 

In 1453 CE, after the fall of Constantinople, an Ottoman Sultan turned it into a mosque. Erdogan said last week: “The revival of Hagia Sophia is the harbinger of freedom of Al-Aqsa and the footsteps of Muslims emerging from the era of interregnum.”

Ataturk had the constitution amended in 1928 to remove the declaration saying that the state religion is Islam and had introduced secularism instead. Long before Erdogan turned politician, he played football and was even hired by Istanbul’s city government team, but reportedly had to quit because of the ban on Islamic beards. 

The founder of “New Turkey”, as he seems to have positioned himself, has been in power these 17 years, but avoids direct references to the founder of the Republic of Turkey. And when he does, he refrains from referring to him as Ataturk, which means Father of Turks. He has also, bit by bit, distanced himself from Ataturk’s ideology and reforms.

Erdogan has restored the headscarf for women, revived religious education, and pushed for the use of Ottoman, an old form of Turkish using Arabic script, instead of the Latin alphabet Ataturk had popularized. 

All of this in the name of Turkish pride and heritage. And in 2018, after his re-election, he had the country’s parliamentary system replaced with a presidential system. 

After last week’s decision was announced, Turkish writer and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk said: “To convert it (Hagia Sophia) back to a mosque is to say to the rest of the world unfortunately -- we are not secular anymore.” 

Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.

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