Turkey: nationalism, not religion, drives the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque

THE GREAT CATHEDRAL of Hagia Sophia in the Turkish capital of Istanbul, was once the center of Eastern Orthodoxy, before being transformed into a mosque upon the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Empire in 1453; in 1934, Hagia Sophia became a museum. On July 24, 2020, the cathedral will officially become a mosque again at the behest of Turkish President Recep Erdoğan.

To understand the motivation behind this development, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) spoke to Etienne Copeaux, a historian of modern Turkey. He is a former fellow of the French Institute of Anatolian Studies (Institut français d’études anatoliennes) in Istanbul and a former researcher at the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique).

By turning the ancient Christian Basilica of Hagia Sophia into a mosque again, is President Erdoğan completing a long-term process?
The process dates back to the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Empire.To “act out” the capture of the city and the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the victor, Sultan Mehmet II, went to pray inside Hagia Sophia (in Turkish: Ayasofya). As a result of this, Hagia Sophia became a mosque for almost five centuries. Ayasofya is also mentioned in Muhammad’s sayings (hadith). One hadith lionizes whomever would take Constantinople.

Hagia Sophia

Legend attributes a prophecy to Muhammad, which is important to understand the importance of Hagia Sophia in the eyes of Muslim Turks. The dome of the basilica collapsed during an earthquake in 558, according to legend on the same night as Muhammad’s birth. Muhammad then visited the Byzantine emperor in a dream and authorized him to rebuild the basilica “because […] his believers would one day pray there.” Under the Ottoman Empire, the building was so holy that Muslims would try to spend the ‘Night of destiny’ inside Hagia Sophia to mark the sacred time in the month of Ramadan when Muslims celebrate the Koran’s revelation to Muhammad.

Was Atatürk’s desacralization of the mosque in 1934 a breaking point for Turkish Muslims?
Since Hagia Sophia holds a special place in the hearts and faith of Turkish Muslims, one can understand how scandalous for them was the desacralization of the mosque and its conversion into a museum by Atatürk, the founder of the secular Turkish republic. This act has become the symbol of Turkish secularism. But this must be seen in context: by this time, Turkey had eliminated most non-Muslims by genocide, mass expulsions and pogroms. And the process of ethnic cleansing did not stop but continued in 1955, 1964, and 1974.

The desacralization provoked anger among Muslims, which caused a reaction that came to light on the fifth centenary of the conquest of Constantinople, in 1953. Right-wing parties, both nationalist and religious, organized regular protests in front of Hagia Sophia to demand its return to Muslim worship. Since then, the demand has never stopped. Furthermore, during the victory in the legislative elections of 1995 of the Islamist party, Refah, of which Erdoğan was a member, voters were promised the return of Aya Sofya to Islam. Now the job is done.

How much does the decision have to do with Erdoğan’s personality?
It took some nerve; no one before him had dared to go so far. It must be noted, however, that at present Erdoğan doesn’t act from a position of strength and popular support. He is in trouble. Islamists lost control of Istanbul; the economic situation is disastrous. Erdoğan has been criticized in many quarters and has failed to silence the opposition through repression. By this act, he is obviously hoping to firmly rally the religious right around him. Turkey’s openly anti-Western military operations, despite the country’s membership in NATO, offer a favorable context.

Are the rising tensions caused by Erdoğan’s decision primarily religious or political?
Ayasofya was a mosque for five centuries. It is imbued with great sacredness, for both Christians and Muslims. If people can continue to visit it respectfully, like any Turkish mosque, if the Byzantine mosaics are respected, why be so offended? In my opinion, the problem is political, not religious since the Koran and many Islamic religious texts revere Jesus/Isa and Mary/Maryam. Erdoğan acted for the sake of Turkish nationalism, not the Muslim faith. Ayasofya is a nationalist question. The return serves no purpose from a cultural point of view since Istanbulites have far more mosques than they need, many of them huge and magnificent.

Inside Hagia Sophia
Inside Hagia Sophia

What message is Erdoğan sending to Turkey’s religious minorities, specifically to Christians?
On a religious level, Turkey’s main “message” to the world in the 20th century was the total destruction of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society by means of extreme violence. All the massacres and expulsions were carried out on purely religious grounds as part of a nationalist agenda. Cyprus is the latest example. The northern part of the island is a real laboratory for this process: when Turkey invaded in 1974, all Orthodox Christians were expelled by the Turkish military, within an hour; not because they spoke Greek but because they were Orthodox.

Such actions are Ottoman in orientation with people institutionally divided into distinct religious communities. The paradox is that, despite problems and massacres, the Ottoman Empire remained multi-religious. It is the supposedly secular republic that made Turkey 99 percent Muslim. In this respect, the Armenian genocide, although perpetrated a few years before the founding of the republic, was in fact its foundational moment.

For many people Hagia Sophia’s universal cultural and religious vocation is being trampled upon. Should this move be seen as an attack on religious freedom in Turkey?
“Religious freedom” in Turkey has been destroyed by violence. Turkish nationalism is based on the notion that “the Turkish nation is Muslim” and that one is not truly Turkish if one is not a Muslim. Plus, I have often heard Jews and Orthodox Christians, Turkish citizens, say: “I am not Turkish.” This is a basic problem: for nationalist Turkey, non-Muslims are foreigners. Nationalism is the real problem of this country. It sometimes comes across as clearly black and white. For example, on several occasions, commissions have replaced place names of Greek, Armenian or other origin deemed “foreign.” Armenians, Orthodox Christians, and Jews are foreigners in their own country, even though they have lived there for far longer than the Turks! In such a context, religious freedom formally exists, on paper, but there is a lot of intimidation: graves and cemeteries vandalized in Cyprus, and even Istanbul, not to mention murders. Non-Muslims have been forced to keep a low profile, an attitude encouraged by priests in their sermons.

Will there be major protests against the Hagia Sophia becoming a mosque again?
Why so much fuss over Hagia Sophia, since Turkish nationalists have always done whatever they wanted to non-Muslims, without any protest from the West? The terrible pogrom targeting Orthodox Christians in Istanbul in September 1955 is a case in point; this was followed by the expulsion of 100,000 ethnic Greeks from the city, Turkish citizens forced to leave for Greece, a country they didn’t know, descendants of the city’s original population driven out. Any protests should have been activated not by religion, but by a simple sense of humanity. Aren’t these facts—I’m not even talking about the Armenian genocide—more important than the return of Hagia Sophia to Islam?

—Christophe Lafontaine