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Using Hagia Sophia as a Bludgeon Erdogan Launches an Islamic 'Reconquista'

The reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a power move by Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that betrays domestic, regional and even global ambitions. Erdogan's decree strikes another major blow against a secular Turkish state.

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Visitors inside Hagia Sophia.
Inside Hagia Sophia, termed “a jewel of blended origin.” Every year nearly 3.5 million people, non-religious and from all religions, visit Hagia Sophia., Mark Allen

The reconversion of Hagia Sophia, a symbol of Istanbul and a marvel of Byzantine art, into a mosque is a historic moment. The controversial move, put in motion by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decree, could fairly be seen as the Turkish Reconquista.

Istanbul was Constantinopole in 1453 when it was conquered by the Muslim-Turkish Ottomans under Mehmed II, and the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire ceased to exist. Some 40 years later, Catholic monarchs Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon conquered Granada, ending the only Muslim kingdom in Europe in what became known as the "Reconquista." 

The first thing Mehmed II did after entering Istanbul was to visit Hagia Sophia, the Greek Christian Orthodox cathedral. The Ottoman sultan swiftly converted it into a mosque. Constructed in 537 by the Roman Emperor Justinianus, Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest cathedral for almost a thousand years. For pious Muslim Turks, it signified the glory of the Ottoman Empire, a place of worship converted into a mosque by Mehmed, who they venerated almost as a saint.

The conquest of Istanbul, transforming the Ottoman state into an empire, bears great significance for Turkish nationalists and conservatives.

Nevertheless, following the fall of the Ottomans, the founder of the secular Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, turned it into a museum in 1935. Hagia Sophia has ever since been a deep wound for political Islamists in Turkey, a symbol of their suppression in hands of the secularist elites. In the 1950s and the 1960s, plans to reconvert the edifice into a mosque have been a powerful political card for political Islamists and Muslim nationalists.

Hagia Sophia has remained in the national subconscious of the Turkish people as a source of national pride. Still, its conversion to a museum is more associated with secularism's triumph over Turkey's Ottoman past in the minds of political Islamists.

Erdogan's decision to annul the decree of Ataturk’s government was, therefore, the realization of a decades-old dream among his supporters. After 85 years, on July 24, Hagia Sophia will open its gates for Muslim worship once again.

In a flurry of articles within and outside Turkey, many commentators explained the move as having electoral motives. For them, Erdogan, whose electoral support in Turkey is steadily eroding according to the polls, took the dramatic step of converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque to replenish his dwindling support among conservative voters. Some speculated that in the face of a devastating economic crisis, he has a mind to call early elections. The regular schedule puts them in 2023, the centennial of the republic. In their eyes, Hagia Sophia's issue was nothing more than a tactical political move by an increasingly desperate president.

It is also seen as the last nail on the coffin of secularist Kemalism by the notorious Islamist Erdogan, a symbol of the worrisome regime change in Turkey. Yet some Turkish secularists are duped by Erdogan’s emphasis on Turkey’s national sovereignty. Playing on the anti-West impulses of Turkish secularists helped him to soften the strong opposition to his move.

The date of Hagia Sophia's reopening as a mosque is also symbolic: It is the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which provided the legal basis for the foundation of the Republic of Turkey that replaced the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan sees the Lausanne Treaty more as restricting Turkey’s potential than as a diplomatic triumph that crowned the national struggle led by Ataturk.

While both these arguments may carry a grain of truth, arguably neither is the real reason behind Erdogan's Turkish Reconquista. More than anything else, reports Haaretz, “Erdogan’s Hagia Sophia decree is a power move, both symbolically and geopolitically. It is in many senses the apex of his 18 consecutive years in power, enabled by his newly recharged international standing.” Naturally, it also aimed to reinvigorate his standing domestically, yet the international ramifications of his power move are more telling.

He addressed the Muslim world on the evening of July 10, the day he signed the decree, with unusual passion and ambition. In a carefully worded statement that sounded like a victory speech, he declared, "Today, Hagia Sophia is enjoying one of the resurrections that it witnessed since its construction. The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the harbinger of the liberation of Dome of the Rock. The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the sound of Muslims' footsteps all around the world, exiting from interregnum. The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the fire of hope for all the oppressed, downtrodden, exploited and aggrieved in the world along with Muslims. The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the expression for us that as the Turkish nation, Muslims and humankind, we have new messages for the world."

Erdogan also characterized "the resurrection of Hagia Sophia" as "a salute to all those symbolic cities of civilization from Bukhara to Andalusia."

His message and actions make up his forceful claim for the global leadership of Muslims at a time when Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy has proliferated its military presence from the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan to Syria and with some degree of success to Libya, where he confronts such traditional power centers of the Sunni Muslim world as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He audaciously challenged France and Greece, thus implicitly the European Union, in Mediterranean geopolitics. He is looking for a way to project his and Turkey’s influence on Yemen as well as Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa. With military bases in Qatar, the Gulf and Somalia and aspiring to build them in Libya, Turkey is already involved in the most volatile geostrategic arenas of the globe. Its leader must have global appeal. It's mandatory for his survival.

That is the main driver behind Erdogan’s Hagia Sophia move that has stirred unease in the Western world, especially in the Christian world. Pope Francis stated unequivocally that the Hagia Sophia decision pained him, while the Russian Foreign Ministry limited itself to expressing regret. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had issued a warning before the decree was made. UNESCO, which registered Hagia Sophia as a world cultural heritage site, is now reviewing its status.

It is impossible for Erdogan not to have calculated all the backlash that his decree could bring. Only a year ago, in a live broadcast, Erdogan had responded to a question that although reverting Hagia Sophia to a mosque had been his youthful dream, for him to make such a decision would be a provocative trap he was keen not to fall into.

After a year, he seems much more self-confident about placing himself in history as the victor of the Turkish Reconquista, giving a sense to world Muslims that Islam is winning its last battle with the West, against the “new crusaders,” under his leadership.

[Cengiz Candar is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is the author of seven books, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. Currently, he is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. On Twitter: @cengizcandar.]