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President Erdoğan pictured reading the Fatiha surah, the opening surah of Quran during the reopening of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque on July 24, 2020. (Photo: Presidential Directorate of Communications)

According to President Tayyip Erdoğan’s statement, 350,000 people attended the Friday prayer at the Hagia Sophia’s reopening as a mosque on July 24. He was the one reading the Fatiha surah, the opening verses of Muslims’ holy book Quran to the attendees. He said that “a nation’s decades-long longing has subsided”. He also granted due recognition to Nationalist People’s Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli. He said that this reopening would not be possible without the support of the People’s Alliance between his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and MHP. Afterward, Director of Religious Affairs Ali Erbaş stepped onto the minbar to deliver his khutbah, or sermon. He was holding a sword in his hand. The explanation was immediate: you see, he was holding it in his left hand, meant as a symbol of trust for friends; had he be holding it in his right hand, only then it would be a threatening gesture.

This much is clear: this move was political. And although it is within Turkey’s right to sovereignty to decide what is to become of Hagia Sophia, it symbolizes a new chapter in the way Erdoğan runs this country. Some consider this a display of Erdoğan’s power, while others see it as a sign of weakness. According to some, Erdogan was declaring that he can do anything he wants. Others, however, feel that he has decided to play the last cards in his political-ideological arsenal to keep his eroding base together. But one other thing is clear: we are approaching the peak of Islamist populism in Turkey. I can’t say we are at the apex yet. Because Erdoğan’s actions resemble that of a child who is afraid they’ll fall off the bike if they stop pedaling, and it looks like he’ll keep acting this way for a while longer. 

The political meaning of Hagia Sophia

In Turkic mythology, the Red Apple represents a goal, an ideal, and in a way, a prize for a Turkic state’s strife. But this Red Apple, changing according to historical context, is also elusive. The more a leader approaches it, the further it gets because yet another Red Apple will appear on the horizon. The Red Apple was a prominent motif in Ottoman culture, akin to the Holy Grail in Arthurian mythology. 

According to journalist Fehmi Koru, the Hagia Sophia was the Red Apple of conservatives in Turkey. Mustafa Şentop, the Speaker of the Grand National Assembly, recalled how his generation’s youth utopia lied in the slogan “break the chains, open the Hagia Sophia.” In my opinion, the meaning of Hagia Sophia is not limited to Fatih (the Conquerer) Sultan Mehmet’s decision to convert the building from church to mosque, opening it to worship, after he took it from the Byzantines in 1453. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, had turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum that respected all traces of faith in the building while keeping it secular in 1934. The building, therefore, came to embody some population fractions’ reactions to Atatürk and secular Turkey too.

The President of Religious Affairs, Ali Erbaş, is seen in the Hagia Sophia pulpit while holding a sermon with a sword in his hand.

Photo: Erbaş’s Twitter Account

The proof was yesterday’s opening where Erbaş was standing on the minbar, bearing his sword as if a Sheik-ul Islam of the Ottoman times, capable of starting a jihad; he damned Atatürk in his speech, though he refrained from uttering his name. This mentality reveals its vitriol even when rejoicing the opening of the Hagia Sophia to worship, though most of the population didn’t mind. But on July 24, we saw what the Hagia Sophia meant for a segment that is of particular importance to Erdoğan. Following the prayer, a radical group wearing traditional Islamic robes and turbans expressed their desire to restore the caliphate and the sharia law.

The secular portion of the population, on the other hand, doesn’t have an established opinion on what must become of the Hagia Sophia. Most of the secularists would say that the Hagia Sophia must remain a museum firstly because Atatürk had decided so and secondly because the religious segments want the opposite. But they would express that only if asked. That’s why the Republican People’s Party (CHP) never had a slogan like “we will keep the Hagia Sophia as a museum.”

Is all of AKP on board? 

Journalist Mehmet Yılmaz wrote for online news platform T24 that what happened on July 24 will scare away some AKP members. I agree. I witnessed one such occurrence. A friend of mine whom I know to be pro-AKP and pro-Erdoğan, upon watching the video of the crowds marching to Hagia Sophia on the metro stairs with chants and “Allahuakbar” (Allah is great) “takbirs”, commented with dismay: “it’s as if they’re going to Mecca for pilgrimage”. On the other hand, Nihat Özdemir, who is the President of the Football Federation, who has been working closely with all former governments, as one of the world contractors received the most government tenders said that he could hardly contain his tears of joy during the historical Friday prayer.

According to the MetroPoll research company, when asked why the government opens the Hagia Sophia for worship at this time, 44% of the public said it was to divert the attention away from the economic crisis. I do not think this is the only factor. But politics is more about perceived facts than factuality. And this point of view reflects the perception of almost half of the people in this country. 

According to Konda research company manager Bekir Ağırdır, the excitement of Hagia Sophia is “unlikely to bring votes.” And indeed, I believe that Erdogan’s problem has more to do with keeping his attachment to the Islamist segments, even at the expense of offending other sections.

Display of power or sign of weakness?

By re-opening the Hagia Sophia to worship, Erdogan made use of one of the most majestic weapons in his political and ideological arsenal, even though there was no real need for it. But it was a one-shot gun, and the move is impossible to repeat. But he could go further. These steps traversing the streets of Istanbul and reflecting on Islamist TV channels symbolize the gradual fading of the secular and republican Turkey in its 100th anniversary in 1923. They encourage a handful of government-spoiled extremists while growing as a source of great concern for a large part of our society.

Erdoğan, who had accused those same extremist segments of using the Hagia Sophia for provocation a year ago, for being provocative, is encouraging them today.

There is another reason for this maneuvering, apart from the lack of resources to remedy the economic crisis and please Erdoğan’s voter base, especially after losing the municipalities of big cities like Istanbul and Ankara in 2019. Erdoğan’s disregard for the reactions by the U.S., Russia, and Greece as urged by Orthodox congregations worldwide also has to do with this reason.

Erdogan believes the Covid-19 outbreak shifted global power balances and believes this will soon result in the establishment of a new world order. He believes that the more he rattles political balances, the more space Turkey will be given on the new world order roundtable. With each step, the message he gives to his foreign interlocutors is the same: “take me into account.” From Syria to Libya and Cyprus, this was the issue all along. 

Approaching the peak of Islamist populism

When the Daktilo1984 website asked me whether this move will trigger an Islamic populism competition among right-wing parties, I said no. Because we are already at the highest points of Islamic populism, even if we have not reached the apex yet. I also see that the point reached has started to disturb Erdoğan’s nationalist partner, the MHP leader Bahçeli; especially given the fact that he does not stand with Erdoğan on the cancellation of the Istanbul Convention against violence against women. The discourses of DEVA Party leader Ali Babacan, and even Future Party (FP) leader Ahmet Davutoğu, both former AKP members, are far from this extremist stance. The Felicity Party is the only one that would compete but it has limited power. In my opinion, we might expect right-wing parties to shift towards a more centrist attitude an attitude that respects faith yet is based on the values of the secular republic. Erdoğan, after all, was let down by CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu: he had expected harsh resistance to the Hagia Sophia matter, but Kılıçdaroğlu had told him to go ahead and to open it if he wants to.

One reason for this was that the majority of the people have grown weary of constant conflict politics. Political scientist Ali Çarkoğlu says that conservative values and polarization tactics that have worked on voters in the past did not bring results in the 2015 general elections or the 2019 local elections. Perhaps, ignoring this fact, Erdoğan is now trying harder to pull politics more those grounds through moves like Hagia Sophia and the Istanbul Convention.

Closing Anıtkabir on Lausanne Anniversary

I will state this clearly: choosing the day of the Lausanne Treaty, the declaration of the sovereignty of Turkey after the War of Liberation 97 years ago on July 24, to disinfect Anıtkabir, and not allowing people to enter there to visit Atatürk’s Mausoleum, is a kind of provocation, too. People were held at the gates of Atatürk’s Mausoleum.

As a result of the negotiations, only two representatives from non-governmental organizations were allowed to enter Anıtkabir on Lausanne Day.

Photo: Association for the Support of Contemporary Living  (ÇYDD) Twitter Page

Meanwhile, the following men were watching the minister of religious affairs insult Atatürk in his Hagia Sophia speech: National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, who was private secretary to İsmail Hakkı Karadayı (who was chief of staff during the “post-modern coup” of 1997 against the Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, and General Yaşar Güler, who was a Project Officer at the Prime Ministry’s military liaison office. Meanwhile, calming the reactions of those kept at the Anıtkabir gate fell upon CHP MP Özgür Özel; at least some NGO representatives were allowed in.

In the meantime, in İzmir, where the invaders during the independence war had shot the first bullet, Governor Yavuz Selim Köşger banned the Lausanne commemoration ceremonies because it could lead to “social separation and turmoil.” But in reality, it’s such moves that lead to social polarization.

And by the way, did you see how that angry mob attacked subway machinist Gizem Gül, who was simply trying to do her job of stopping more people from getting on the train to Hagia Sophia? That is the very mob that wants Erdoğan to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention against violence against women.

A sword, but against whom?

We have officially entered the realm of Islamic Kremlinology with the sword that the President of the Religious Affairs bore in his hand. But when Erbaş, who stands proud as a victorious Ottoman sheik, passes the sword from his left hand to the other, who will he point it to? We don’t dare ask. We cannot even ask whether this is an intermingling of religious and state affairs.

Because the sword can stand against outside enemies as well as those thought to be enemies within. That was what happened during the War of Independence when Sultan Vahdettin and Grand Vizier Damat Ferit, the son-in-law, ordered to Sheik Dürrizade Adbullah Effendi to kill the patriotic forces resisting the occupation forces. Back then, too there were officers, diplomats, judges who fought against the national resistance movement for the benefit of the occupation forces to remain in the good books of the Palace and preserve their positions. But there were also honorable people. There were men of religion thinking of the people, like Ankara mufti Rıfat Börekçi. There were military officers like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and diplomats like Bekir Sami Kunduh Bey. In history, there have always been both types of people everywhere in the world.

Combining religion and politics, especially military politics is a dangerous mix. It’s harmful to itself as well as to what’s around it.