Hagia Sophia is at the centre of a political controversy in Turkey. The conversion of the museum housed in a 6th century Christian church in Istanbul into a mosque by presidential decree sparked a big debate in the country. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s move is seen as a turning point for the Turkish president, having generated religious, cultural, social and political consequences.
“The Hagia Sophia mosque has become the nest of the enemies of Turkey’s secular republic who are emboldened by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government,” wrote historian Osman Selim Kocahanoğlu in a commentary for Cumhuriyet newspaper. The latest controversy was triggered by Imam Mustafa Demirkan, who, during Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia on May 28, called Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, a “tyrant” and an “infidel.” All that was said in the presence of the Turkish president, who had earlier recited verses from the Quran. Demirkan said that Hagia Sophia was built as a temple, but there was a time in Turkey when the country’s rulers restricted Islamic prayers and turned the site into a museum. “Those who did this are tyrants. Who could be more of an infidel than them?” he said.
The comments sparked a reaction from the president of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, who said that they are “creating enmity toward Kemal Atatürk and the Turkish Republic.”
This was not the first attack on the founder of the Turkish Republic. When the first Islamic prayer was held on July 24, 2020, Ali Erbaş, head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, spoke from Hagia Sophia’s pulpit, holding a sword in his hand: “In our faith, a property of a charitable trust is inviolable; whoever touches it burns. The wish of the benefactor is irrevocable; whoever violates it is cursed.” Erbaş’s words were seen as targeting Ataturk because he was the one that violated the will of the conqueror by turning Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934.
Opposition parties have also criticised Hagia Sophia’s first imam, Mehmet Boynukalın, who was appointed as soon as its status changed. In posts on social media, Boynukalın had asked for the abolition of the secular state and the enforcement of Islamic law in Turkey. “Turkey must return to the rules of Islam,” he said. His posts also caused reactions inside the ruling party. As a result, he was asked to leave the post in April.
Political analysts and opposition parties say that Hagia Sophia’s conversion has sparked a coordinated attack on the secular state and the memory of Atatürk. “Since Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, there has been a sharp rise in attacks against the founder of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, and insults against him. This must stop. Atatürk’s legacy was not the sword but an olive branch to global peace,” political analyst Sedat Ergin told Hürriyet newspaper. Historian Zafer Toprak said of Hagia Sophia that “Atatürk’s decision was also based on respect for the cultures that existed before the Ottoman Empire. There was also a political dimension that included the Eastern Roman Empire. With his decision, Atatürk had made Hagia Sophia a part of the world’s cultural legacy.”
Hakkı Uyar, a Turkish history professor, says that “all this rhetoric inside Hagia Sophia shows that their confrontation with the founding members of the Turkish Republic and Atatürk is not over. What Atatürk did was to leave religious conflict aside and launch a fight about culture. Hagia Sophia was not the symbol of clashing but of compromise with the West. Regrettably, there is no other country in the world that is so much in conflict with the founder of that same country.”
In the early days after the imam’s remarks at Hagia Sophia, the government’s reaction was mild. However, Erdoğan’s nationalist ally Devlet Bahçeli reacted on June 1. “Kemal Atatürk is ours and our nation’s red line. Were it not for Atatürk, instead of hearing the sound of the imam when you were born, perhaps you would be christened.” Similarly, the spokesman of the ruling AKP party, Ömer Çelik, tweeted that “Ataturk saved our country, our people, our mosques.” Analysts say that the government’s reaction came only after the outcry from many Turkish citizens, not just the pro-Atatürk folk.
Many commentators say that Hagia Sophia is part of Erdoğan’s policy as he sees mosques as part of his strategy. Cumhuriyet commentator Örsan Öymen speaks of a “mosque fetish.” He says that on April 28, Erdoğan inaugurated a mosque in Taksim Square, a symbol of the Kemalist state. That came after he had turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque and after building Turkey’s biggest Islamic temple, the Çamlıca mosque. “The president said that these mosques were his dream. But these have nothing to do with the dreams of ordinary people. These are the dreams of Erdoğan, of the AKP and of certain Islamic sects that support them. People dream of social and economic justice, of decent wages and of an independent justice system. There are more than 85,000 mosques in Turkey and most of them are empty over six days a week,” he said.
Last Friday, Erdoğan inaugurated yet another mosque in Zonguldak. “I believe that every mosque that we build is a spiritual guard that protects the future of our people and our country,” he said before explaining his decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. “We held on to this land and we made it our land with our blood, our flag and the sound of prayer heard from the mosques. This is why it was important to reopen Hagia Sophia as a mosque for worship, because it is a legacy of conquest,” he said.
(A version of this article was originally published by the Kathimerini newspaper and is reproduced by permission.)