Abandoning secularism in Turkey

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The recent decision by the Turkish Council of State to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a Mosque has led to outcry from global Christian organisations and increased tension between the Turkish and Russian governments. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support for the decision is clearly based on a desire to appeal to the Islamic fundamentalism of the country’s religious right, it demonstrates how increasing cultural nationalism could potentially threaten ongoing ceasefire negotiations in Libya as well as Turkey’s image on the international stage.

Built in 537AD by Byzantine emperor Justinian, the Hagia Sophia remained in the hands of the Orthodox Church until its capture in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II who began the process of adding Islamic architectural features alongside pre-existing Christian artwork. In 1934, Kemal Atatürk, the president considered to be the founder of modern secular Turkey, converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum and banned all religious services at the site. Since 1934, the Hagia Sophia has remained one of the largest tourist attractions in Turkey, attracting upwards of three million visitors annually. 

The decision to overturn the 1934 ruling was made by the Turkish Council of State, the highest administrative court in Turkey, following a petition from the Association for the Protection of Historic Monuments and the Environment. Lawyers argued that the building remains the private property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed, given that the building is still registered as a mosque on its property deeds. The decision was strongly supported by Erdogan, who claimed that the transformation of the site was a “resurrection” and considered it to be an act of loyalty to the nation’s previous Islamic forefathers. Erdogan has long denied a wish to impose Islamic values on the Turkish people despite attempting to create “alcohol free” zones and lifting the ban on women wearing headscarves in public offices. He voiced his approval for converting the institution into a mosque as a way of “taking the chains off its doors and the shackles off the hearts” of the country’s Muslim majority. 

Concerns have been raised internationally about the future of the Hagia Sophia, including concerns regarding the preservation of historic works of art within the site. Hurriyet, a mainstream Turkish newspaper, claimed that religious iconography would be preserved with “special technology” covering the site’s Christian artwork during Islamic services. Concerns about religious fundamentalism have also been raised; while presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalin claims that the move had “overwhelming support” from groups within Turkey, including the Communist Party of Turkey, voiced strident opposition.

Since 1934, the Hagia Sophia has remained one of the largest tourist attractions in Turkey, attracting upwards of three million visitors annually. 

The World Council of Churches has also issued a statement saying that the decision was a sign of “exclusion and division” and urged for the decision to be reversed while accusing the government of “undermining” efforts to bring people of all faiths together.

Most notably, the Russian Orthodox Church expressed regret that the Turkish court had not taken their concerns into account. Russian Patriarch Krill described “deep pain” among the Russian people that the decision had caused. State officials in Russia have also spoken out against the move by describing it as an “unacceptable violation of religious freedom” with Putin calling for Erdogan to take into account Hagia Sophia’s “very deep sacred spiritual value”. While tensions remain high between Russian and Turkey as the Libyan backed government enters into ceasefire negotiations, this cultural show of force by the Turkish government appears to be an indication of modern Turkey moving away from its secular founding at the expense of its international relationships.

Frank Mago via Flickr

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