Why Trump could not care less about the Hagia Sophia

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan often faces a chilly response from his North American and European counterparts.

The most significant exception is the U.S. President Donald Trump. Even in the face of Erdoğan’s continued slights or provocations towards the United States, Trump continues to show respect and even admiration for his Turkish counterpart. Do not expect this to change during the three months left before the U.S. presidential election.

The recent change in status of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque from a museum illustrates this continuing reality. Like many western leaders, Trump likely would have preferred the Hagia Sophia to remain a museum, open and welcoming to all on an equal basis. As such, it was a symbol of a modern Turkey and Western, liberal principles of freedom of religion and the separation of religion from the state. 

As a mosque, though open to all regardless of religious affiliation (at certain hours only), it underlines the pre-eminence in citizenship of those adherents of Islam over non-Muslims. It is both an assertion that to be a first-class Turk, one must be a Muslim and a repudiation of the secular and republican ideals of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

None of this matters very much to Trump, for several reasons - personal, political, and ideological.

First, though Trump proclaims himself a strong Christian, it seems that serves as a brand or group identity rather than a statement of his religious faith. Though he used the prop of a Bible during a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s church near the White House on June 1 to highlight the need to protect churches from arson, his knowledge of Christian scripture remains an open question.

In this, he and Erdoğan differ, for though no one can read the secrets of their respective hearts, outwardly the Turkish president displays an active religious practice that Trump does not. 

Second, while Trump’s faith tradition, broadly speaking, is Christian, it comes from a branch of Christianity that does not attach great importance to the physical and institutional structures of pre-Reformation Christianity. He, like his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his most of his political supporters with strong religious affiliations, come from the somewhat iconoclastic Protestant tradition. 

In general, the churches of this broad tradition do not decorate their sacred spaces with icons of Jesus, Mary, and saints as was done throughout the Hagia Sophia.

Trump in his youth at church would have been exposed to a fairly plain and unadorned sanctuary, not greatly unlike the interior of church converted into a mosque that had most of its icons painted or plastered over. 

As an aside, it is not surprising that the loudest laments have come from those Christians of the Orthodox, Eastern, and Catholic traditions with their tradition of high ecclesial art and decoration. But even Catholic voices have been somewhat muted, reflecting the perception that Hagia Sophia was principally an Orthodox Cathedral even though it was built well before the 1054 split between Rome and Constantinople. 

Third, Trump and Pompeo have made respect for religious liberty a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, yet it is nuanced. 

Had Erdoğan converted an active, thriving Christian church, Jewish synagogue, or even a Yazidi or other non-Muslim place of worship into a mosque, the expressions of outrage would have been loud and forceful. In this case, Erdoğan was effectively undoing the secularisation of a place of worship, restoring the status of a mosque to a building that had served as such for almost 500 years before Atatürk converted it to a museum.

Make no mistake, Erdoğan is directing this act of Islamic triumphalism against the legacy of Atatürk more than against the religious freedom of non-Muslims.

Finally, Trump and his advisors are not ideologically sympathetic to the idea that acquisitions obtained in the past, regardless of the means, should be undone according to the current notions of restitution and reparations. 

If Trump were to agree that the Greek government or Orthodox Church retained rights over the disposition of the Hagia Sophia, then how to respond to the Mexican authorities about people and places in California, Arizona, and New Mexico? 

For that matter, now that Erdoğan has asserted that foreigners can say nothing about what takes place inside Turkey, wait for European Unions countries to throw back at him the same point when he complains of allegedly anti-Muslim legislation or policies in Europe. 

In different ways but following the same analytical model, one can use Trump’s personal, political, and ideological background to understand why he continues to refrain from harsh criticism of Erdoğan on other contentious issues. 

Whether regarding Libya, Syria, the Kurds, or eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbons, Trump’s willingness to get along with Erdoğan reflects his preference for “strong” leaders, keeping his support base happy or at least not offending them, and not interfering in the internal affairs of other nations.

As Erdoğan pursues his costly efforts to expand his and Turkey’s influence across the Middle East, he can rest assured of Trump’s continued friendship, barring any egregiously offensive actions. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.