Atatürk’s secular experiment is over, author says

Regular Islamic religious services at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia mark the end of Turkey’s experiment with secular modernity, an author writing for the Wall Street Journal said on Thursday.

The Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Byzantine cathedral in 537, was turned into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul on May 29, 1453, and then became a museum in 1935 under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s presidency.

“The symbolic meaning of the recent reconversion cannot be overestimated. Atatürk sought to substitute a secular, West-facing identity for Turkey’s traditional Islamic religious roots, which he saw as backward,” Charlotte Allen, author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus”, said.

“A big part of that programme was turning Hagia Sophia - for centuries a visual metaphor of Muslim triumphalism - into a museum.”

On July 10, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the opening of the Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship. Erdoğan is set to join hundreds of worshipers on Friday for what will be the first communal Muslim prayers held in the Istanbul landmark in 86 years.

Allen said that Atatürk’s ambitious Turkish nationalism also created a Muslim monoculture at the expense of Christian minorities. She also argued that his secularism flourished among Turkey’s educated elite, but barely penetrated the rural population, which today forms the base of Erdoğan's religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP).

As early as 2010 the AKP began changing the building’s lighting to focus on its Islamic adornments, and in 2016 a muezzin chanted the Islamic call to prayer inside Hagia Sophia for the first time since 1934.

“Atatürk’s experiment with secular and Western values seems to have come a cropper in a Turkey that takes religion more seriously than the secular West does,” Allen said. “But for a structure like Hagia Sophia, it seems no change lasts forever.”