'Conversion of Hagia Sophia will deal another severe blow to the foundations of secular Turkey' - Yavuz Baydar

Several Turkish government-linked columnists and talking heads said this week that Turkey's top court has already approved the re-conversion of the Hagia Sophia from museum to a mosque. These insider accounts have not been confirmed by an official decision yet.

Turkey’s top administrative court, the Council of State, said it will make its ruling by or before mid-July, which also coincides with the fourth anniversary of the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016. 

There is practically no opposition in Turkey to plans to re-convert the Hagia Sophia, one of the most important monuments of the Orthodox Christian church constructed in the 6th century during the Byzantine empire, into a mosque. Even the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party, (CHP) and a majority of Turks are either supportive of or indifferent to the idea. 

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was even cited as saying there was no court ruling necessary for the conversion, that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could just issue a decree and be done with it.

The presidential palace-linked columnists' and talking heads' predictions on the conversion might well be to test the waters before the final decision, Ahval's editor-in-chief Yavuz Baydar said on the Hot Pursuit podcast.

Baydar expects that the top court will move the ball to Erdoğan's court, one way or another. 

What exactly Erdoğan expects to gain from the decision at this time is unknown. There appears to be no election planned in the next year or two. However, it could be a distraction from the fact that the Turkish economy has been in a dire situation due to the pandemic. Foreign tourism, the lifeline of the Turkish economy, is practically non-existent due to the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to haunt both Turkey and the world. Even though Turkey's official figures on pandemic infections and deaths are relatively good, the country’s non-transparent reports on the pandemic has undermined Turkey's credibility. There also remain some 20,000 active cases throughout the country, with most focused in Istanbul.

The European Union, Russia, and most if not all Gulf states have restricted travel to Turkey until the end of the summer. There are not many optimistic scenarios in the near- or mid-term for Turkish economy to bounce back. If anything, the economic situation gets more dire every day. Therefore, it remains to be seen what such a historic decision - which cannot be seen as cultural war against a certain segment of society - could bring for Erdoğan. 

It is also too early to see how the re-conversion decision will resonate among the Turkish public, as the majority of the country continues to struggle economically.

Baydar said in the podcast that the decision to convert the Hagia Sophia would deal another blow to the secular foundations of the country. 

Christian groups across the world and many Western countries, as well as the Russian government, have reacted negatively to the potential conversion. Russia feels especially sensitive to the decision due to its Orthodox population.

The second big item on the agenda in Turkey this week was a set of amendments to a law which is clearly aimed at weakening powerful and often critical bar associations across the country by permitting the establishment of multiple lawyer associations in a given province. With these proposed amendments, the government expects to prop up new bar associations and likely pit them against each other, as well as supporting allied lawyer groups against independent ones. 

The Turkish judiciary, for all intents and purposes, has long been considered to be under the influence of Erdoğan, but the lawyers’ organisations have been able to maintain autonomy and critical stances so far. These amendments might cripple them as well.

Baydar called the government’s move an extension of the "divide and rule" strategy which it has been pursued in many other areas for years. Baydar also noted that lawyers' marches and protests since the matter was brought forth had not been supported by many segments of society, and they had been left alone for the most part. 

“Two opposition parties are whining loudly but not doing a lot,” said Baydar. “Instead, CHP said it would take the law to the Supreme Court. The same court has yet to rule over the amnesty bill which the CHP had appealed two months ago.”

Baydar lamented that the CHP and the centre-right opposition Good (İYİ) Party had been lacking innovative ways to counter-attack in their tactics against the government.

Opposition parties are hoping to win in the next election, but that election may never come for them, Baydar saidI, as it is also possible that the government would bring forth new conditions and make it impossible for dissidents to run in elections, much like in Central Asia and Iran. 

There has been talk about an alliance for democracy which would unite the CHP, İYİP, and conservative and liberal AKP breakaway parties, as well as the pro-Kurdish left-wing opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). However, discussions among these opposition parties have not led anywhere so far. “Their understanding of alliance is only for the ballot box, but not for a wider and current understanding of the democratic spirit and principles," Baydar said.