Hagia Sophia: the end of an era

The bitter fact for Turkey and its citizens is that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his administration regards itself as endowed with the authority to inflict damage on major cultural landmarks, which have for long been seen as part of global heritage.

Recently, one victim was Hasankeyf, a magnificent site at the side of Tigris River, which served as the hub of various ancient civilisations for century after century.

Admired for its archaeological riches, Hasankeyf is no longer there: It has been swallowed by waters, as a result of an Erdoğan megaproject, a hydroelectric dam which he hopes will reduce Turkey's dependency on foreign energy resources.

That Anatolia's immensely rich natural and historic texture must be preserved, cherished with respect for international law and the environment has never been part of the Turkish strongman's agenda.

Then came the second severe blow. This time the target was the Hagia Sophia, one of the world’s greatest cultural landmarks; another witness to the complex and turbulent history of Istanbul.

On Friday, Turkey's top administrative court decided to annul the law by the government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, dated November 24, 1934, which turned Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum.

Immediately after the announcement, Erdoğan issued a decree handing custody of the monument to the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), an exclusively Sunni state body, claiming to speak for all the creeds in the country.

After the publication of the decree in the Official Gazette on the same day, the Hagia Sophia is now officially back to its status as a mosque. Its opening date is also filled with symbolism: July 24 is the anniversary of the Lausanne Treaty, the basis of the modern Turkish republic, which both Erdoğan's Islamists and its nationalist supporters increasingly question.

Turkey's Islamists and hard-core nationalists - gathered around Erdoğan and his team - have a lot to cheer for. For Erdoğan and the main current of his political affiliation, ''Milli Görüş'' (National View), Hagia Sophia has always been one of the major symbols in their struggle to abolish Atatürk's heritage, which they often express as a "parenthesis in Turkish history", an era that must be brought to a close.

In this historic context, the reconversion of Hagia Sophia is a big victory, a vengeful step which is nearly impossible to revert.

Erdoğan hopes that his decree will have an impact over the decline in popular support for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). He will want to be hailed as the "second conqueror of Istanbul, after Sultan Fatih Mehmet II", by adding Hagia Sophia to his Islamist dream of expansion, nearly completing his portfolio already filled with religious elements to be used in politics. Whether or not the Hagia Sophia issue will help him survive politically is an open question.

While Islamists are in a celebratory mood, the sanguine attitude among Turkey's secular politicians has been remarkable. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), whose signature to turn the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934 is part of the archives, meekly submitted to Erdoğan’s plans.

Some of its prominent members even actively supported the decision, declaring that they hope to pray when Hagia Sophia opens as a mosque. The fact of the matter is that Hagia Sophia has had an annex that allowed people to pray since 1991.

This speaks for the immense wave of populism - mixed with nationalism - that has swept over Turkey's political class.

Another interesting point is the widespread silence of the old foes of Erdoğan - ex-generals, secular bureaucrats, former politicians of the centre-right - some of whom had been "victims" of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials.

Their bitter struggle with Erdoğan, they have long claimed, was based on the the defence of secularism in Turkey. Now that major parts of this nationalist segment after the 2016 attempted coup lined up behind the autocrat of Turkey, the question arises: If the issue was not to defend Atatürk's heritage, why did they not just seek to rule together from the very outset, when the AKP took over in 2002?

Some at home and abroad may seek to downplay the significance of the historic decision on Hagia Sophia. They should not.

Its significance has much less to do with whether the move will help cement the alliance between the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) than the huge damage it has delivered to Turkey's image and its worrisome path towards a pure Islamic republic. Its reverberations will be long term, and arguably irreparable.

It would be a stretch, though, to declare the decision as the end of Turkish secularism. Turkey has never been a truly secular republic. The very presence of the Diyanet, a product of Turkey's founders, is proof that it has always been a problematic concept. This Sunni body is the employer of tens of thousands of imams, who are on the payroll of the state. A single select religion - a sect - has always been the dominant official force over the society.

The real damage is to the multi-cultural, multi-religious texture of Turkey, where symbols such as the Hagia Sophia still remained as a glue that kept Turkey seen as part of modern civilisation.

A deadly blow has been delivered to the heart of that image. It is clear that the current alliance ruling Turkey under the banner of a "Turco-Islamic Synthesis" is determined to drive a wedge between the country and the rest of the civilised world by being suicidal over dealing with its very history by waging war against its own Kurds and by alienating further the Christian and Jewish minorities in the country.

Along with the signals that expose cultural decay, the rise of nationalism, and fatigue over co-existence within society, the case of the Hagia Sophia tells us that an era is over, and that the Islamists have nearly won their historic battle to conquer Turkey.

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