Hagia Sophia one of Erdoğan’s many anti-secular steps envisaged ahead of 2023 – Turkish analysts

Turkey’s recent controversial move to reconvert the iconic Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a significant milestone in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plans to shift modern Turkey further away from its secular foundations by the country’s centennial year of 2023, analysts Merve Tahiroğlu and Sinan Ciddi said.

On Friday’s inauguration of Hagia Sophia as a Muslim house of worship, Turkey’s strongman communicated to both his domestic audience in Turkey and an international crowd that he was effectively positioning himself as sort of a caliph of the Islamic world, Tahiroğlu, Turkey program coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Ahval’s Yavuz Baydar in the Hot Pursuit podcast.

A controversial decision by a top Turkish court on July 10 revoked the status of the Istanbul cathedral, turning the 6th century building - the former seat of the Orthodox Church - from a museum into a mosque. 

On Friday, the Hagia Sophia opened its doors to Muslim prayers in a televised, elaborate ceremony attended by Erdoğan and some 350,000 people.

"This is something he’s been wanting to do for a long time, but using the Hagia Sophia, a monument that is so symbolic,’’ Tahiroğlu said, was "not only highly symbolic, but telling of how Erdoğan sees himself and Turkey.’’

The conversion, which brings to life a long-time demand by the country’s Islamists, has been met with international condemnation. Critics are accusing Erdoğan of using the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site as a political tool to shore up more voters.

"Erdoğan knew that it would garner a strong international response, mainly negative,’’ Ciddi, associate professor at Marine Corps University in Washington D.C., told Ahval podcast.

"This is what he was aiming for precisely, because it essentially galvanises public opinion positively toward him in the short term,’’ Ciddi added, pointing to Erdoğan’s waning support as Turkey struggles with an ailing economy hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Friday’s large crowds gathered outside the Hagia Sophia were largely comprised of masses "drunken with ignorance,’’ he said 

The date of July 24 for the reopening of the Hagia Sophia marks the anniversary of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which defined the borders of the modern Turkish Republic and established it as a nation state.

By coinciding the building’s conversion with the treaty, Erdoğan is not only turning an important page in the country’s history, but also making a bold statement, according to Tahiroğlu. 

"This almost as if it is the inauguration of the second Turkish republic - one that is going to Erdoğan’s,’’ she said.

According to Ciddi, this is just one of many symbolic actions Erdoğan’s ruling Islamist government can take by the year 2023, such as making Istanbul the country’s capital again and ending the secular order.

The year 2023 holds significance as the year of the centennial of the Turkish Republic, the date of the next scheduled elections, as well as the expiry date of the Lausanne Treaty, cast by Erdoğan as a hindrance to Turkey’s future.

Pointing out the treaty is the title deed of the country, Ciddi said Turkey’s government has been successful in convincing the masses that Lausanne is a detriment to Turkey.

"There is so much ignorance around the Lausanne Treaty - perhaps a failure of Turkey's education system to hammer out what this is all about and stands for,’’ Ciddi said. "In Turkey, there is no basic consensus as to what Lausanne helped achieve - there are conspiracy theories that there are secret components to it.’’

An Anti-Lausanne narrative is part of the "adversarial, divisive, polarisation politics, that seem to have worked for Erdoğan this far,’’ Ciddi said, adding that there is nothing to suggest that they won’t work for him in the near future.

The analyst also maintains that Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) inability to distance itself from the government stance on the Hagia Sophia comes as no surprise.

"The CHP has for years failed to embody the principles of laicity,’’ Tahiroğlu said, as well as take a stance against many of the AKP’s anti-secular policies.

Ciddi maintained some empathy for the CHP however, noting that since 1950s, Turkey’s right-wing movement has always effectively branded the party as an enemy of Islam, labelling that has stifled the movement.

"So it’s hard for the CHP to take a stance to say this is against the principles of secularism,’’ Ciddi said.