Turkey torn on whether Istanbul's Hagia Sophia should be turned into mosque

Turkey is torn over whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proposal to turn Istanbul's Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque is wise, Time magazine reported on Thursday.

The status of the Hagia Sophia strikes at the heart of the battle between Turkey’s past and a future embodied by Erdoğan’s brand of religious nationalism. “Istanbul is a city of mosques and the politics that surrounds them,” analyst Soner Çağaptay told Time. Erdoğan is now “flooding Turkey’s public space with his own understanding of religion,” he said.

Hagia Sofia’s continued closure to prayers allows Erdoğan to assert that his “conservative base is being victimised, or could be victimised should he fall from power,” Çağaptay said.

The Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, will soon decide whether to accept Erdoğan’s request to turn the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque.

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. Yet it is now, again, one of the most contested religious buildings in the world.

Polls suggest slightly more Turkish people support the Hagia Sophia becoming a mosque than oppose it, Time said.

But some people have noted that the timing of this decision makes it look like a distraction from Erdoğan’s many problems, as his grip on power looks less assured than ever, Time said.

In 2019, shortly after Turkey endured its first recession in a decade, his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the mayoral race in Istanbul, which it and its predecessor parties had held for 25 years. Turkey is now facing growing economic instability amid the fallout of COVID-19.

More than 55 percent of respondents to a June survey conducted by Turkey’s Metropoll said the main purpose of the latest debate over the Hagia Status is either to distract from discussions of Turkey’s economic problems or to create an argument the government can use to call early elections.

“It’s a bluff, like poker,” Mehmet, who owns a shop selling carpets and silverware near the Hagia Sophia, told Time. There is no need to convert the building at the moment, he said. “Did we fill all the other mosques in Turkey?”

“Hagia Sophia officially belongs to Turkey,” Seraffettin, a simit seller near the museum, told Time.

“But we have to understand that people come to visit it from many different countries. We have to let them see and feel their history too.”