The use of Istanbul’s ancient Hagia Sophia as a political instrument

It is difficult to properly define what constitutes “sensitivity” towards an issue. It may imply anything, from “excess interest and worry” to “undue involvement”. The last decades of the Haghia Sophia of Istanbul have been riddled by the sensitivities of religious and nationalists Turks and Greeks. Nowadays, third parties are also interested in this structure – a 6th century UNESCO-backed “world heritage” site – as a Turkish high court is set to decide on July 2 whether this monument will be turned into a mosque or not.

The structure’s Greek name Hagia Sophia (“God’s Wisdom” in English) is still used in Turkish as Ayasofya. It was turned to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453 and was later transformed into a museum after 1938, in the founding years of modern Turkey, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and a period of extensive secularisation.

The monument is now a symbol of a loss for many: for the Christian Greeks, it is a loss of a legendary church; for the Muslim Turks, a mosque, whose capture was perceived as a vision of the Prophet Muhammad. Turkish nationalists also lost their symbolic trophy, while the corresponding Greeks the city of Constantinople, together with its emblem. Now, Turkish and Greek secularists alike worldwide are worried that they will lose their museum.

The Ayasofya issue is so politicised that whatever the decision of the court will be it will remain as such. When it was utilised as a museum, the “sensitivities” had subsided – it was a draw! After the issue was brought to the agenda Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the last few years, any court decision is bound to be perceived as a zero-sum situation. There will be winners and losers.

If it remains a museum, the Turkish nationalists (religious or otherwise) will feel disappointed. President Erdoğan will probably leave the door open for readdressing the issue in the near future. He will express his “sensitivity” on this matter, keeping in mind basically two main groups of voters: the nationalist and the religious conservative Turks. He will to prevent the “secularists” from feeling as though they are victors after the high-court decision.

If the decision opens the way for turning the museum to a mosque, however, the situation will be more complex, especially in the international arena. I quote what Alexis Heraclides, an ardent supporter of good Greek-Turkish relations and impartial analyst, told a reporter when questioned on this possibility.

“If Hagia Sofia is rendered a mosque, the great enemies of Turkey in Europe, in France and elsewhere, (who are) against Turkey's EU road will be more than delighted and would regard themselves vindicated, as will be the supporters of Huntington's clash of civilizations approach.

“Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam would move apart ‘tectonically’ (symbolically) as never before since 1923. But there might possibly be a positive outcome to such an untoward deed: Erdoğan and his cabal becoming even more unpopular and hated, not only in Europe, but also in Turkey and among the more moderate Islamists or members of (Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party), making his downfall more likely, above all, for the good of Turkey, for the good of its neighbours and for good, neighbourly relations.

“If Agia Sofia is turned into a mosque, it will be regarded as “proof” (in Greece) that Turkey is indeed Greece's worst and most vicious enemy, that the Turks have no respect whatsoever for their neighbours or for good, neighbourly relations, and, as for the Greeks in particular, they are even prepared to insult them in the worst manner. This would be the ‘coup de pioch’ for Greek-Turkish relations that would make them plummet to their worst ever level since 1974.

“Of course, I may point out to my Greek audience that this is not the 'True Turkey', but a travesty of Turkey, it is 'Erdoğan's doing' to cling onto power by embracing the nationalist party (the MHP), but I am afraid I will convince very few people in Greece.”

There may also be a hybrid decision and development: to use Hagia Sophia both as a museum and as a mosque – to be used on occasions such as Friday prayers and special religious days. It may be even used as a church on some occasions. This may be a more consolatory decision. Such a development, however, is not in accordance with the character of Erdoğan, who is rather inclined to contention.

There is a saying in Turkish: “A madman throws a stone in a well, one hundred sane people cannot take it out.’’

This adage is used for cases in which there was no need to have started the issue, and now it is a pain for all and difficult to solve.

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