Hagia Sophia conversion meant to be symbol of presidential dictatorship - academic

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque from a museum is meant to be a symbol of a presidential dictatorship, according to an academic writing for Open Democracy on Wednesday. 

Murat Belge, editor of İletişim Publishing House and head of Comparative Literature at Bilgi University, said that the Turkish opposition often claims Erdoğan takes such moves to distract attention from problems, such as Turkey’s ailing economy. 

But, while Belge said there was some truth to this interpretation, it was not wholly convincing as it ignored Erdoğan’s deeper ideological vision.

“The Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) conversion brings Turkey closer to the kind of society Erdoğan is trying to engineer,” he said. “In this respect it is no ‘diversion’; rather it takes a major symbolic step towards his ideal goal of an Islamised one-party state.”

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.

On July 10, Erdoğan announced the opening of the Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship after the Council of State - Turkey’s highest administrative court - ruled that the building’s conversion to a museum was illegal.

Erdoğan said that prayers will be held at the site on Friday.

Belge also pointed to other recent moves by the ruling Justice and Development Party that will undermine freedoms and rights in Turkey, including a new law on bar associations - seen by critics as an attempt to neuter the ability of lawyers to criticise the government over human rights violations - and also the discussion over Turkey opting out of the Istanbul Convention on violence against women.

“[Erdoğan’s] regime has no internalised respect for democracy, which is regarded as a ‘Western’ invention. Now the president is also demonstrating ‘our difference’ at the legal level,” Belge said. 

He said that criticism from the democratic world appears to have little effect on the Turkish authorities.

“A similar indifference accompanies the decision to convert Ayasofya back into a mosque. It is intended as a lasting symbol of presidential dictatorship,” he said.