Erdoğan wins again with Hagia Sophia conversion

In politics, successful politicians prosper because they can read the political terrain as well as the temperament of voters.  The recent Council of State decision in compliance with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s oft-stated wish to re-characterise the Hagia Sophia (“Ayasofya” in Turkish) as a mosque instead of a museum reveals how well he fulfils this criteria. The outcome from Istanbul’s disputed landmark impedes pluralist democracy within Turkey in several ways.

- Rule of Law -
The Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, did what it knew it must to appease Erdoğan. Opinions had differed on whether a 1934 decree by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to convert the Hagia Sophia into a museum was legal. Ironically, Atatürk had established a precedent of law subordinate to the will of the chief executive when he ordered the site’s status change.

Like Atatürk, Erdoğan made it clear to the Council of State, a formally independent legal body, what ruling was expected of it, and its membership complied. In both cases, the will of the chief executive trumped independent judicial decision-making.  Restoring the independence of the judiciary, a bedrock principle for a pluralist democracy, remains out of sight for the foreseeable future. 

- Independent Legislature -
The Turkish parliament has not intervened to restrain Erdoğan on this or any other of his recent initiatives, and any opponents have been thoroughly out-manoeuvred, if not removed or arrested on spurious charges.

By placing the decision power (to all appearances) in the hands of the Council of State, the legislative opposition was effectively blocked in challenging Erdoğan’s will.  Similarly, by portraying the decision as one of the sovereign Turkish nation, non-governmental organisations and civil society were hobbled in their arguments against it – nationalism is the most potent aspect of Turkish politics.

- Respect for Religious Minorities -
Erdoğan has shown repeatedly that he has great respect for religious minority communities in Turkey, as long as they accept the dictates of his policy and do not challenge his ultimate authority.  This attitude towards such minorities, though not shared with ethnic or other types of minority groups, rests on his strong Islamic faith.  He respects Christians and Jews in line with his understanding of Hanafi Sunni teachings on inter-religious relations as long as they acknowledge and abide by the authority of Muslim leadership. 

The president is also aware that non-Muslim religious minorities in Turkey number too few to affect to his political ambitions.  And, treating them well, as he sees it, gives him room to lambast Western nations for anti-Muslim prejudice.

- Free Media -
Having thoroughly enfeebled independent media prior to this decision, Erdoğan knew that the few Turkish voices raised in calls for maintaining the museum status of the Hagia Sophia would be heard within Turkey. This decision underscores the loss of media freedom in Turkey, an ongoing event over the last decade. 

- Religious Populism -
Erdoğan knows his electoral base, and though they are Turkish nationalists, they are religious nationalists as well. Like the president, they look upon the 1453 conquest of Istanbul by Ottoman forces as a great victory for Islam as much as for the Turkish nation. They also share Erdoğan’s vision of Turkey as a vanguard among the nations helping to spread Islam while restoring it as the pre-eminent Islamic power, if not in the world, at least in the greater Middle East.  

But what of international relations? Properly functioning pluralist democracies pay attention to the opinions of other nations, especially well-established functioning democracies.  Also, Erdoğan likes to tout the rise of Turkey to his domestic constituents regularly - how under his leadership, Turkey and its citizens are more greatly respected than ever before. Wouldn’t the outrage expressed by the international community weaken that argument? 

As predicted, there has been little in expressions of outrage, dramatic calls for action or threats of sanctions from other countries. Instead, we have had expressions of sadness and disappointment, as well as a reminder to Erdoğan that the loss of entrance fees paid by tourists to visit the Hagia Sophia, one of the world’s greatest architectural and engineering marvels, would come in the midst of Turkey’s economic struggle. None of that was enough to deter the decision, highlighting the importance Erdoğan attaches to re-converting the museum into a mosque. 

Which brings us to possibly the most important building block for a strong, functioning democracy – secular government. One need not adopt the strident anti-religious attitude underpinning laicity to guard against the state’s imposition of a particular creed on its citizens.  That said, any state that establishes adherence to a particular religious or ideological creed undermines the freedom of conscience, and being able to act on one’s conscience is the foundation of all human rights.

The current unhealthiness of Turkish democracy will decline even more rapidly if infected with the notion that one obligation of the state is to support and favour a particular creed. More than a continuing assault on the secular nature of the Turkish state, Erdoğan’s successful campaign to re-convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque ends any pretence that Turkey’s government has a non-sectarian character that respects the rights of its citizens regardless of their religious affiliation or the absence of such affiliation.

So, once again, Erdoğan wins a political battle with the opponents of his increasingly autocratic rule. And once again, what is good for him electorally is bad for Turkish democracy and Turks committed to real pluralist democracy.

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