Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia back into a working mosque is a major setback to the country’s secular values that are already under attack from Islamists. The sixth century Byzantine monument had been at the centre of the conflict between Ottoman Muslims and eastern Orthodox Christians for centuries. Built as a cathedral by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans after Mehmed the Conqueror captured the city in 1453. For five centuries, it was a jewel in the Ottoman Sultan’s crown. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of modern Turkey, closed down the mosque in 1930 as part of his secularisation drive and reopened it as a museum five years later. Ever since, it has been one of Turkey’s most visited monuments as well as a symbol of Christian-Muslim co-existence. In recent years, the demand for converting the museum into a mosque gained traction with support from Mr. Erdoğan and his party. On Friday, as soon as the country’s highest administrative court cancelled Hagia Sophia’s museum status, he signed a decree transferring its management to the Directorate of Religious Affairs. Reopening Hagia Sophia as a mosque is now only a matter of time and formality.
Mr. Erdoğan, whose Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in 2002 on promises of reforming the Kemalist state into a more inclusive and democratic one, has, instead, been systematically unmaking the secular republic. He has tightened his grip on power by moving religion to the centre of his governance. He has rewritten the Constitution, turning Turkey into an all-powerful executive presidency, and launched a war against journalists and critics at home. His foreign policy bets on Syria and Libya had backfired with jihadists making gains in both countries. After the failed coup of 2016, he started a purge to get rid of rivals from the government. Now, with the decision on Hagia Sophia, his brand of Islamism is taking a giant leap forward. The symbolism is hardly lost on anyone. For Turkish Islamists, Hagia Sophia has always been associated with the “glory” of the Ottoman imperial era. He is appealing to those sentiments, while symbolically marking an end to Kemalist secularism. The move comes at a time when the President is facing challenging times. The economy is in free fall. The COVID-19 pandemic is spreading. His popularity is sliding, especially after the AK Party lost local elections in Istanbul and Ankara last year. Whether the Hagia Sophia decision would help him politically or not, it could further fracture Turkish society and worsen international relations. Mr. Erdoğan is opening the wounds of the past, which could have lasting consequences. Surely, 2020 is not 1453.