Hagia Sophia has been at the center of a campaign by Turkey’s ruling party to communicate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s model of political Islam to the Turkish public over the past few years. In a previous article (“Hagia Sophia and the dialogue of civilizations,” 2/12/2013, Kathimerini), I outlined the main parameters of the issue in relation to the process of the re-Islamization of Turkish political life. Erdogan has gained full dominance over the country’s political scene since then and has set the year 2023 as a target for ending a century of secularization. So what does the future hold?
Turkey uses Hagia Sophia as a tool of cultural diplomacy to exert both soft and hard power. The monument is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been a museum since 1935. Turkey, as a UNESCO member, has agreed to the legal framework concerning the operation of monuments under the protection of the United Nations agency, which includes parameters setting out Ankara’s rights and obligations in the context of political reciprocity with other UN member-states. For Ankara, Hagia Sophia is a symbol of soft power with strong aspects, but not so much when its soft power comes into conflict with the political will of the Turkish government based on Turkey’s hard power.
Since Turkey embarked on a process of political re-Islamization, political Islam has been calling for the various religious and political buildings that were turned into museums during the period of secularization by the Kemalists to be returned to the status quo ante – i.e. to their full religious dimensions and functions based on Islamic law and tradition. Similarly, it would not be surprising if Topkapi ceased to be a museum is open to the public and was turned into a palace again, like Dolmabahce, which the public today can only visit as part of a guided tour. It is obvious that the gradual reuse of these buildings is aimed at achieving a number of objectives, including the restoration of Istanbul to the status of capital of the Islamic-Turkish democracy or sultanate in the near future, possibly before 2023.
Regarding Turkey’s hard power, Ankara regards Hagia Sophia as a domestic issue and believes it can do what it pleases so long as this is in keeping with the national interest, even if this means confronting international dissenters. In this regard, taking advantage of its hard power on a geopolitical level, Ankara seems determined to confront the West by stripping Hagia Sophia of its museum character and transforming it into a mosque.
At this stage, the Turkish government is expected to use Hagia Sophia as a negotiating tool in its diplomatic struggle over Kurdistan and other geopolitical issues. Russia is the only country that has both the hard and soft power to prevent Ankara from abolishing the museum character of Hagia Sophia; however, if the conditions of normal power at a regional level allow it, Turkey will use all of its geopolitical might so that its hard-power objectives prevail over its soft-power approach in regard to Hagia Sophia in the medium and long term.
It appears that Turkey has returned to the Islamic path.
* Evangelos Venetis is head of the Middle East Research Project at the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).