Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to allow a daily reading from the Quran to be broadcast from Hagia Sophia in Istanbul during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan serves a two-pronged strategy: Firstly, it allows the Turkish strongman to promote his Islamic narrative at home and in the broader Muslim world. Secondly, it puts pressure on Greece regarding the construction of a formal mosque in Athens while asserting claims in the northern region of Thrace, home to Greece’s Muslim minority.
In previous years Erdogan has clashed with Turkey’s Kemalists, the guardians of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the secular republic, who oppose his vision of a more “Islamic” society and state. The nascent power balance in Turkey’s state apparatus and the results of recent elections indicate that Erdogan is winning this battle. His stance over Hagia Sophia is part of a plan to overshadow Ataturk, who in 1935 signed the decision to convert the building into a museum. It was a highly symbolic move, regardless of whether it was intended as a gesture of good will toward Greece following military conflict between the two sides or to highlight the face of the new Turkey.
Now, 80 years on, and after he managed to lift the longstanding ban on headscarves in public institutions, spearhead the expansion of religious schools, introduce restrictions on alcohol sales and oversee a diplomatic shift from a strategic alliance with the West toward pursuing a hegemonic role in the Islamic world, Erdogan is poised to challenge Turkey’s secular legacy. The daily recitations from the Quran during the holy month from Hagia Sophia are in line with that pattern. The move was mainly aimed at appeasing the supporters of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) who see the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque as confirmation that the Greco-Christian hegemony was defeated at the hands of Muslim Turks.
On the level of Greek-Turkish relations, the “re-Islamization” of Orthodox Christianity’s most significant church angered officials in Athens. “Obsessions, verging on bigotry, with Muslim rituals in a monument of world cultural heritage are incomprehensible and reveal a lack of respect for and connection with reality,” Athens said in a statement, adding that “such actions are not compatible with modern, democratic and secular societies.” Officials in Athens were perplexed by Ankara’s move, particularly as efforts were under way to find common ground on issues of culture and religion.
Meanwhile, Turkey accused Greece of violating religious freedoms, claiming that “Greece has not given permission for the construction of a mosque in its capital for years [and it]… permanently intervenes in the freedoms of religion of the Turkish minority of Western Thrace and mistakes being against Islam for being modern.” A Greek Foreign Ministry source rejected Ankara’s claims about the Muslim minority in Thrace as “groundless,” noting that 320 mosques operate there. “If Turkey has not yet realized or is not making an effort to respect its commitments to protect monuments of global cultural heritage, then it has not entered the 21st century,” the source said.
Reactions were not only directed from Athens. A US State Department spokesman indicated Washington’s disapproval with Turkey’s decision, saying that “we recognize Hagia Sophia as a site of extraordinary significance and we would encourage Turkey to preserve Hagia Sophia in a way that respects its tradition and also its complex history.”
Secular Turks added voice to the criticism as they see the Hagia Sophia case as another manifestation of Erdogan’s bid to push the country in a more “Islamic” direction.
In 1926, Ataturk said: “At times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea… My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science.” By contrast, addressing a rally on the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople last year, Erdogan proclaimed his neo-Ottoman dogma, asserting that “with conquest came civilization.”