Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not a man who listens to others. He does what he thinks is right, either because that is what his heart and mind dictate, or because it serves him politically.
In the case of Hagia Sophia, both are true. By turning the UNESCO World Heritage site and museum into a mosque, he wins favor with his conservative Muslim audience at home, serves his visions of grandeur and is provided with one more item that he can use in his efforts to divert attention from issues such as corruption, the economic crisis and even the coronavirus pandemic.
The Turkish president’s move was not really a surprise. In the last 20 years, he has been following a course in which Islam is clearly playing a leading role, while at the same time scorning the Christian West.
Was there a way to convince him not to convert this important symbol of Christianity into a mosque? The announcements, urgings and even sharp reactions from numerous countries and organizations were important in their own right, but the simple fact is that the only leader who could have swayed Erdogan is the president of the United States, Donald Trump.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – who, being married to an Orthodox Christian, is sensitive on the issue – took a position on the issue, saying that any change in Hagia Sophia’s status would diminish its ability “to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.” He was ignored, just as many others who tried to intervene and urge the Turkish president not to move ahead with his decision.
Trump might have been heeded if he had intervened in time and made the matter a top priority for him personally, given his “ties” with Turkey and his friendship and mutual admiration with Erdogan. He did so two years ago in the case of Andrew Brunson, the American pastor who was arrested and jailed on charges of being a member of the Fethullah Gulen movement and for allegedly participating in the 2016 coup attempt. Back then, Trump explained how seriously he took the issue, because of his electoral base, the Evangelists, and directly threatened to “destroy” the Turkish economy. Erdogan could not afford to ignore him. He backed down and released the pastor.
If Trump had taken a similar, personal interest in Hagia Sophia, he might have influenced the Turkish president. Until now, though, he has chosen to remain indifferent.