Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose a heavily symbolic day to present himself as a new Ottoman conqueror, converting the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque on the 97th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne. It would appear that his wish to create trouble with Greece and the rest of the European Union is part of the celebrations; he has dispatched an exploratory vessel with a significant naval escort to search for hydrocarbons in an area that is part of Greece’s continental shelf. With his prayer under the Hagia Sophia’s magnificent dome today, with the incomparably beautiful Christian mosaics hidden, Erdogan is doing all he can to overturn the achievements of the secular Turkish state’s founder.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk welcomed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 as “a political victory unequalled in the history of the Ottoman era.” According to his biographer Andrew Mango, apart from making peace between Turkey and the major Allies – Britain, France and Italy – and between Turkey and Greece, the Treaty “recognized Turkey as an independent state, fixed its frontiers, and applied to it principles and standards current in the ‘civilized world,’ as Mustafa Kemal had always insisted.” It then took seven years of intense diplomacy to achieve a Greek-Turkish treaty of friendship. Shortly after, Ataturk converted Hagia Sophia into a museum. The great cathedral, completed in 537, was declared a mosque when Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453. Now Erdogan is trying to erase Ataturk’s legacy, presenting himself as heir to the Conqueror, as the restorer of the Ottoman Empire. This explains the frequent violations of neighboring countries’ borders and sovereignty, the persistent challenges to Greece and Cyprus, the growing military and political adventurism. Only in his autocratic methods does he emulate Ataturk, and then only to achieve the complete opposite – to establish political Islam in power, not only in Turkey but across the region.
With his insistence on insulting not only the Greeks but also in violating what Ataturk would have called the “civilized world’s” principles – by mimicking Medieval behavior – Erdogan wants his people to ignore the fact that the Turkish economy relies on the support of Qatar and others, that Turkey’s increasing belligerence will force more and more countries to join forces against it. Blinded by his pageants of glory, he does not see that his successes so far are mainly the result of the appeasement or indifference of others, that those who now support him may swiftly turn against him.
Or perhaps he does see the dangers ahead and that is why he is in such a rush to celebrate today – three years short of the far more significant 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish republic.