By ARIEL BEN SOLOMON
(JNS) – The decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to convert the Hagia Sophia Cathedral longtime museum in Istanbul back into a mosque reinforces his long-held plans for promoting Islamic supremacy and lifts his sagging popularity at home.
Built in the sixth century C.E. by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the Hagia Sophia served as the world’s largest Christian church, an architectural marvel and the seat of Orthodox Christianity for nearly 1,000 years until Constantinople (now Istanbul) fell to the conquering Ottoman Turks in 1453. They converted the church into a mosque until 1935, when Turkey’s secular president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had the building renovated, including uncovering some long-hidden Christian mosaics, and converted into a museum open to all.
Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, told JNS that “Erdoğan comes from an Islamist tradition for which Hagia Sophia’s conversion has been a key goal for decades. For Erdoğan and his mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, converting Hagia Sophia was not only a symbol of reversing secular republican reforms and asserting their sectarian agenda, but also a pan-Islamist move that helps propagate their supremacist ideology across the globe.”
Erdemir pointed out that since the rise of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002, Erdoğan “has shown strategic patience by remaining silent about and delaying the conversion of Hagia Sophia until he consolidated enough power to push it through the judiciary and the executive branch.”
Burak Bekdil, a Turkish journalist who writes for the Gatestone Institute and is a fellow at the Middle East Forum, told JNS that Erdoğan “made the move now because he wants to stop and reverse the erosion of his popularity.”
“Credible polls, one after another, demonstrate that he is on a sharp decline. As a political survivor, he knows that what appeals to the average Turkish voter is some neo-Ottoman nostalgia with a sauce that makes Turks feel great again; it will boost his ratings,” he said.
The Hagia Sophia has served as one of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The move by Erdoğan has been widely criticized by the international community and many Christian leaders, including those in the United States, European Union, Russia and the World Council of Churches. In particular, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew.
MEMRI reported that the Turkish office of the president and Erdoğan’s personal account tweeted English messages of openness. In both Turkish and English, the postings conveyed tolerance and pluralism, stressing that the Hagia Sophia will continue to be open to the members of all faiths.
Conversely, a tweet in Arabic on Erdoğan’s personal Arabic-language page presented Turkey as an active player working tirelessly for its pan-Islamic role and that of Muslim nations—from Bukhara, Uzbekistan in the east to the Andalusia region of Spain in the west—and for the “liberation” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. News channels in Turkey have already begun to echo Erdoğan’s rhetoric about Al-Aqsa.
In a recent Gatestone article, Bekdil wrote that after the move, a flurry of anti-Semitic statements was posted on social media with statements such as “You Jewish dogs, it will come to Al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem] too.”
Erdemir said the timing coincides with the Turkish president’s desperation with the ongoing economic crisis in the country, which has eroded his voter support to unprecedented levels since 2002, as evidenced by his loss of Istanbul and Ankara in the 2019 municipal elections.
“Erdoğan’s move to convert Hagia Sophia is simultaneously a reflection of his growing power, and diminishing legitimacy and popular support,” added the former member of the Turkish parliament.
Moreover, Turkey’s lira fell to its lowest level since a record low in May as inflation spiked by 12.6 percent in June, according to a CNBC report earlier in July.
This combined with Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy supporting Islamists and allies throughout the region in countries such as Syria, Libya and regarding the Islamic Movement in Jerusalem could cause problems for Erdoğan in Turkey. Turkey has allied itself with Qatar in support of Muslim Brotherhood movements and Islamists.
Furthermore, Turkey’s geopolitical position is precarious as it has drifted away from Washington and warmed to Russia and China instead.
The United States removed Turkey from its F-35 fighter-jet program in 2019, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers is now pushing the Pentagon to stop buying parts from Ankara for the new jet.
The question is whether Turkey’s increasingly Islamist domestic and foreign policies, coupled with continued negative repercussions from the Hagia Sophia fallout, will cause voters to turn him out of power in the next elections, which are scheduled for 2023.
Jordanian scholar defends Hagia Sophia move, says Jews will be thrown in the sea
(MEMRI via JNS) – Jordanian Prof. Ahmad Nofal defended Turkey’s recent decision to convert Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia into a mosque, saying it had been a mosque for 500 years before “Dönmeh Jew” Mustafa Kemal Atatürk turned it into a museum.
In the July 17 episode of his weekly show on the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s Yarmouk TV, Nofal said that “the collaborator” Atatürk was a “Dönmeh Jew from Greece. He wasn’t even a Turk. He was a Greek who lived in the Jewish Quarter in Istanbul.”
Nofal said, “If we liberate Palestine tomorrow, will we leave the Jewish synagogues intact? No! We will uproot them, along with their people, and throw them into the sea. Allah willing, it will be soon.”
The Dönmeh were Jewish converts to Islam in the Ottoman Empire who retained their Jewish beliefs in secret.
According to the Turkish daily Yeni Şafak, Erdoğan said during the ceremony announcing the move that the “resurrection of Hagia Sophia was the harbinger of the liberation of Masjid al-Aqsa [Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque] and footsteps of Muslims’ will to leave hard days behind.”
There were some Muslim voices raised in opposition to the Turkish announcement.
Prof. Saad el-Din Helaly of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University told MBC Masr TV on July 13 that the announcement by the “Muslim Brotherhood government of Turkey” was “an escalation against human civilization,” and harmed Muslims and Islam. This, he said, was the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam, which “will put their hands on people’s possessions from China to America” if they rise to power.