Is Hagia Sophia an election ploy?
The early morning prayers of several thousand of devout Muslims outside the Hagia Sophia Museum Saturday (May 31) sent multiple messages to everybody who is trying to decipher the complexity of present Turkish politics.
Actually it was not the first time that the Club of Anatolian Youth (AGD) had gathered in great numbers in front of this unique monument of religious architecture, now an officially declared monument of world cultural heritage. They also did so in 2012 when several thousand Muslim faithful had prayed for the return of Hagia Sophia to its former use i.e. as a Muslim mosque, to which it was converted by Sultan Mehmet II immediately after he conquered the City on the May 29, 1453. Before that, it served as a Patriarchal Church of Orthodox Christianity since its foundation in 537, except for a short period of almost sixty years in the early 13th century, when it was converted to a Catholic church under the Latin rule of the City. And it was not the first time that the anniversary of “Fetih [conquest]” became an occasion to show the advance of the Ottoman army, not just as a military victory, but as a victorious outcome of a holy war of Islam over Christianity and the West.
However, it does not go back as far in time as many would have thought. The spirit of “Fetih” was not born during the Ottoman rule. Perhaps they did not need to prove to anybody that they were they new rulers of the land. Historians tell us the Conquest was not celebrated then, but much later on: during Menderes’ time! The first celebrations for 500 hundred years of the conquest of the city were organized in 1953 by a precursor of AGD, the Istanbul Fetih Cemiyeti.
This year, the spirit of Fetih was subdued due to the tragedy of Soma. On the actual anniversary date, the Turkish prime minister and his entourage chose to watch the Efes 2014 military drills in Seferhisar near İzmir. And one day before the anniversary of the Conquest, a group of Turkish academics and intellectuals tried to bring some sense to the issue by reminding everybody, among other things, that Hagia Sophia is a 1,500-year-old structurally fragile monument, and that it should be handled with extreme care, even as a museum. They had a special reason for speaking out. For the past few months, indirect official statements have led us to believe that Hagia Sophia may be included in Turkey’s political agenda with the presidential election. That it may be thrown into the battle to stream more support toward AKP. Whether the government will actually risk turning the international community against it, nobody can tell.
But the results of recent local elections showed that the popular vote is split in the middle and for whoever will be the AKP candidate –read Erdoğan– to be elected as president of the Republic by direct vote for the first time, he will need more than what the party got last March. At the same time, though, the attitude of the voters as a result of the wave of alleged scandals since last December involving government officials showed that polarization works in favor of the government. A gesture toward the Turkish citizens who also define themselves as Muslims and have been by now convinced by the government’s rhetoric that all of the ills of their society are due to western conspiracies, would only seal their support to the government. Certainly even a symbolic opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque would fulfill the dreams of many like the ones who flocked the Sultanahmet area at dawn last Saturday, dreaming of entering the place as owners.