Some issues of culture and politics

Some issues of culture and politics

On paper, the Turkish Foreign Minister to Athens’ visit last week was in response to the visit that his Greek counterpart Mr. Evangelos Venizelos paid to Ankara last July. In essence, it seems it is part of the new impetus towards a solution to the Cyprus issue, which in itself, is part of a wider effort by international players to close all outstanding regional problems for a safer energy environment in Eastern Med.

However, when you are talking about Turkey and Europe, you are describing a tempestuous past which still casts its shadow on contemporary sensitivities, especially when present policies touch upon issues of cultural and religious heritage.

There was a shadow over Prof. Ahmet Davutoğlu’s trip to Athens, before he even set foot in the Greek capital. The recent statement from the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan that for him the term “Thrace” does not mean just the geography included in present day Turkey but also the city of Thessaloniki, which belongs to Greece, had already infuriated, scared or, to put it diplomatically “disappointed,” many in Greece. Although the unprecedented economic and human crisis has dominated life in Greece over the last five years and domestic politics are determined by the relations with Brussels and Berlin, there are occasions when positions and statements from Turkish officials have stricken their most sensitive chords. And among such statements, made only last month, was also the expressed “hope” of Deputy Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Arınç to see a now “sad” Hagia Sophia become a mosque, “soon.”

During the joint press conference between the Foreign Ministers of Greece and Turkey, a lot was said about the good atmosphere in the bilateral relations and the work that is going on for the preparation of the 3rd High Cooperation Council between Greece and Turkey to take place in September 2014 after the six-month Greek presidency in the EU and after the presidential elections in Turkey. A lot was said about the Cyprus issue, as well as the bilateral progress on energy and tourism, as well as the recent agreement between Turkey and the EU that will allow the EU government to send back illegal immigrants into Europe from Turkey.

But I would like to pause on an issue of culture: on the answers that Prof. Davutoğlu gave to a question from a Greek journalist on whether the Erdoğan government intends indeed to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Davutoğlu’s answer was very interesting. “When it comes to the rights of our citizens,” he said, “we give priority and importance; of course, on the basis of egalitarianism.” And later he added, “I believe the traditions that originate from the Byzantium and the Ottoman empires are a single joint heritage for the Turkish state. Both Byzantine and Ottoman culture constitute our own joint heritage... Our view on these issues is very open, very clear and has been recognized internationally for its respect to the international principles which govern these principles... The restoration of the Hagia Sophia in the 16th century by Mimar Sinan and the respect towards the structure shows our position throughout the ages.”

I must say I could not understand what he meant. Did he mean that Hagia Sophia was both a Byzantine and Ottoman monument and because our citizens want it to be Ottoman we will return it to its Ottoman use because we proved we looked after it properly? Perhaps this is what he meant. But then where does “egalitarianism” fit into this?