Hagia Sophia and the Alliance of Civilizations
When Spain and Turkey became co-sponsors of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations to explore the roots of polarization between societies and cultures in 2005, Spain didn’t pose as a representative of Christianity, and Turkey didn’t post as a representative of Islam. Spain was under a Socialist government which traditionally cares and values the country’s Islamic heritage, as the country remained under Muslim rule for 800 years.
Turkey, meanwhile, the only Muslim-majority member in NATO and the Council of Europe, was under the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, which was set to initiate democratic reforms that would also ameliorate the rights of non-Muslims.
Until 2005, Turkey never posed as the spokesperson of the Islamic world. At any rate, for Arabs, Turkey was not Muslim enough.
Some see 2005 as a turning point in Turkey’s positioning itself as a bridge between East and West, albeit with deeper roots in the former. That year featured the Danish cartoon crisis, when the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad created anger throughout the Islamic world. Since then, Turkey started to gradually shift its position, turning more toward the East. With the Arab Spring in 2011, Turkey started to openly position itself not just a heavyweight fighting on behalf of the Islamic world, but as a game changer within the Islamic world as it sided with the Muslim Brotherhood’s branches in various countries.
This shift, however, has not brought fame and recognition. On the contrary. In its early days in power, AK Party governments reaped the benefits of its soft power in third-world countries and earned a reputation for diplomatic mediation throughout the 2000s. But the repositioning first brought what an adviser to the president once dubbed “precious loneliness.” It then brought increasing diplomatic contention with countries both in the West and the East.
And in the current stage, these contentions have turned into military confrontations.
In Syria and Libya, Turkey is trying to call the shots through military intervention. But it cannot resort to hard power everywhere where soft power fails. Look at the Palestinian issue. It is the most symbolic bleeding wound of the Islamic world, but Turkey is paralyzed there. With the good personal chemistry between U.S. President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey could have perhaps played a role in shaping U.S. policy toward the Palestinian question. But with strained relations with both Israel and Egypt at the same time, Turkey renders itself useless, unable to intervene on behalf of the Palestinians, even in spite of warnings from the latter that Turkey’s bad relations with Israel leave them at the mercy of the Egyptians.
At the end of the day, while Turkey’s efforts to reposition itself as the representative of the Muslim world has impaired its ability to intervene diplomatically on behalf of Muslim countries, it has now started to directly damage its international image. Turkey’s policies are increasingly seen as polarizing by pitting East against West and the Christian world against the Muslim world. European governments are especially concerned about the reflections of that type of polarization on the Turks and other Muslims living in their countries.
Reopening Hagia Sofia to Muslim prayer
It is against this backdrop that we should analyze the international repercussions of reopening Hagia Sofia to Muslim prayer.
While turning the iconic structure into a mosque means a lot to the ideologues of the AK Party movement, the president’s timing has less to do with ideological emotions but more to do with political pragmatism. With the current state of the economy, early elections are out of sight. Shifting the focus from the economic problems and the pandemic to Hagia Sofia not only consolidates the AK Party’s power base, but it also further deepens divisions within the secular opposition.
While none of the opposition parties fiercely opposed the recent move, the fact that the first prayer will take place July 24, the anniversary of the Lausanne Treaty that Islamists criticize Republican elites for signing, will leave deep scars among secularists.
Without doubt, the move appeals to the pious elements within the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the AK Party’s unofficial ally. But it also appeals to the nationalists within the MHP, who are more interested in the image that this move will project to the outside world. A decision to convert an important symbol for the Christian world into a mosque will be a source of pride for the MHP voter base.
All of this is being done for domestic reasons – namely, to consolidate the AK Party and MHP voters. But in terms of international consequences, we might expect two negative developments. First of all, it will consolidate Turkey’s perception as a polarizing factor, pitting the Islamic world against the Christian world and vindicating those who have prophesied a clash of civilizations. Second, with the biggest domestic tool – Hagia Sophia – off the table, Turkey’s ruling elites will need new polarizing tools to appeal to the nationalists of the MHP.
That search, in turn, might turn the focus abroad, meaning Turkey’s foreign policy could become more intransigent and more bellicose.