What next after Hagia Sophia move?
A process to formally convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque was realized on July 10 after a presidential decree was published in the Official Gazette, overriding a government decision from 1934 that converted the historical site into a museum.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced and explained the details of the change of the status of the Hagia Sophia in a televised address to the nation at 8:53 p.m., hearkening back to 1453, the year Mehmet the Conqueror captured Istanbul.
He thanked the Council of State which annulled the 1934 decree that paved the way for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and the first president of the modern Republic of Turkey, to turn the Hagia Sophia into a museum.
The administrative court, to the contrary of its former rulings on the same issue, suggested that the Hagia Sophia was the personal property of Mehmet the Conqueror and that he transferred the rights on the use of this structure to a foundation named after him for sole use as a mosque. Therefore, the court stated, the decree issued in 1934 was unlawful.
This interpretation of the Council of State has caused a legal debate. Professor Metin Günday, an expert on administrative law, suggested that the ruling was wrong on both procedure and principle. The court has no authority to review an administrative decision 80 years after it was taken, he told the Turkish media, claiming that this ruling substitutes Republican law with Ottoman law. “In the Ottoman era, the whole country was the property of the sultan.
In this case, an heir of Sultan Abdülhamit can claim the property of Topkapı Palace. Will the court find this person right in the framework of property rights?” he asked.
The second dimension of Erdoğan’s lengthy speech was devoted to the 1934 decree by Atatürk. He never mentioned Atatürk by name but preferred to blame the one-party regime at the time for what he described as “treason to history.” Erdoğan has always been sensitive about not criticizing Atatürk, the country’s national hero and savior, and this time he did it in an indirect way.
Third, his description of the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque after 86 years as the second conquest of Istanbul was attention-grabbing. Many media outlets have preferred to use this description on their front pages, leading to predictions that Erdoğan and his government will seek to capitalize on the conversion.
But what is less discussed in public is this move’s foreign repercussions. In an address in March 2019, Erdoğan had said opening the Hagia Sophia to worship would have consequences abroad and detailed calculations were needed before taking such a step.
As seen in the last few days, the Christian world, particularly Orthodox communities, have reacted to Ankara’s decision. One important remark came from the EU’s foreign and security policy high representative, Josep Borrell, who recalled that Turkey was the co-founder of the Alliance of Civilization with Spain, an initiative that aims to strengthen and create bridges between different cultures, religions and societies. Hagia Sophia was one of the best symbols of this initiative, but its conversion into a mosque is believed to weaken it.
Apart from the negative impact to Turkey’s overall image, changing the status of Hagia Sophia will also reduce its influence in protecting and restoring Ottoman-era sites outside Turkey, particularly in the Balkans, many experts suggest.
As a matter of fact, Erdoğan said in March 2019 that Turkey must be careful in its moves concerning the Hagia Sophia, as it could lead to unwanted consequences concerning Ottoman heritage in the Balkans.
On the internal political front, the opposition parties have obviously preferred not to engage in a culture war against the government on one of the most sensitive issues in the country. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), which was founded by Atatürk, adopted very careful language on the matter to avoid a lengthy and troubled quarrel with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) over religion.
Unable to resolve the problems of the country, particularly the economy, the AKP is opting for politics over Turkey’s national and religious sensitivities, the opposition suggests and says it won’t be distracted.
Many in Ankara think that the Hagia Sophia move will surely help the AKP consolidate its nationalist and conservative grassroots and inject morale into the party but it’s difficult to suggest that this conversion alone will help Erdoğan secure the next elections.
The Hagia Sophia move, therefore, could be followed by Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention so as to please conservative groups or a referendum on ties with the EU to please nationalist-conservative groups, political analysts in Ankara suggest.