Hagia Sophia conversion plan comes at testing times for Turkey's Erdogan

Hagia Sophia conversion plan comes at testing times for Turkey's Erdogan
As opposition parties call for early elections, Erdogan's critics say he is using Hagia Sophia to divert attention from economic turmoil threatening to further undercut his popularity.
7 min read
17 June, 2020
The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque has sparked a fierce debate. [Getty]

As Turkish-Greek tensions soar over a territorial drilling dispute, Turkey's plans to convert a museum and world heritage site into a mosque have reignited talks of a perceived struggle by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to retain his popularity.

Turkey's Erdogan has escalated tensions with his country’s historic rival, Greece, after publicly speaking on plans to reconvert Istanbul's Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque for Islamic prayer amid territorial disputes over oil.

The controversial move was largely perceived by analysts as a political manoeuvre to drum up support for Erdogan within his conservative base and help the Justice and Development party (AKP) leader regain some foothold amid opposition party calls for early elections. 

A heated debate started after prayers marking the 567th anniversary of Istanbul's conquest were held in May outside the historic facade – the Turkish capital's top tourism spot that drew some 3.7 million visitors in 2019 according to official figures.

Reports surfaced in March revealing plans by the Turkish leader to convert the historically Greek cathedral – now a museum classified as a world heritage site – to a mosque once again in a move that Istanbul's mayor, a member of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), warned was politically motivated.

Erdogan has escalated tensions with his country's historic rival, Greece, after publicly speaking about plans to reconvert Istanbul's Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque

If Erdogan follows through, the decision is likely to draw retribution from Greece and Western allies while Turkey-Greece tensions have already soared in a fierce dispute over energy.

In recent weeks, Turkey unveiled imminent plans to begin oil explorations in the eastern Mediterranean after striking a deal with Libya's UN-backed Government of National Accord in return for its military support. 

Athens, which last week signed its own maritime deal with Italy, says Turkey's exploration plans "violate" its maritime jurisdiction, reigniting heated territory disputes between the two countries over the dividing waters of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, as well as the island of Cyprus – de facto divided between Greek Cypriot and Turkish communities. 

Hagia Sophia was Istanbul's most visited site in 2019 [Getty]

The European Union is siding with its members, Greece and Cyprus, while criticising Turkey for its drilling plans. While Cyprus, Greece, and Israel are working to develop a pipeline to transport eastern Mediterranean gas into Europe, Greek commentators have claimed Turkey's deal with Tripoli could obstruct the plan.

The dispute prompted Greek Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos to announce his country's readiness for a direct military confrontation should things escalate, drawing similar threats from Erdogan in retaliation.

Last week, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a televised speech that Hagia Sophia is "not a matter of international affairs, but a matter of national sovereignty."

In comments to The New Arab, several prominent analysts critical of Erdogan shared the unanimous view that the Hagia Sophia campaign was not a power move on a global front to spite Greece, but a part of the governing AK party leader's domestic strategy to consolidate his base and divert the attention away from economic woes that could cost Erdogan votes.

While Hagia Sophia's conversion plans seem unlikely to be a tool to settle scores with Greece and Cyprus, Erdogan's loss of popularity in Turkey could be a factor pushing the leader to reconsider bolder decisions which may put a damper on Turkey's relations with European allies.

"Erdogan seeks and direly needs the financial help of the Western powers. He is clever enough to know that after opening Hagia Sophia [as a mosque], it will be impossible to find a friendly audience in the West," former Turkish diplomat Ömer Murat told The New Arab.

The controversial move was largely perceived by analysts as a political manoeuvre to drum up support for Erdogan within his conservative base

Murat said Erdogan is carefully trying to find the right formula which will boost his popularity in Turkey, while simultaneously making sure to avoid Western outcry.

However, Turkey's recent foreign policy, including its alliance with Libya, points to increasing efforts to reduce dependence on Western allies while Turkey deals with an economic crisis.

The 2018 economic crisis, now exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, has plunged the value of the Turkish currency and has lost Erdogan some of his popular support. This has presented the opposition an opportunity to openly call for early elections and challenge Erdogan's leadership, while elections are not set to take place before 2023.

Abdullah Bozkurt, an exiled Turkish analyst and journalist, said the campaign to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque "will help distract Turkish public from discussing real problems such as budget issues, soaring unemployment... and financial and economic hardships", all the while keeping Erdogan's religious and nationalist base in line until the next election.

The New Arab reached out to the Turkish presidency, as well as several AKP members of Parliament in Erdogan's government, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

 Erdogan's voter base support the conversion [Getty]
Reports on Erdogans's plans for Hagia Sophia were already received well by a large portion of Turkish social media users who praised Erdogan for the bold move.

"Erdogan wants to gain some religious credentials by becoming a leader who reclaimed Hagia Sophia's 400-years long mosque legacy. This would be a good sell for Erdogan and his people among other non-Turkish Muslim groups, especially in the diaspora," Bozkurt told The New Arab.

A survey conducted by Erdogan's party found that 90 percent of supporters who vote for AKP and its ultranationalist ally, the Nationalist Movement Party, support the conversion of Hagia Sophia, according to dokuz8NEWS. A big chunk of voters opposing CHP and the liberal-conservative İYİ Party also support the decision. 

"There are strong indications that he is preparing for an early election, before new splinter parties… get stronger. What we now know for sure is that for Erdogan it is important to polarize the society by using some provocative symbolic issues before the elections. It is his way of consolidating his conservative, nationalist base," the former diplomat, who is now in exile in Germany, said.

"By using these symbolic issues … he prevents the public opinion discussing the real issues, especially economic ones," Murat said, adding that the Hagia Sophia conversion also presents a "sensitive issue in the Orthodox Christian world."

While it is not the first time Erdogan has brought up the issue of Hagia Sophia and pledged to revert it to a Muslim prayer site, Erdogan had mostly kept a strategic silence, only raising the issue a week before mayoral elections last year.
The 2018 economic crisis, now exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, has plunged the value of the Turkish currency and has lost Erdogan some of his popular support
Despite his pledge at the time, which was more reserved to maintain relations with Russia and European allies, Erdogan's party lost control of Istanbul, where Hagia Sophia is located, after a re-run of the city's mayoral election.

Last week, the CHP's Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu came under fire for comments made during the Delphi Economic Forum criticising the timing of renewed Hagia Sophia discussions and the handling of what he called a sensitive historic and religious issue.

"It's sad that such an issue is being instrumentalized for domestic political reasons. These issues should be dealt with sensitivity, while taking into account both history and religion," Imamoglu said.

Erdogan's supporters and far-right conservatives hit back at the mayor, calling him a traitor to Turkish nationalism and claiming he is "better fit to become a mayor for Athens."

If Erdogan follows through, the decision is likely to draw
retribution from Greece and Western allies. [Getty]

Imamoglu also hit a sensitive nerve when he implicitly referenced claims of attempting to divert attention from the economic crisis amid a pandemic. "Why bring Hagia Sophia to the agenda for discussion when tourism has seen the worst and hundreds of thousands are unemployed," the mayor said, according to reports.

A Turkish court is expected to rule on the matter in early July, with local papers speculating the conversion to take place on 15 July, the fourth anniversary of a failed military coup against Turkey's ruling government.

One Turkey analyst speculated that the decision to finalise the conversion will not pass before the election calls are sorted.

"I don't think this conversion is going to resonate a lot with people who are currently struggling to get by," Ihan Tanir said, opining that Erdogan is testing the waters to observe the response and hold on to the card for when it may need it. 

Schemes to boost popularity are short-lived, he said, adding that the popularity reaped by Erdogan from several Syria operations only lasted a few months.

"The timing is up to the president. Whenever he sees the most convenient according to political calculations," Ihan said. This, he said, might be in a year or even 2023.

Gasia Ohanes is a journalist with The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @GasiaOhanes