The ambition of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, seems to know no limits. After taking a belligerent stance at the international level to establish positions in the Mediterranean, through military intervention even in the civil wars in Libya and Syria, he now comes to the position of officially converting again mosques that were temples in the past and are now not formally recognized as such.
Last Friday, the Ottoman leader formalized the conversion of the ancient basilica of Hagia Sophia, until now a museum, into a mosque. As part of the manoeuvre carried out by the Turkish state, the country's highest administrative court, known as Danistay, declared invalid the 1934 ministerial decision that secularised the building in order to give it the status of a museum, as it was not in accordance with the law. Subsequently, a presidential decree signed by Erdogan himself and published in the Official State Gazette served to transfer ownership of the building from the Ministry of Culture, which held it until now, to the Diyanet, the public body that manages mosques. This was worthwhile in order to deepen the process.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended up formally announcing on television the new status of the building, a World Heritage Site since 1985. The head of state recounted in detail the triumphal entry of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II into Constantinople and his prayer in the mosque, comparing the situation with his determination to reopen the building for Muslim worship. He defined as "unjust" and "betrayal of history" the 1934 ministerial decision, which removed the status of mosque that the temple had enjoyed since 1453, and celebrated that, by annulling it, Turkey had compensated for what was a "shame". He also quoted a poem that describes the reopening of Hagia Sophia for prayer as "the second conquest of Istanbul", a concept that is common in ultra-nationalist and Islamist circles in Turkey, which have been demanding the possibility of praying there for years.
And that is what Erdogan is aiming for, a new reconquest of the Islamic world. The next step has been announced, with the promise to liberate' the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as announced by the Eurasian country's presidency. In this way, the Sultan' has promised to liberate' Al-Aqsa Mosque' in Israel after Hagia Sophia is resurrected' as a mosque again. "The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the passage of the will of Muslims all over the world to come," the official statement said.
The Turkish president linked the decision to revive Islam from Bukhara in Uzbekistan to Andalusia in Spain, which encompasses the former Al-Andalus. Here, for example, the mosque-cathedral of Cordoba, converted from a mosque to a cathedral after the Christian reconquest in the 13th century, would come into play in a manoeuvre of religious expansionism, as warned by the Jerusalem Post.
In the face of this aggressive stance, voices have emerged against it, such as that of Pope Francis I. The Pope said this Sunday that he is "very distressed" by the conversion of the old basilica of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque by decision of the Turkish president. "My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Hagia Sophia. I am very saddened", said the highest representative of the Catholic Church outside the speech planned for the Angelus.
In addition, several countries, especially Russia and Greece, which closely follow the evolution of the Byzantine heritage in Turkey, as well as the United States and France, have criticized the transformation of the ancient basilica into a place of Muslim worship.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has also opposed and defended the continuation of Hagia Sophia in Turkey as a museum and that it should not be converted into a mosque. In this vein, the UAE Minister of Culture and Youth, Noura al-Kaabi, considered that cultural monuments "should not be misused or altered". The ruling by Turkey's highest administrative court has been greeted with concern by American, French, Russian and Greek officials, as well as Christian leaders.
This new controversy is another step in the authoritarian drift of Erdogan's Turkey. A dynamic continues marked by this Islamist religious radicalism, the interference in the affairs of other states (such as Libya and Syria), even participating with troops and sending paid mercenaries from groups linked to jihadist terrorism, and the political persecution of opponents within Turkish borders. The purge of Turkish army commanders, who are accused of links with groups linked to the opposition cleric Fethullah Gülen and the 2016 coup d'état, is well known, as is the reported imprisonment of members of other political parties, such as the members of the People's Democratic Party (HDP) who were arrested for collaborating with the guerrilla group of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an organisation considered terrorist by Turkey and other nations. Also noteworthy is the interference in the judiciary by the Turkish government through legislative changes that seek to increase government influence on the governing bodies of the bar associations.
Several authoritative voices point to this rigid and persecutory behaviour of the Erdogan regime as a way of diverting attention and trying to rally public opinion around them in the face of common enemies. All of this is due to the need for greater backing due to the loss of political support within the nation itself; manifested by the strong rise of the opposition, especially since the electoral debacle in the local elections of 2019, in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP, for its initials in Turkish) ceded the Town Halls of cities as important as Ankara, the administrative capital of Turkey, and Istanbul, the financial heart, which were left in the hands of the Republican People's Party (CHP, for its initials in Turkish).