"The authoritarian drift of Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is accompanied by a process of Islamism and nationalization". With these words, Jorge Dezcallar, a diplomat and former director of the National Intelligence Centre, referred on Monday in 'Atalayar, the keys to the world in your hands' to the Turkish president's decision to convert one of the "oldest and most beautiful churches in the world" into a mosque.
Dezcallar explained during this radio programme that, in the past, the dispute for the control of this sacred place was a fight "both theological and political", and he stressed that the church has great symbolic and sentimental value for a large part of Christianity, since within its walls are hidden some of the most relevant episodes in the history of the Christian religion. For the former director of the CNI, the dispute between the Primate of Constantinople and the Pope was more political than religious, since Constantinople "did not want to depend on the clergy of Rome after it had lost the empire".
Erdogan's decision to convert the old Byzantine temple, used as a mosque during Ottoman rule and transformed into a museum after Kemal Ataturk, back into a mosque is for Dezcallar "an example of the nationalist and Islamist process that the Turkish leader has been undertaking since 2016". However, Erdogan came to power in 2002 and at that time relied mainly on the cleric Fethullah Gülen. The movement led by this cleric began to spread in the 1980s, to such an extent that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) saw in this movement an opportunity to have an ally to reduce the influence of the military in the country.
However, this friendship between Erdogan and Gülen began to turn into the opposite, once the current Turkish leader realised that the Gülenists had increasing power in the main state institutions. In 2013, the Turkish president accused his former ally of organising a "witch-hunt" against members of his government. Since then he has blamed this movement for being behind events such as the coup d'état that took place in 2016 or for conspiring to overthrow him from power. "Since then there has been brutal repression," Dezcallar said. "We must understand that what has happened has taken place in a context of growing authoritarianism," he said.
"Erdogan wants to go down in history as a new Ataturk," said the guest diplomat on the last programme of Atalayar Radio's first season. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was responsible for leading the liberation movement that culminated in the birth of a modern liberal state. "One of the signs of identity of Turkey at that time was its modernisation process," said Dezcallar, who pointed out that this modernisation meant separating the Church from the State. "It was at this point that Haghia Sofia became a museum," he said.
During his speech, Dezcallar reflected on the influence of Christianity in the Eurasian nation, arguing that this new movement by Erdogan could be a way of expelling Christianity from Turkey. "This strategy is being repeated throughout the Middle East. If we look at the figures in the 1950s, in Iraq, Syria, Iran there were very strong communities of the various groups into which Christianity was split and these groups are disappearing.
The economic crisis in which the country is immersed due to the coronavirus crisis has led Erdogan to use "a very controversial policy". "Tourism is very much affected, as the management of the pandemic has not been good. In addition, we have to take into account that he lost Istanbul in the last elections," he said. "With the conversion of Hagia Sophia, Erdogan has tried to mobilise an Islamist base that is real and very strong in Turkey. "The other part is the result of the nationalist attitude, which is the other component of Erdogan's ideology. This element is leading him to become the protector of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Libya or Palestine," he explained. "Erdogan uses a very aggressive foreign policy that makes him fight beyond his means, but with very effective results". "A policy that we do not know how long it can last," he concluded.