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The reconquest of Hagia Sophia?

  • 28 July 2020
In 2004 Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s President, talked of a ‘union of civilisations’ as a counter to Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis. This was the same year that the process for Turkey’s accession to the EU began, having been declared eligible for membership in 1997.

In that interview with Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspective Quarterly, Erdogan talks about the promising and positive relations that Turkey’s accession will bring between Islam and the West as ‘a bridge between Europe and Asia.’ When asked about his Justice and Development Party being a ‘Muslim party’ he rejected that characterisation, saying that people can be Muslim but not the party, ‘we are neither Islamic nor Islamist’.

Yet Erdogan’s remarks in relation to the Hagia Sophia is one that is heavily influenced and panders to his Islamist sentiments and supporters. Hagia Sophia, often touted as the pinnacle of Byzantine church architecture and design, was reverted to a museum in 1935 by the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk. Altering its status to a mosque is clearly about propping up Erdogan’s Islamist credentials and base, which have slowly been eroding civil freedoms in the Turkish nation.

Erdogan’s Islamist agenda can be seen both in domestic and foreign policy. In 2018 the JDP formed a coalition with the far-right conservative Nationalist Movement Party, bringing an otherwise periphery group into a conservative ‘democratic’ bloc. When the Arab Spring broke out across the Middle East Turkey naturally formed alliances with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and supported various Islamist groups fighting in Syria, both countries which have been otherwise secular republics.

Going back further Erdogan’s political beginnings, according to Metin Herper, where at the think tank National View Association which was allied with the first two religiously oriented political parties, the National Order Party and the National Salvation Party. Yet Herper goes on to paint a picture of a progressive Erdogan who respected the democratic process, free speech and was ‘interested in moral development rather than a state based on Islam.’ However, his recent record tells of a different story. Under his watch journalists, dissidents and academics have been silenced and locked up.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey was one the world’s worst jailers of journalists in 2018 for a third straight year. In 2019 it imprisoned 47 journalists. Kaya Genc, writing for Foreign Affairs, says that during his rule Erdogan has managed to marginalise opposition and