Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attends first Muslim prayers in Hagia Sophia since 1930s

Hitching ‘Holy wisdom’ to his war chariot

Esen Uslu highlights the strategic considerations that lie behind Erdoğan’s reconversion of Hagia Sophia

A new milestone on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempt to secure victory over the old Turkey was reached on July 24. The Hagia Sophia mosque reopened to Muslim worship with much government organised fanfare. A hugely symbolic act of revenge aimed at sending the Kemalist ideology and its primary tenet - Turkish-style secularism - into oblivion.

At the opening ceremony Erdoğan was flanked by army generals, as verses from the Koran were recited - not, as some reports had it, the Al Fath (Victory or Conquest) surah (chapter), but the Al Fatiha (Opener), plus the first five verses of Al-Baqarah (the Cow), which are the principal verses attesting one’s faith. The Al-Fath was actually recited at the Hagia Sophia on the anniversary of Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul) on May 29 this year - that was the starting pistol signalling the race to reconvert it into a mosque.

Hagia Sophia, of course, started life as a Christian cathedral in 537 and was taken over as a mosque in the 15th century, but in 1935 it was converted into a museum under the secular nationalist regime of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. But during the khutbah (Friday service) the head of Erdoğan’s Religious Affairs Department, Ali Erbaş, climbed halfway up to the pulpit with a sword in his left hand to give a carefully worded sermon in which the ascendancy of Islam was declared and secularism cursed (although Kemal’s name was not mentioned).

The weapon he carried evoked the long-forgotten practice of the era of Islamic conquests: the ‘right of the sword’. The Hagia Sophia was originally claimed by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror precisely as exercising his right of the sword - it is such a sword which is used as a symbol on the flags of some Muslim countries and is featured in Islamic State beheading videos as the chosen instrument.

The selected invitees at the ceremony (limited in number because of the pandemic) were mostly clad in western-style three-piece suits, but some of those who took part in the prayers outside were wearing an assortment of clothing and headgear styles, emulating the Ottoman softa (religious students) or ulama (scholars), as well as many other fanciful imitations of Ottoman dress. However, the slogans they chanted during their march to the Hagia Sophia clearly indicated that their political and religious aspirations were very real indeed.


The modern era has seen Islam relegated in the Turkish political arena. The state had been looking for a new cement to hold together a crumbling medieval society in the late Ottoman period, and it stumbled upon secularist nationalism.

While the sultans still maintained the title of ‘chalif’ - the leader of the entire ummah (community) of Islam - state officials knew very well that the tide had turned and it was time to modernise, and modernise quickly, by imitating the west, in order to avoid disintegration. In distinct phases British, French and German schools had played a primary role in raising a new class of intellectuals. In the late 19th century the Ottoman court was full of such intellectuals and their nationalist aspirations played a major role in the creation of ‘the Turkish nation’, as we know it today.

In their mind, the nation consisted of the Sunni Muslims of Anatolia, together with the Muslim population expelled from Balkan countries and Caucasia, who needed to be educated quickly in a standardised Turkish language. They would be settled in the regions depopulated through massacres and expulsions perpetrated against former Christian subjects. Muslim Arabs were not considered a principal part of the project, but acceptable - so long as they did not raise objections to Turkish rule. The Alevis, whose religion was considered an affront to the state, suffered persecution.

The policy of creating the ‘Turkish nation’ forced pious Sunnis into the same mould - tamed into a religion acceptable to the Kemalists. State-controlled Sunni Islam was supervised by the Religious Affairs Directorate - one of the three foundations of the Turkish state (the others were the general staff of the armed forces and the Ministry of National Education).

As the ‘modernising’ efforts continued with new vigour in the early republic era, Muslim headgear and clothing were banned, religious education was taken over and religious courts were dismantled. The Kemalists knew that they were walking a tightrope - they would be in need of broad support from the religious whenever matters came to a head, but they would want to maintain good relations with the west to counter the ever growing Soviet influence in the region.

The 1923 Lausanne Treaty finally ended World War I for the Republic of Turkey, but the issue of the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits remained unresolved - the Straits were left under Turkish control, but were demilitarised. In early 1930s the occupation of Abyssinia and the fortification of the Dodecanese Islands by Italy, together with the rearming of Bulgaria, forced Turkey into diplomatic manoeuvres in an attempt to assume full control of the Straits.

The process ended with the Montreux Convention of 1936 (which is still in operation), whereby Turkey was granted control. It was during the diplomatic negotiations leading to the convention that the Kemalist regime declared Hagia Sophia to be a public museum. It did so to win brownie points from European diplomats. However, the Hagia Sophia title was re-registered as a mosque as a sop to religious opposition.

In the ensuing decades Hagia Sophia became a bone of contention between various politicians, with secularists gradually becoming more and more entrenched in the army ranks after World War II.

The ‘reconquest’ of Hagia Sophia by Erdoğan can only be understood within this context. In fact since the second half of the 20th century, one of the aspirations of Islamist politics has been to reconvert it into a mosque. Prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, previously an Islamist leader, once famously said: “We will come to power, bloody or not” and, reciting a hadith (saying of Mohammad), declared: “Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!”


As a slimy politician Erdoğan has no firm convictions and is able to change his stance very quickly if need be. A few years ago, he was asked if he would consider converting the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. He avoided answering directly, but remarked that the Blue Mosque, which is situated across the square, is usually filled to capacity for Friday prayers. So what changed his position?

Despite the legend created about his invincibility in elections, he and his party have recently failed to win a majority. He could only maintain his position by making compromises and changing coalition partners. He used to enjoy the support of the Gulenist movement, but later formed an alliance with the racist Nationalist Action Party leader Devlet Bahçeli.

That coalition was actually the front covering the realignment of Islamist politics with the nationalist top brass of the armed forces. It has been the culmination of the decades-long desire to create the ‘Turkish-Islamic synthesis’ - the dream of the top brass of the army and state bureaucracy to bring the Islamists under the nationalist agenda.

Erdoğan’s price to pay has been engaging in shooting wars. The first step was to topple the ‘peace process’ with the Kurdish freedom movement, and instead launch open and brutal warfare in Kurdish cities, towns and villages.

The next step was to carry the war across the national borders into Kurdish regions in Iraq and Syria. Four separate operations saw the occupation of a great sliver of land and the domination of the whole Syrian province of Idlib in partnership with Islamist radicals. But the new stance meant feeding into domestic Islamist extremism by adopting anti-American and anti-western positions - and poking a finger in their eye by making approaches to the Russians and Iranians.

The new line meant reversing some of Erdoğan’s previous policies, including the attempt to thaw the frozen relationship between Israel and Turkey, in favour of a return to the old confrontational policy. Now the Turkish navy regularly patrols the eastern Mediterranean, offering protection to Turkish seismic exploration and drilling vessels in disputed zones. France has joined Israel, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece in a bid to counter Turkish expansionism in the region. That has seen a French ship attempting to inspect a Turkish-registered cargo ship suspected of carrying arms to Libya in contravention of the UN embargo.

An artificial exclusive economic zone and maritime border was agreed with one of the warring factions in Libya - backed by Turkish-controlled Islamic militia recruited in Syria. ‘Volunteer’ army officers and intelligence personnel were also sent in by Turkey.

Then there is the north. After the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict suddenly and unexpectedly flared up, the Turkish army started sending troops into the Nakhchivan province of Azerbaijan for military exercises.

Exploiting these various confrontations to the full, Erdoğan came out with his famous line about a “spectre haunting” Turkey - he claimed that Turkey had been surrounded by enemies, aiming to topple his regime.

All this helps explain why the ancient ‘Church of Holy Wisdom’ was required - part of the attempt to boost Erdoğan’s war machine and bolster his waning power. It is now apparent to everybody that neither the present coalition nor Erdoğan’s presidency would survive any democratic election, despite all the propaganda poured out by the state-controlled media.

The problem is that there has been no popular mobilisation to oppose these manoeuvres. Growing state repression may explain this to some extent, but there is no force able to garner sufficient support from the population. Unless the foreign adventures produce a catastrophe or there is a huge economic crisis, the situation looks set to remain as it is.