Skip to main content
Turkey Is Moving Toward A Neo-Ottoman Regime With Calls To Convert Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia, which was rebuilt for the final time in AD 537 during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Until 1453, it served as the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Creative Commons

Turkey Is Moving Toward A Neo-Ottoman Regime With Calls To Convert Hagia Sophia

Paul Marshall

Two decades ago, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who subsequently became Turkish foreign minister, announced that Turkey wanted a “no enemies” foreign policy. But, by 2020, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeking to create an Islamist and neo-Ottoman regime, the country seems to have fallen into a “no-friends” or, at least, “very-few-friends” foreign policy.

Turkey has established military bases in Qatar and Somalia, and deployed armed drones in northern Cyprus. But, increasingly, its relations with other countries involved armed conflict. It has made repeated military incursions into Syria and Iraq, and has likely made covert weapons shipments to terrorists in Nigeria.

Now there is Turkey’s military intervention in Libya in support of the Government of National Accord (GNA) against rebel General Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is being supported by Russia, among others, which means that Turkey and Russia, countries which have at times been allies or opponents in Syria, are fighting each other, mostly by proxy, in Libya. One reason for Turkish involvement is perhaps to punish Russia after their falling out in Syria — and Turkey has brought Syrian mercenaries to Libya. But a major reason is Turkey’s attempt to control oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean. It has made expansive claims for mineral rights, including claiming territorial waters for occupied northern Cyprus, a regime recognized by no other country in the world. This has brought it into conflict with its neighbors, including Egypt, and it is trying to block a pipeline deal between Greece and Israel. If Turkey can secure a pliable regime in Libya, it hopes to have control of most eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbons.

This has understandably angered Greece. That anger increased when, on June 16, it was revealed that the Turkish military had developed plans for a possible invasion of Greece. The overall plan was named after a famous 11th century Turkish military commander, Caka Bey, and was reportedly part of a PowerPoint presentation by the Turkish general staff for internal planning review. The presentation was dated June 13, 2014. Also revealed were plans to invade Armenia, though this was dated Aug. 15, 2000.

Of course, general staffs draw up many contingency plans without expecting that they will be followed through. In the 1920s, Canada developed plans to occupy Seattle, Great Falls, Minneapolis and Albany in case of an American invasion. Such plans are a means of determining future military posture and force structure. But, in this situation, when Turkey has already sent troops into four of its neighbors, Greece has good reason to be concerned.

There is also increased repression at home. Turkey leads the world in the number of imprisoned journalists. Its minority ethnic and language communities are endangered. Religious minorities, including the Alevis, perhaps some 20% of the population, are also suffering repression.

Because of a ban on private educational institutions, there are no functioning seminaries within the country, hence the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchates remain unable to train clergy. Christian cemeteries have been attacked, and schoolbooks often vilify Christians. Because clergy training is restricted, Protestants also often need foreign pastors. But the government now repeatedly bars such workers from coming into the country and has been deporting others, even though they may have lived there for many years. Recently, at least 35 foreign Protestants were barred from entering Turkey: if family members are included, the number is over 100.

On July 19, 2019, a local court in Malatya ruled that the Malatya Governor and the Ministry of the Interior were not at fault in the April 18, 2007 torture and murder of three Protestant Christians because of their faith, and that therefore the compensation paid to the victims’ families had to be repaid to the government — along with interest.

Erdoğan’s AKP party has also suffered losses in municipal elections. His response to these drawbacks has been to emphasize his Sunni-Islamic credentials and to link these to the restoration of the splendors of the Ottoman Empire. At official receptions for foreign leaders, he has included honor guards wearing Ottoman caliphate uniforms rather than the uniform of the Turkish Republic.

One aspect of this propaganda effort has been to threaten the status of Hagia Sophia, which was, for a millennium, the greatest church building in the world.

Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) church was built in AD 537 during the reign of Emperor Justinian I. It was the peak of Byzantine architecture and the world’s largest building; it remained the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years. From the date of its final completion in 537 until 1453, it served as the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. After the capture and sack of Constantinople by the Ottomans, it was converted to a mosque and remained one until 1931. Then, under the more secular Ataturk, it was converted to a museum. In 2019, it was Turkey’s most visited tourist attraction.

In 2016, Muslim prayers were held in Hagia Sophia for the first time since 1931, and there have been periodic Islamic rites there since. On March 31, 2018, Erdoğan himself recited the first verse of the Quran there, dedicating the prayer to the “souls of all who left us this work as inheritance, especially Istanbul’s conqueror (Mehmet).” In 2019, in perhaps a prelude, the historic Chora church was converted to a mosque.

In its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Turkey had originally planned to reopen its mosques on June 12, but Erdoğan asked that the reopening take place May 29 instead. One reason for bringing the date forward was no doubt part of a general drive to get the economy moving, but the selection of this date suggests that there were also other powerful motives. May 29 was the 567th anniversary of Constantinople’s capture by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, so the mosque reopenings would simultaneously be a celebration of the conquest of the Byzantine city.

This perception was reinforced when, on May 27, Ali Erbas, the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, said the public square next to Hagia Sophia would be the location for the first Friday prayer celebrating the opening of the mosques. This location is where thousands gather annually on May 29 to recite morning prayers and ask for the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

A few weeks prior to Erbas’ statement, Erdoğan’s own communications chief, Fahrettin Altun, tweeted a photo of Hagia Sophia with the words: “We miss her! But a bit more patience. We will accomplish this together….” On May 28, Erdoğan stated on television that “Al-Fath surah will be recited and prayers will be done at Hagia Sophia as part of the conquest festival.”

These events might play well at home, but have increased animosity to Turkey abroad and have left the country looking for friends where it can find them. In May, Turkey shipped welcome medical equipment to the United States to help fight the pandemic, and Erdoğan sent a letter to President Donald Trump along with the shipment, expressing his hope that the two countries might overcome their differences and reach greater understanding. The U.S. should use this opportunity to press Turkey to curtail its foreign interventions and domestic repression.

Read in Religion Unplugged

Related Articles

Counterbalance Ep. 10: Xiyue Wang on Being an Iranian Hostage

Michael Doran & Marshall Kosloff

Princeton graduate student Wang Xiyue sat down with Mike and Marshall to discuss how being held hostage in the notorious Evin prison in Iran changed h...

Continue Reading

Cheer Up About the Middle East

Walter Russell Mead

Ten years after Seal Team Six put an end to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist career, most observers think of America’s 21st-century Middle East policy ...

Continue Reading

Congressional Testimony: Human Rights and U.S. Policy in the MENA Region Ten Years After the Arab Spring Hearing

Samuel Tadros

Sam Tadros’ testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission’s hearing, “Human Rights and U.S. Policy in the MENA Region Ten Years After the Ar...

Continue Reading