Turkey’s Hagia Sophia Decision as Foreign Policy Signal

Reilly Barry
Reilly Barry is a Harvard CMES graduate student studying Turkish foreign and domestic politics, with a specific focus on US-Turkey relations, and the editor-in-chief of Harvard Kennedy School's Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy.

On July 10, 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed an order which would allow the disintegration of Hagia Sophia’s museum status and turn it back into a mosque. Pro-government Turkish news outlet Yeni Şafak  headlined the same day: “The West Goes Mad.” (Batı çıldırıyor) [1] 

With the signature of the Council of State’s memorandum by Erdogan, both Turks and international observers were split on what this landmark decision meant, whether it should be celebrated, and who it is really for. Soner Cagaptay, analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued that the move was made to save Erdogan from waning popularity among his supporters and to give a rallying point to his nationalist-populist base amidst economic downturns. [2] 

While various segments of Turkish society have motioned for the internationally-admired Hagia Sophia since at least 2005 to be returned to a mosque [3], there is a lot more to the decision than just delivering to domestic supporters. 

On May 29, 2020, Erdogan recited a prayer inside Hagia Sophia to celebrate the 567th anniversary of Fetih, the conquest of Istanbul from the Byzantines by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. On Twitter, Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) used the hashtag #AyaSofyadaFetih to connect the Muslim conquest of Istanbul to this contemporary commemoration inside Hagia Sophia. [4] While this played well with some of his core constituency, it is about much more than turning his attention inward to domestic politics. In fact, it is not an inward look at all; it is the culmination of Turkey under Erdogan’s ever-growing worldwide outlook. An outlook that says Turkey will not bow to others’ opinions any more, especially those of Western leaders. 

Ahead of the decision by the Council of State (Danıştay) on whether or not to strip the originally 6th-century Orthodox Christian cathedral of its museum status, built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and turned museum by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1934, world leaders had their say. European and American sentiment overwhelmingly concurred; an attempt to turn the UNESCO World Heritage site back to a mosque would undermine Christian-Muslim relations worldwide and be nothing less than an attack on multiculturalism. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement saying “we urge the Government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all.” [5] The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Orthodox Christian Church and based in Istanbul, said the move would disappoint Christians and fracture interfaith relations. UNESCO and the EU made similar remarks. [6]

This motion accomplishes two things for Erdogan: it allows him to cling to his nationalist-populist base’s support for reinstalling Ottoman and Islamic grandeur at home, and to extend this grandeur to the foreign policy realm by reviving the Neo-Ottoman ideals of regional expansionism (often mimicking former imperial geography) and resistance to western submission. Taha Ozan, visiting scholar at Oxford University, explained the character of Turkish domestic and foreign policy furthermore as intrinsically linked since the securitization of its foreign policy in 2014, with domestic moves generated for foreign consumption and vice versa. [7] Lisel Hintz, professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, has also written widely on the unique linkage of foreign and domestic policy in Turkey. [8] 

Thus, in recent years Turkey’s entrenchment into its neighbors’ affairs has been tinged with Ottoman nostalgia and rhetoric, with more examples of involvement connected across Turkey’s borders to this nostalgia than not. 

Farther afield in Africa, overtures in Libya and Sudan have been given attention especially due to citations of Ottoman historic importance, that bolster the need for grand economic growth and building ventures there, like on Sudan’s Suakin Island. [9] 

Popular media reflects this “Ottomania” trend. Shows like Muhteşem Yüzyıl, Diriliş Ertuğrul, Muhafız, Atiye, and many others have cropped up in recent years to reflect this popular re-fascination with the Turkey’s Ottoman era, and further reflect its contemporary connection in the policy world. Scholars discussing this recent media phenomenon use the term coined by Svetlana Boym called ‘restorative nostalgia’ to say that restorative nostalgia “manifests itself in total reconstructions of monuments past.” [10] Hagia Sophia’s re-conversion into a mosque is perhaps the epitome of this. 

And spreading Turkey’s own influence, taking note from Ottoman precedent rather than Turkey’s nation-state history which originated in strategic isolationism and later increasing dependence on the US and alliances such as NATO, involves to a certain degree a bellicose assertion of independence from Western institutions and ultimately seeks to break this chain of command. 

The move to look back towards the Ottoman example in order to best suit Turkey, now in its third decade of the 21st-century foreign policy needs, is not to revive the image of the Sick Man of Europe, but rather that of Suleiman the Magnificent’s era where Turkey was second to none (and especially not to the West).

Suleiman’s sprawling and for the most part uncontested Ottoman landscape, the peak of the Empire’s 600-year history, is what Erdogan seeks to symbolically recapture, and the crippling view of the old empire bound up by foreign loyalties in the last decades of the 19th-century is what he specifically wants to avoid.   

Therefore, we must define what and whose vision of “Neo-Ottomanism” we are talking about. We can use the term as narrowly defined by Davutoğlu or as it was first coined as early as the 1980s [11]. This, more narrowly-defined, involved former AKP foreign policy advisor Ahmet Davutoğlu urging Turkey to use its geostrategic and historical role in the region “by developing strategic depth, essentially meaning the development and diversification of ties with the Middle East, Asia and Africa to complement those already entrenched ties with Europe.” [12] Thus, what can be interpreted as a domestic decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia to a mosque has decidedly broad, Neo-Ottoman foreign policy implications as well. 

Erdogan’s landmark decision to reverse Hagia Sophia’s nearly 80-year old museum status says that Turkey is officially in charge of not only its domestic territory, but by extension foreign policy, playing by its own rules, and anything resting on its sovereignty is up for debate in Turkey alone. For, as headlines noted across Turkey, the west going mad is exactly what Erdogan wants. This state decision epitomizes Turkey’s broadening restorative nostalgia for foreign consumption as well as domestic, to achieve both expanded influence in the MENA region and to end reliance upon and ties with Western institutions.

 

Endnotes:

[1] “Hazımsızlık başladı: Karar uluslararası öfkeye neden olabilir!” Yeni Şafak. https://www.yenisafak.com/gundem/hazimsizlik-basladi-karar-uluslararasi-ofkeye-neden-olabilir-3548781 Accessed 10 July 2020. 

[2] “Erdogan to Make Hagia Sophia a Mosque Again, But Will It Help Him?” Soner Cagaptay, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, policy alert. 10 July 2020. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/erdogan-to-make-hagia-sophia-a-mosque-again-but-will-it-help-him

[3] Ismail Kandemir, head of the Association for the Service of the Historical Foundations and the Environment, filed a lawsuit to the Council of State in 2005 calling for the site to be returned to a mosque, citing that “using Hagia Sophia as a museum hurts conscience of [Turks].” From “Turkey’s Erdogan orders the conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque,” CNN. 10 July 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/10/europe/hagia-sophia-mosque-turkey-intl/index.html

[4] https://twitter.com/Akparti/status/1266431741553754112

[5] “The Status of Hagia Sophia,” press statement by Secretary of State Pompeo, Issued 1 July 2020. US Department of State. https://www.state.gov/the-status-of-the-hagia-sophia/

[6] “World reacts to Turkey reconverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque,” Al-Jazeera. 11 July 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/07/world-reacts-turkey-reconverting-hagia-sophia-mosque-200710135637861.html

[7] “Deciphering Turkey’s New Regional Policy.” Brookings Doha. Webinar, 13 July 2020.  

[8] See Lisel Hintz, Identity Politics Inside Out: National Identity Contestation and Foreign Policy in Turkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.  

[9] Mustafa Gurbuz, “How Saudi Arabia Outmanouevred Turkey in Sudan.” June 11, 2019.

https://ahvalnews.com/geopolitics/how-saudi-arabia-outmanoeuvred-turkey-sudan.

[10] Josh Carney, “ResurReaction: Competing Visions of Turkey’s (proto) Ottoman Past In Magnificent Century and

Resurrection Ertuğrul.” Middle East Critique 28/2, 101-120. 2019. 5.

[11] Çevik, “Turkish historical television series: public broadcasting of neo-Ottoman illusion” 7.

[12] Nathaniel Handy, “Turkey’s Shifting Relations with its Middle East Neighbors during the Davutoğlu Era: History, Power and Policy,” Bilgi 23 (2011): 62. 

 

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