Turkey's Dying Secularism

Turkey's Dying Secularism
Turkey’s Hagia Sophia museum saw approximately 3.7 million visitors in 2019. Then the coronavirus hit, little did the tourists know that the second time they would visit Hagia Sophia it would no longer be a museum. Only a month after Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a mosque, Turkish President Erdogan ordered the transformation of Kariye Museum to a mosque.

The Turkish court ruling to transform Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, back in to a mosque after 86-years had been welcomed by the majority but was seen as an alarming move by secular Muslims and orthodox Christians. They thought it was beginning to alter the country’s secular outlook.

The Kariye Museum, originally built as a Byzantine Church and previously known as the Holy Saviour in Chora, followed a similar fate as the Hagia Sophia and was converted to a mosque after the Sultan took over Constantinople in 1453. The Hagia Sophia functioned as a mosque until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk changed it to a museum in 1935 whereas Kariye Mosque became a museum with a government after the Second World War. Both the moves were an effort to secularize the new country.

Istanbul is considered to be a melting point of different cultures and religions. The authorities have decided to reverse their founder's decision of converting the mosque into a museum and only a month after transforming Hagia Sophia’s identity, it has now embarked on a mission to convert UNESCO Heritage sites into mosques. What message are they sending to the world?

They are undoing their founders' efforts. Why did Mustafa Kemal Ataturk change the mosque into a museum? His aim was to make Turkey a secular country and to show the world that Turkish people are a civilized nation. According to Orhan Pamuk, Hagia Sophia’s conversion would show the world that Turkey is losing its secular outlook and this recent move will only further his claim.

It is necessary to understand the timing of both these events which occurred within a very short span. Erdogan is trying to whip up religious nationalism in order to gain support amid the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Turkey’s economy was not doing well to begin with and the coronavirus had exacerbated the crisis. While the booming tourism industry had also come to a standstill, Erdogan found the perfect opportunity to make a move that will appeal to his populist base – sections of conservative Muslims that had long hoped to turn previous sites of worships into mosques. The political landscape of Turkey is rapidly changing with the rise of Islamists which will allow Erdogan to easily defeat his secular rivals in upcoming general election in 2023.

President Erdogan had initially stated that he wished to open the Hagia Sophia for prayers on 15th July to mark the anniversary of the failed coup attempt of 2016 but couldn’t do so.  After the coup attempt’s failure, authorities have cracked down on all sections of society, especially journalists. Freedom of speech has been curtailed and the state has taken an oppressive stance towards anyone who dares to criticize the government. Many people within the country are against the court's decision because Turkey already has more than 80,000 mosques. Due to the fear of oppression, many remained silent over the Hagia Sophia conversion, this latest decision should hopefully lead to a few raising their voices.

The Hagia Sophia decision didn't receive a single positive response by the world and rightly so. The European Union had termed the decision regrettable; the US was disappointed by the step, and Pope Francis announced that he was very distressed by the moved. UNESCO has said that it will review Hagia Sophia’s status as a world heritage site. This latest misadventure will further deteriorate Turkeys relation with Greece along with several other countries.

Hagia Sophia should serve as a symbol of interfaith harmony and the Kariye museum should remain a tourist attraction in order to prevent the polarization of Turkey’s people.