What Lies Behind Erdogan’s Hagia Sophia Decision?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered this week the change in status of the famed Hagia Sophia from a museum back to a mosque. Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the center of the Byzantine Empire but was changed into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. A 1934 decree by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum. President Erdogan’s decision, dressed in the language of state sovereignty and nationalism, has been greeted with either silence or excitement by some Turkish dailies. Meanwhile, across the region, many have criticized Mr. Erdogan’s decision, interpreting it as yet another sign of Turkey’s increasingly assertive and muscular foreign policy.

Asharq Alawsat’s Hazem Saghieh sees the development as an attempt on the part of the Turkish president to muzzle domestic opposition, while warning against any actions that may lead to conflict: “With the Hagia Sophia move, Erdogan succeeded in playing on the famed Turkish tradition of merging religion and nationalism. He managed to obliterate his divergence with Ataturk concerning museums and demonstrate their alignment on the issue of sovereignty, and he also managed to make others’ objections to his decision akin to national betrayal. Nevertheless, the Turkish president would be better off refraining from directing accusations of flaring the “clash of civilizations” at everyone but himself and making the past, a distorted interpretation of it, the standard for judging the present and the future.”

Writing for Al Ahram, Ioannis Kotoulas is less circumspect in his criticism of Mr. Erdogan, arguing that the decision signaled the beginning of the end for the Turkish republic: “Through this initiative, Turkey declared its intention to confront the Western world and to bring back to life the dynastic reality of the former Ottoman Empire and its geopolitical aspirations. The decision carries specific historical and ideological connotations, is another manifestation of Turkey’s Islamist identity, and is a direct assault on religious pluralism and history itself…. The very fact that the Supreme Court invoked an Islamic perception of a law issued hundreds of years ago before the foundation of the Turkish Republic demonstrates the fundamental transformation of the underlying ideological structure of the Turkish state under the Erdogan regime.”

Arab News’ Youssef Deeni takes a different approach in his criticism of the decision, by characterizing it ‘un-Islamic’ in terms of both theology and practice, adding that what Mr. Erdogan “did is not Islamic, even if his motive reflected despair due to his catastrophic failures in political diplomacy and even if the move was an attempt to create a publicity stunt through crafting and exporting crises. On the contrary, this behavior contradicts Islam’s tolerance, which was achieved throughout history by preserving the temples of other religions and maintaining a positive attitude toward monuments…. We cannot reconcile converting churches with Islam’s recognition of dhimmi communities’ right to continue to follow their own religions and perform their rituals, and this includes building places of worship if they need to.”

Meanwhile, a recent Khaleej Times editorial considers the status change of Hagia Sophia part of a broader “assault” by the Turkish president aimed both at domestic and international audiences, a move which some fear will cause “fresh tensions between the West and the East. Why now, why destroy human bonds by changing the status of a monument, one may wonder…. Erdogan is now imposing his ideological agenda in the country and flexing its muscles regionally with its military adventurism in Syria and Libya to shore up his waning popularity and consolidate votes for his party. But Erdogan would do well to pause, reflect, and realize that revisionism will only lead to strife and confrontation when there is urgent need for global cooperation…. The past should guide us, not destroy what people and nations have built over centuries.”

Regional observers, in particular Israelis, were alarmed by the language used by President Erdogan in a speech to mark the occasion implying that the Hagia Sophia conversion was only a prelude to the “return of freedom to al-Aqsa.” As Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman points out, “The speech, which was in Turkish, was translated slightly differently into Arabic and English, apparently as a way to hide part of Ankara’s full views on how it has linked Hagia Sophia to a wider agenda. In Arabic the speech says that turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque is part of the ‘return of freedom to al-Aqsa’, essentially meaning Israel should be ejected from controlling Jerusalem’s Old City, where al-Aqsa is located…. Linking the major change at Hagia Sophia to Jerusalem illustrates that Ankara’s ambitions are far larger than just reasserting Islamic prayers at the historic mosque and church in Istanbul; it is part of a larger Islamic agenda for the region…. Turkey is seeking to supplant Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, such as Egypt and Jordan, as the main determiner of what is ‘Islamic’.”

Surprisingly, some Turkish observers, including Yeni Safak’s Ibrahim Karagul, have made little attempt to temper such talk, fully embracing the historical and geo-political significance of the move: “Those suggesting to us today to think twice, to keep quiet, to submit, those striving within and outside to achieve this are trying to tell us, ‘surrender, disappear into the dusty pages of history, fade away’. Erdoğan’s signature is that of Alparslan’s, Sultan Mehmed’s, the political gene is one and the same. This is what Turkey is resisting against today. It is fighting to achieve the refraction of the mind, liberation, self-discovery, remembrance of its strength and claims through the Seljuk tradition, Ottoman tradition, and the Republic…. This change, this distribution of power has made Turkey one the world’s rising powers. The awareness and identity that we built right at this time requires great action, and these actions will be taken.”

Yahya Bostan takes a similar approach in his Daily Sabah op-ed pointing out Turkey’s right as a sovereign nation to take decisions it considers to be in its national interest, whether it be the country’s involvement in Syria or Libya, or the ‘reinstatement’ of the UNESCO-protected museum as a mosque: “That decision demonstrates that Turkey, as a sovereign nation-state, finally has enough self-confidence to ignore international pressure and foreign governments’ opinions on Ankara’s sovereign decisions and is prepared to take unilateral action when necessary. Turkey’s recent moves to protect its vital interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, too, reflect this view. From northern Syria to Libya, the country looks out for its own interests and defends its rights as a sovereign nation. Indeed, the decision to reinstate the Hagia Sophia as a mosque goes hand in hand with Turkey’s policy on the Eastern Mediterranean. At the heart of both actions are Turkish sovereignty and the Turkish people’s expectations.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top