The last nail in the coffin for Secularism in Erdogan’s Turkey
24th July 2020. This day will be remembered in infamy for years to come. The fundamental on which modern Turkey is founded on Secularism has been under siege since the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the Prime Minister in 2003 and later as the President of the Republic of Turkey and this move to turn Hagia Sophia, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, is just another nail in the coffin.
But to those who have been watching the fall of Turkey in religious fundamentalism in recent years, this move won’t come as a shock to many. But to understand the significance of this move, one has first to understand the chequered past of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
The Church of Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia was built in the year 537 AD on the order of the then-Roman Emperor Justinian I, as the Christian cathedral in the City of Constantinople (now known as Istanbul), the imperial capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly known as the Byzantine Empire.
It remained as a center of Eastern Orthodoxy till the year 1453 (with a brief lapse between 1204 to 1261, when it was converted to a Roman Catholic Cathedral) when the city of Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans led by Mehmed the Conquerer in the event which is now known as Fall of Constantinople. Mehmed converted the cathedral to a mosque and changed the name of the city from Constantinople to now what is known today as Istanbul.
Aya Sofya became the first imperial mosque of Istanbul and will remain the principal mosque until the construction of Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or Blue Mosque as it is commonly known as, in 1616.
Fall of the Ottoman Empire as the Formation of the Republic of Turkey
The Ottoman Empire was at its last leg at the end of the 19th century. At the height of its power in 1683, the Ottoman empire ruled over 5,200,000 km2 of land from the Balkans in Europe to modern-day Iran.
Ottoman Empire was a multination and multicultural empire, which is one of the main reasons for its undoing. A series of losses in the 18th and 19th centuries and the growing rise of nationalism across Europe waned Ottomans’ power by a lot. To recuperate those losses, the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in World War I, in which they, along with their allies German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were defeated.
The Ottoman Empire signed the Armistice of Mudros on October 30, 1918, effectively ending their participation in the World War and surrendering to the Entente.
The allied occupation of Istanbul and Izmir resulted in the Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal, a field marshal in the Ottoman Army. The revolution was successful, and the Republic of Turkey was established with Ankara as its capital on October 29, 1923. Mustafa Kemal (later given the surname “Atatürk”) was the First President of the Turkish Republic.
Atatürk and Hagia Sophia
Atatürk was a reformer. And he wanted to establish Turkey as a modern European nation. To do that, he had to distinguish the new Republic from its Ottoman past. Atatürk did that by abolishing the Caliphate that had stood since 1517 in 1924. Ottomans were the de-facto leaders and representatives of the Islamic world. In the Assembly address, Atatürk stated,
The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past.
Atatürk on March 1, 1924
In his 15 years long reign, Atatürk promoted secular values in the Republic and diminished the power held by the clergymen. Led wide-ranging social reforms in social, cultural, and economic aspects, which were inspired by the Young Turk Revolution.
One of his crowing achievements for secular ideals was converting the age of Church-converted Mosque Hagia Sophia to a museum in 1935.
Erdogan and the Rise of Religious Right in Turkey
Ever since being elected Mayor of Istanbul in 1994 as a candidate from the now-banned Welfare Party, Erdogan has adopted policies that are against the sacrosanct, the foundational fundamental of the Republic of Turkey. Erdogan has rallied against the separation of church and state, and his election to the nation’s highest office has only emboldened his rhetoric.
The failed coup attempt by the army in 2016 resulted in Erdogan grabbing even more executive powers by holding a referendum in 2017, which he won narrowly, and has transformed his Presidency into a modern-day dictatorship.
The major reason for reverting Hagia Sophia back to a mosque is political more than religious one. Erdogan and his allies have lost quite a number of seats in the recent elections with the backdrop of a struggling economy. Hagia Sophia will make quite a dent in the unified opposition as a majority of the country supports this move.
Only time will tell what’s in Turkey’s future, but the criticism of this move is sure to continue and for a long time.
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