The Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey as its successor have long occupied the geographic and imagined juncture of east and west, Europe and the Middle East, Occident and Orient. Nonetheless, the overly simplistic east/west binary unnecessarily limits the discursive space to explore the commonality of European and Turkish political and cultural trajectories. The Hagia Sophia may well be the most striking physical manifestation of a rich, common history that simultaneously constitutes and informs the identities of both Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East. As the Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque is met with self-righteous indignation on the part of many western leaders and lauded as a breaking of chains by Turkish authorities, narratives put forward by both sides that emphasize difference, autonomy, (re)conquest, and distinction continue to widen an already growing rift. In this context, steps need to be taken to encourage and reinvigorate dialogue between Europe, or the EU in particular, and Turkey. For this to happen both should engage in honest self-reflection on the ways in which their common past can form the basis of a common future.
Built as a cathedral in the 6th century by the Byzantines, converted into a mosque in 1453 following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, and restyled into a museum in 1934 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Hagia Sophia is once again a mosque as of 10 July 2020. The various official statuses of the Hagia Sophia reflect the various socio-political atmospheres of the times as much as the posturing of the leaders who alter them. Upon the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, secularism constituted the core of Ataturk’s nation-state building venture. From imposing dress codes for public servants to banning religious dress at universities and replacing the Ottoman Turkish alphabet with the Latin script, Ataturk’s top-down reforms attempted to restrict the expressive space allotted to Islam in public life. Perhaps in part as a result of such strict secularization or perhaps a product of “secular education, urbanization, and Islamization”, an Islamist counter-elite emerged over time offering an alternative model for Turkey’s future. Today’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) rode an initial wave of popular domestic and international support based on its ability to fuse democracy, Islam, and increased integration with the west, today however, Turkey’s disillusionment with its former western partners and allies is increasingly pronounced.
In many ways the recent reconversion of the Hagia Sophia was to be expected, especially considering that it had been on the political agenda of Turkey’s nationalist and Islamist political factions since at least the 1950s. It should then be no surprise that the reconversion occurred under the tutelage of a parliamentary coalition between Turkey’s Islamist fashioned AKP and ultranationalist MHP parties. The fact that it was actually a judicial body, the Council of State, that ruled the 1934 conversion of the public space into a museum as illegal illustrates a larger trend in Turkish governance and international posturing that is strongly characterized by self-determination, an ineffective political opposition, and suppression of dissenting voices in government establishments. Nonetheless, while Turkey under the AKP attempts to etch out its own path, it also runs the risk of isolating itself from its western allies and partners.
Following the complete destruction wrought by WWII across the European continent, European nations, much like Turkey after WWI, set out to form a unifying identity that would pave the way to a prosperous and peaceful future. Throughout this time, as European nations strove to establish institutionalized modalities of dialogue and interdependence among themselves to prevent the emergence of future conflicts and wars, Turkey did its utmost to position itself as a democratic, secular, modernized, European country that could be included in the structures of a newly interconnected Europe. Indeed, it became a member of the western security alliance of NATO in 1952, signed an association agreement with the European Economic Community in 1963, entered the EU-Turkey Customs Union in 1995, and began negotiations on its full accession to the EU in 2005. As of 2019, however, Turkey’s accession to the EU has been indefinitely suspended.
The EU’s current focus on internal cohesion amid Brexit, rising eurosceptic sentiment, and increases in far-right nationalist, Islamophobic, and anti-immigrant rhetoric paint a picture of a Europe in desperate need of introspection. Yet throughout this period, the bloc would do well to recognize and acknowledge the ways in which its colonial history, Christian heritage, and orientalist lens of Turkey, Islam, and the Middle East inform discontent within its own diverse societies and add fuel to the fires of “us vs. them” narratives across the globe. While European leaders admonish Turkey for converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, they should also recognize the conversion of Spain’s historic Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba into a place solely for Christian prayer, Hungary’s conversion of the 16th century Pasha Qasim Mosque to a church in Pécs, Hungary, the lack of a place for Muslims to worship in Athens, Greece, and so on. In the same vein, Turkey too should understand that divisive rhetoric and policies that exclude or even target the country’s religious and ethnic minorities are counterproductive in further developing the ideational bases of democracy, respect for human rights, and economic development on which Turkey-EU dialogue and cooperation can and have flourished in the past. While the act of reconverting the Hagia Sophia doesn’t necessarily “diminish” the building’s legacy as a precious artifact of religious and cultural history, it certainly doesn’t work to foster dialogue and cooperation.
This article was written by HasNa Program Associate John Dykes