Turkey’s Hagia Sophia mosque move sparks controversy, Erdogan accused of double speak

Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is seen in Istanbul, Turkey, June 28, 2020. (Reuters)

Turkey’s decision to turn Istanbul’s 6th century Hagia Sophia cathedral from a museum into a mosque has sparked controversy across the world including accusations that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has framed the issue differently based on his audience.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally built as an Orthodox Christian cathedral before being converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453.

In 1934, the founder of the modern Turkish state Kemal Atatürk turned the iconic building into a museum as part of his secularization drive, but on Friday Erdogan proclaimed the Hagia Sophia as a mosque after a court annulled the site’s museum status.

The move has since sparked controversy, with a range of domestic and international voices criticizing Erdogan – but some voices from organizations affiliated with the president and his Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated allies supporting it.

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Erdogan criticized for double speak

President Erdogan has come under fire for framing the conversion of the mosque differently in his English and Arabic announcements.

The president’s office released two signed letters announcing the declaration, but observers were quick to note that the English content did not match up to the Arabic.

While the English was far more conciliatory and talked of the “shared heritage of humanity,” the Arabic content described the move as “fulfilling the promise of [Ottoman Sultan] Mehmed II” and said the “The revival of Hagia Sophia is a sign toward the return of freedom to al-Aqsa mosque,” the Islamic holy site in Jerusalem.

On Twitter, commentators pointed out that Erdogan was likely trying to appeal to his core support in Arabic while presenting a more conciliatory tone in English.

“Two Completely Contradictory Messages. As #Erdogan uses phrases such as ‘open to all’ and ‘shared heritage of humanity’ in English. In Arabic it reads as a romanticized Sultan-like speech appealing to a certain ‘fan base’ to trigger extremist ideology and action,” tweeted the London School of Economics’ Juhaina Al Ali.

Some critics pointed out that Erdogan has increased trade with Israel despite his claim to want to liberate al-Aqsa, which implies removing Israeli control over Jerusalem.

Erdogan himself has rejected criticism, insisting that Turkey has sovereignty over the Hagia Sophia.

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Is Hagia Sophia decision the end of secularism?

Erdogan has been accused of attacking longstanding traditions of secularism in Turkey.

Erdogan’s AKP party promotes an ideology that has been described as “Islamist,” and the president has sought close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This latest move has been interpreted by onlookers as a symbolic attack on secularism, with the Wall Street Journal covering the decision under the headline: “Symbol of Secular Turkey to Reopen as Mosque.”

Other analysts saw the conversion of the Hagia Sophia as a “crowning moment” in Erdogan’s much broader plans to revolutionize Turkey.

“Erdogan has been flooding Turkey’s public space, education policy and government with a brand of conservative Islam, and Hagia Sophia is the crowning moment of Erdogan’s religious revolution which has been unfolding in Turkey for over a decade,” Soner Cagaptay, Director of Turkish research program at Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Reuters.

“Just as Ataturk nearly 100 years ago ‘unmosqued’ Hagia Sophia to underline commitment to his own secularist revolution, to take religion out of politics, Erdogan is now doing nearly the opposite. He is reconverting the building into a mosque to underline his own religious revolution,” he added.

“This regrettable move Mr President makes Istanbul poorer culturally. There are over 3,000 mosques in Istanbul. Hagia Sophia is much more than a physical building, it is a unifying symbol for various faiths,” tweeted the Emirati commentator Sultan Saoud al-Qassemi.

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Religiously divisive – but backed by some

Christian leaders also criticized the decision, with a senior Russian Orthodox official warning that it could lead to “greater divisions.”

“It is a real shame that the concerns of the Russian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox churches were not heard. This decision, alas, is not aimed at reconciling existing differences, but on the contrary, may lead to even greater divisions,” said Russian Orthodox Church official Vladimir Legoida to Reuters.

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill leads a religious procession marking the 700th anniversary of declaring Moscow the capital of Orthodox Russia. (File: AP)

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill leads a religious procession marking the 700th anniversary of declaring Moscow the capital of Orthodox Russia. (File: AP)

Turkey’s Christian neighbors Cyprus and Greece, with whom it has poor relations, also criticized the move.

It is a historical appropriation and desecration of a World Heritage monument of particular value to the world’s Christians,” said Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades.

The move was an “open provocation to the civilized world,” said Greece’s Culture Minister Lina Mendoni, adding that it “absolutely confirms that there is no independent justice” in Turkey.

Other analysts suggested that Erdogan would attempt to benefit from a spike in religious tensions by positioning himself as a defender of Islam.

“One of the effects of the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque will be a spike in Islamophobia in the West and elsewhere. Which, of course, Erdogan will then use to his advantage,” tweeted Dimitar Bechev of the Atlantic Council.
However, some organizations voiced their support for the move.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, welcomed the verdict.

“Opening of Hagia Sophia to prayer is a proud moment for all Muslims,” said Hamas’ press office head Rafat Murra, according to Turkey’s Anadolu Agency.

Al Jazeera English also quoted the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – which is only recognized by Turkey - as approving of the move.

“Hagia Sophia has been Turkish, a mosque and a world heritage since 1453. The decision to use it as a mosque, at the same time to be visited as a museum, is sound and it is pleasing,” the Prime Minister Ersin Tatar reportedly said.

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Last Update: Saturday, 11 July 2020 KSA 17:19 - GMT 14:19
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