The Decision That Shook The World
Turkey shocked the world when it decided to reconvert Hagia Sophia, formerly the most important church in all of Eastern Christianity prior to then-Constantinople’s conquest by the Turks, from the museum that it’s functioned as for decades into the mosque that it previously was for centuries. The issue is an extremely emotive one for both Christians and Muslims given the site’s significance to both religions, each for different reasons of course. The controversial move has been met with sharp criticism abroad from those who claim that it’ll exacerbate the so-called “Clash of Civilizations” and reverses the secular reforms of Ataturk while supporters claim that it’s a justified reassertion of civilizational identity in an increasingly complex multipolar world.
It’s understandable why Christians, especially Eastern Orthodox ones, feel very uncomfortable and even incensed seeing this development play out, though it’s also equally understandable why many (but importantly, not all) Muslims feel pride in this decision. There will always be nostalgia in the former’s minds for the historical memory of Hagia Sophia under the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Empire, just as there will always be the same in the latter’s for the times of greatness that they associate with the Ottoman Caliphate (“Empire”). There are only three options for this site: reconvert to the most important church of Eastern Christianity that it originally was, remain a museum, or reconvert to a mosque. The first one is unrealistic, so only the other two matter.
To explain, Turkey successfully thwarted foreign plots aimed at wresting its control over Istanbul in the years immediately following World War I, so reconverting to an Eastern Orthodox church is impossible for the indefinite future. Remaining a museum might seem like the perfect middle ground to take then, and there’s definitely some substance to that argument, but it overlooks the reassertion of Islamic identity that’s swept through the region following 9/11 and the “Arab Spring” theater-wide Color Revolution. It also turns a blind eye to constitutionally secular Turkey’s gradual Islamization under the rule of now-President Erdogan’s AKP, which is for all intents and purposes transforming the country into a de-facto Islamic Republic.
Substantive Or Superficial Changes?
The reasons for Turkey’s domestic socio-political changes in recent years are many, but it must be objectively recognized that they’ve been democratically legitimized at the polls in spite of deep divisions within the country over this recent turn of events and concern (whether sincere or not) from abroad. In addition, Turkey is in the process of restoring its state sovereignty in order to become a Great Power of equal standing with its peers, to which end President Erdogan has sought to promote his country’s civilizational heritage as the successor state of the Ottoman Caliphate/Empire for soft power purposes. This explains its support of Islamist organizations and causes abroad, especially those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Understanding these facts but taking a neutral position towards the issue of discussion, it becomes easier to comprehend the motivations behind this move. Turkey no longer feels that it needs to curry favor with its Western partners by continuing to operate Hagia Sophia as a museum but believes that there’s more to be gained by reconverting it to a mosque instead. Nevertheless, Turkey confirmed that this will not result in any serious changes to its interior and that non-Muslims can still visit the site. In effect, the only real change is symbolic because Muslims will now be able to pray there though everything else should more or less remain the same.
It’s undeniable that this is still a heavy blow to Eastern Christians’ sentiments because many of them that used to live in the territory of the former Ottoman Caliphate/Empire have extremely negative memories of that period. Turkey’s reassertion of its civilizational identity in an increasingly multipolar world scares them into thinking that International Relations are returning “back to the future” and that the same past which they so intensely despise might soon repeat itself. Geopolitically speaking, there’s some credibility to these fears insofar as they relate to Turkey’s expanded regional reach, but it’s an exaggeration to fear the return of what they regard as Turkish occupation, especially in terms of how it manifested itself in the cultural-religious sense.
There will, however, inevitably be far-reaching consequences after what happened, the most obvious of which is that India and “Israel” might exploit it to justify superficially similar moves pertaining to the Babri Masjid and Al Aqsa mosques respectively. In addition, it can be expected that certain forces in the West (whether institutional, organizational, or grassroots) will revive the “Clash of Civilizations” narrative, which could contribute to further dividing and ruling the Eastern Hemisphere on an identity basis and thus eroding the multipolar integrational progress of the past decade in ways that suit American grand strategic goals. That scenario isn’t inevitable though since the reciprocal reassertion of Christian civilizational identity wouldn’t necessarily be a divisive development the same as its Muslim iteration doesn’t have to be either.
For instance, Russia, Poland, and Hungary have been moving along this trajectory in recent years, though not at the expense of Muslims (despite how it’s perceived by some abroad) but for the benefit of the vast majority of their largely Christian state-forming people. That process has occurred in parallel with the one that’s sweeping the Mideast, and both of them can be said to have resulted from the decreasing appeal of US-led “liberalism” during that time. No value judgement is being made about either of them since all that’s being done is pointing out objective observations. Ideally, the reassertion of civilizational identities can lead to a “Convergence of Civilizations” rather than a “Clash of Civilizations” via the flagship project of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and its expansion across Eurasia as CPEC+.
The negative reactions to Turkey’s decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque are understandable since this is truly a zero-sum issue for many (but importantly not all) Christians and Muslims by virtue of the site’s importance to both religions. It’s also natural that some will speculate that President Erdogan has ulterior motives related to distracting his people from another looming economic and currency crisis by resorting to religious nationalism (“civilizationalism”) at this particular point in time. Nevertheless, while the soft power consequences are acute in both their positive and negative aspects related to Turkey’s appeal among Muslims and Christians respectively, the fact of the matter is that the decision is irreversible for the indefinite future.