Throughout history, when one religion succeeds in achieving political dominance over another, one of the first things that happens is that places of worship change hands. When the Romans put down the second of two great Jewish rebellions against their rule, Emperor Hadrian ordered that the site of the Jerusalem Temple be given over to a shrine to Jupiter, king of the pagan gods. When Christianity triumphed over paganism, the Parthenon in Athens was turned into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. When Islamic armies conquered northern India, they erected a mosque at the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram at Ayodhya. In 1992 a Hindu mob burned down the Muslim building and 2,000 people died in riots following the demolition.
In 537 the magnificent church of Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom) was completed in Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. It had been commissioned by Emperor Hadrian to be the biggest such building in the world – and so it was for a thousand years until it was outdone in the 16th century by the present St Peter’s basilica in Rome. Decorated with dazzling mosaics and paintings, it stunned visitors for centuries; in 987 a delegation of Slavs reported “We did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it.”
Constantinople stood as a barrier to Muslim invasions of eastern Europe until May 29, 1453 when its massive walls were breached by the forces of the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, known ever after as “The Conqueror”. Even as his troops were embarking on a three-day orgy of rape, loot, and pillage of the city, Mehmet made his way to Hagia Sophia where he declared the building a mosque.
And Hagia Sophia remained a mosque for almost 600 years. Christian images were defaced or plastered over, to be replaced by Islamic decoration; its bells and iconostasis were destroyed; a mihrab took the place of the high altar; and, over time, four minarets were attached.
World War I spelled the end of the Ottoman Empire which had allied itself with the German Kaiser. Its territories in the Middle East were divided up, becoming Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and a Turkish republic. This new republic under war hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk veered away from its Islamic identity and declared itself a secular state. Arabic script was replaced by a westernized alphabet, the Muslim caliphate was abolished, the power of the Islamic clergy and educational system were broken, the fez was banned, women were given much more freedom, and Hagia Sophia was turned from a mosque into a museum.
Ataturk was widely revered in the decades following his death in 1938 and his policy of fervent secularism was adhered to until the rise of Islamic fervour in the 1990s touched Turkey as well. In 1997 the mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was arrested for quoting an Islamist poem which included the phrase “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers….” For this “incitement to violence and religious hatred”, Erdoğan was forced to abandon his position and spend time in jail.
This setback did not stop Erdoğan’s political career. In 2003, as head of the AKP (Justice and Development Party), his party won a landslide victory in the Turkish parliament. Since then, as premier and then president, he has initiated a number of changes eroding the secular state, promoting Islam, pressuring religious minorities, and restricting press freedom; at the same time Erdoğan tried to convince a skeptical European Union that Turkey was a democratic country worthy of membership. He has walked a tightrope in these measures: education for girls was encouraged but the AKP has allowed the wearing of headscarves in schools and proposed a law to law to pardon statutory rapists if they marry their victims. His government has stressed Islamic triumphalism in its constant celebrations of the 1453 conquest.
In foreign affairs, Erdoğan has tried to assume leadership of the Sunni Muslim world through a policy of neo-Ottomanism, breaking relations with Israel, continuing the Turkish occupation of parts of Cyprus, interfering in the Syrian civil war, and encouraging Turkish immigrants to Europe to win the continent to Islam with a high birth-rate.
His most recent move toward desecularizing Turkey is his decree that the Hagia Sophia Museum shall once more become a mosque, with the call to prayer broadcast from its minarets, five daily services, and Christian imagery covered up during the services. It has been suggested that the admission charge will be dropped and visitors required to remove their shoes before entering. The action was supported by all parties in parliament but outraged supporters of the secular state and many world leaders.
It is doubtful that the building will suffer the same sort of desecration or vandalism that marked earlier eras or the destruction wrought recently by ISIS –Hagia Sophia is the biggest tourist draw in the country – but it is an unmistakeable signal that Turkey has turned its back on the West and sees its future as a successor state to that created by Mehmet the Conqueror. Look for it to continue to meddle in elections in Germany and the Netherlands with their Turkish diaspora populations, to continue to be the most dangerous spot on the planet for free journalism, and for Erdoğan to pose as an Ottoman Sultan. Observers will next want to watch the reaction of Russia which has often acted as a de facto protector of Orthodox Christian interests in the Middle East and further moves by Erdoğan against the Patriarch of Constantinople, the titular head of the Orthodox world. In any event this is a regrettable and destabilizing maneuver.
Gerry Bowler is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.