Erdoğan’s Nationalist Push Finds New Ground
Turkish president’s decision to store Hagia Sophia’s status as a mosque leads to domestic praise and international backlash
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s push toward nationalist and centralized governance got back-to-back boosts as he grapples with domestic pressure amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The historic Hagia Sophia, once a cathedral, was converted into a mosque on Friday and while this unprecedented move grabbed the country’s attention, the parliament in Ankara passed a bill early Saturday morning allowing for greater politicization of the judiciary.
The nearly 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia was a church central to Orthodox Christians for about 900 years until it was turned into a mosque after Ottoman Turks conquered Istanbul in 1453. Thus, it holds both religious and nationalist value for many of today’s Turks.
In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, turned it into a museum as a symbol of the secularism he wanted to establish by separating religion from the state.
However, those are not beliefs to which Erdoğan and his religious-nationalist base in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) are committed. Jubilant scenes of celebration broke out in Istanbul after the president’s decision to allow Muslims to pray again in the building.
Erdoğan highlighted this nationalist aim during his speech to the nation, which recalled the Ottomans hoisting a flag in Hagia Sophia as a symbol of Istanbul’s conquest.
He said he believed converting the building into a mosque was an “important service to our nation.”
“The resurrection of Hagia Sophia demonstrates that the Turkish nation, Muslims and all of humanity still have something new to tell the world,” Erdoğan stated.
He added that the mosque would be open to both Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as people in Turkey and from abroad.
Converting the building back into a mosque had been debated for decades in Turkey.
Onur Erim, who worked for the former AKP mayor of Ankara, told The Media Line that Erdoğan had previously said fears had been raised about the potential political and social consequences of such a decision.
“What he has done right now [shows] that he doesn’t have that concern any more or that the concern or expectation of the consequences is at a manageable level,” said Erim, who leads a consulting firm in Istanbul.
For Turkey’s Christian community, however, the mood was more somber.
“[Christians] cannot necessarily go there and hold services and cherish that space,” Christian Turk Ziya Meral told The Media Line.
Meral, who is a senior fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, said that while some in the Middle East applauded Erdoğan, his main motive was domestic politics.
“[The] underlying agenda behind this is basically serving the emotional identity politics of religious nationalists and Islamists in the country.”
About 12 hours after the Hagia Sophia announcement came another controversial decision when a bill was passed that allowed lawyers to establish new bar associations.
Human rights lawyer Deman Guler told The Media Line that bar associations in Turkey have legal status that makes them a public institution and a branch of the judiciary, with prosecutors and judges comprising the other two branches.
Defense lawyers establishing their own bar associations would lead to groups of lawyers that judges would know are close to the government, Guler said.
This in turn could influence court decisions.
“[The defense] is the last independent part of the Turkish judiciary,” said Guler, who is a member of the bar association in the city of Izmir.
Guler said that bar associations play a special role in protecting and advocating for people’s rights, especially for women, ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ+ community.
“They don’t want us to speak, they don’t want us to defend their rights, [it’s] is all about this,” he said.
These moves come as Erdoğan faces growing pressure over a struggling economy with rising inflation and unemployment.
US sanctions over a detained American pastor sparked an economic crisis in 2018.
Turkey’s currency never fully recovered and again took a hit during the pandemic, which was accompanied by rising unemployment.
Concerns over the country’s finances will likely weigh heavily on the president, who learned how much economic discontent could lead to political fallout when his party lost mayoral races in Istanbul and Ankara last year.
Polling by Turkey’s MetroPOLL showed Erdoğan’s party has slightly but steadily lost support for the last five months and is ahead of the main opposition party by only 4%.
“[Erdoğan’s] cultural battles can create a rally-’round-the-flag effect in the short run,” Aykan Erdemir, a former parliamentarian with the main opposition party, told The Media Line.
However, such a boost would not be a long-term solution for his polling numbers or economic problems, according to Erdemir, the Turkey director for Washington’s Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Another blow to the lira has come from investors’ concerns about a lack of independence from the central bank.
Brad Sester, a former US Treasury official, said the US saw the bank as an important check on Erdoğan’s policies, but that the institution had been politicized.
Erdoğan has also increased tensions with Washington and other Western allies by taking on a more aggressive foreign policy.
Ankara’s attempt to position itself as a more independent player on the geopolitical stage by drifting closer to Russian and further away from Washington has made the US rely on it less.
“Over time, Turkey has become less central because Erdoğan has positioned himself as an unreliable ally,” Sester said.
Ankara’s purchase of Russian weapons could lead the US Congress to impose sanctions on Turkey.
Last year, Turkey launched a military incursion into northeastern Syria to clear the Kurdish fighters who were allied with the US from the area.
More recently, Turkey has gotten further involved in Iraq to fight Kurdish forces and in Libya to back the government in the capital Tripoli, which could provide Ankara greater access to drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst with the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, told The Media Line that Ankara’s aggression could backfire.
“For the region, Turkey’s assertiveness in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and the Eastern Meditteranean injects uncertainty and instability into these conflict zones,” he said.
“[It carries] the risk that any of these particular operations … could create an international or domestic backlash against Erdoğan,” he said.