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Most Turks Believe Hagia Sophia Debate Politically Driven, Poll Says

Istanbul’s historic building is at the center of a legal case on whether it should become a mosque

The majority of the Turkish public believes the government created a debate over turning the historic Hagia Sophia into a mosque for political gain, according to a new survey by pollster MetroPOLL that was shared with The Media Line.

The argument over the building’s status has garnered international ire, with the U.S. calling on Turkey to keep it as a museum and maintain it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The nearly 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia is one of Turkey’s most prominent buildings, both physically and symbolically, piercing Istanbul’s skyline with its massive dome and four minarets, and stamping its presence, from a church into a mosque into a museum, on the country’s tumultuous historical path.

The building, initially a cathedral at the center of the Greek Orthodox church, was turned into a mosque for 500 years when Ottoman Turks invaded Istanbul and then converted into a museum in 1935 by the secular founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Whoever ruled the land got to define what Hagia Sophia was. Now Turks are again debating what it should be and a court decision is expected on July 2 on whether the building should remain a museum or be turned into a mosque.

The argument has gone on for decades but reached a new level when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said last year the building should become a mosque again during contentious municipal elections that led to his AK party losing both Istanbul and the capital Ankara.

Analysts say Erdoğan is using the Hagia Sophia to distract from the country’s economic problems and a survey suggests Turks are well aware of this.

In a MetroPOLL survey of 1,300, 44% of respondents said that the debate was meant to divert attention away from the economy while about 12% said the government thought it would be a beneficial argument to hold ahead of a possible snap election.

Only 29.5% said the debate was about the religious matter of returning Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, a share of the population that is lower than Erdoğan’s supporters.

“If this issue was on the agenda a decade ago … it would have really been a forceful instrument to dominate the agenda and there would have been overwhelming public support,” CEO of MetroPOLL, Özer Sencar, told The Media Line.

“Religious causes have been utilized so much and exhausted so much in the name of politics so people do not buy [it].”

Sencar said that even amongst Erdoğan’s AK party supporters, only a minority believe the debate is really about the Hagia Sophia.

Religious causes have been utilized so much and exhausted so much in the name of politics so people do not buy [it]

During the pandemic, some polls have shown Erdoğan’s popularity slipping as the galvanized main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) pushes through popular initiatives from the municipalities it controls.

The CHP’s Ekrem İmamoğlu, who delivered a stinging political defeat to Erdoğan’s party by winning last year’s Istanbul mayoral race, received praise even from pro-government quarters when the municipality bought a painting at a London auction of a popular Ottoman sultan.

“It’s the first time we have seen such a [rivalry] developing,” Sencar said.

Sencar believed Erdoğan would backtrack from the Hagia Sophia debate because he is likely aware of the lack of political gain due to his party’s close following of polling data.

The status of the Hagia Sophia has been political ever since Atatürk converted it into a museum, according to Edhem Eldem, a professor of history at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University who also holds the International Chair of Turkish and Ottoman History at the Collège de France.

“This is yet another example of history and heritage being sacrificed to political and ideological expediency,” Eldem wrote in an email to The Media Line.

However, Eldem questioned whether the government would go through with the decision to convert the building.

“Politically speaking, this is a one-shot opportunity; once this card is played, it is bound to lose much of its potential to mobilize the masses,” he stated.

This is yet another example of history and heritage being sacrificed to political and ideological expediency

Erdoğan has used public institutions to support his Islamist view of Turkey, from adding religion to education to allowing women to wear headscarves in the military to building a large mosque in the symbolic center of Istanbul, Taksim Square.

Erdoğan attempts to blame the country’s problems on former secular elites who committed perceived injustices against Muslims, said Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has written the book The New Sultan: Erdoğan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.

“Erdoğan has run out of steam where he had access to issues that he could use to mobilize this native, populist base using an anti-elitist message,” he told The Media Line.

“I think Hagia Sophia is the last remaining issue that helps Erdoğan underline this [rhetoric].”