Erdogan's Islamic Bravado

Converting Hagia Sophia is a way to deflect from his economic failures.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved last month to convert the historically famous Byzantine cathedral, Hagia Sophia, from a museum to a mosque. Hagia Sophia was built and completed in 573 CE by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. About millennium later, in 1453, the Turkish Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople or Istanbul, and turned it to a mosque. In line with his radical Islamic ideology, and his dictatorial impulses, Erdogan has reversed the 1934 decision by Modern Turkey’s founding father - Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, of turning Hagia Sophia into a museum. At the same time, Erdogan has also heralded the liberation of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Erdogan has repeatedly called on Muslims to unite against Israel. When the international institutions criticized his decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Erdogan responded by falsely claiming that the international community was silent when the al-Aqsa mosque was attacked. The al-Aqsa mosque was not attacked.

Beyond his latest egregious act of converting Hagia Sophia to a mosque, which has alienated the Orthodox Christian world, and much of the rest of the world, it is a political step on Erdogan’s part. Whereas Ataturk created a secular republic where Christians, Jews, and Muslims were equal citizens under the constitution, without traces of dhimmitude, since his election in 2002, Erdogan has reversed much of Ataturk’s secular Turkey with an antagonistic Islamist agenda.

Erdogan’s defeat in the 2019 municipal elections in Turkey, was accompanied by his loss of popularity, particularly in Turkey’s urban areas and among the youth. By resurrecting the Hagia Sophia trope, Erdogan hoped to rally his supporters in the name of Islam. It was also a way for him to deflect attention from Turkey’s economic troubles, including unemployment, public health crisis mismanagement, reframing Turkey’s problems as a conflict between Islam and Christianity, and between East and West.

According to the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), “On July 11, Erdogan posted a video on Twitter in which he argued that the resurrection of Hagia Sophia as a mosque was of value to the entire Muslim world, from ‘Bukhara to Andalusia,’ and was analogous to the ‘liberation’ of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish minister of foreign affairs, claims that Greece has no business complaining as it is the only state in Europe whose capital, which contains a quarter million Muslims, has no official mosque. 

Erdogan’s Turkey is deeply involved in the Syrian quagmire. It has the Kurdish problem to deal with, while it is conducting risky adventures in Libya, and stirring unrest in the Eastern Mediterranean. For Erdogan, turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a Turkish victory and a source of national pride during a time of great turmoil. Turkish troops are now in northern Iraq and northern Syria, as well as in Libya and Qatar. Erdogan has challenged the Maritime zones of Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. He has also been able to overcome U.S. and NATO objections in his purchasing of Russia’s S-400 missile system. He is supporting the Sunni-Muslim Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in the name of Muslim Brotherhood solidarity, and seeking to expel Israel from East Jerusalem and Temple Mount. Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy offensive is meant to divert attention from his domestic economic failures.

Domestically, Turkey under Erdogan is placed 154th among 180 nations in terms of press freedom. Complaints against Erdogan or his regime might get you arrested and/or bring about a loss of employment. The courts, media, the political opposition, universities, and even the international public opinion have been stifled by Erdogan.  Hence, there are no more forces in Turkey that can stop his irredentist and belligerent ambitions. There are no more checks and balances, or separation of powers in Erdogan’s Turkey. The political opposition feels criminalized and intimidated. Erdogan is now in command of a repressive apparatus. Soner Cagaptay, writing for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy asserted that, “Since 2002, Erdogan has won more than a dozen nationwide elections primarily on a platform of strong economic growth. Yet once a recession hit in 2018, his popularity began to slip, and his hand-picked candidates lost mayoral elections for Istanbul and other key cities in 2019. The economy is now suffering another recession due to the coronavirus pandemic, and polls show his popularity slipping further. Thus, even if the Hagia Sophia conversion increases his approval rating by a few percentage points, the boost is unlikely to last, and nothing short of strong economic growth will bring back the wider popularity he once enjoyed.” 

Like Hitler, Erdogan feels that he is invincible. Much like the former, he relishes the fact the Western powers are appeasing him. He knows that they will not initiate military actions against him, and again, similar to Hitler, who capitalized on the fact that the Western allies sought to avert war, Erdogan knows that the European Union (EU) is counting on him not to flood Europe with additional 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. He has concluded that since neither the U.S. nor the EU have imposed serious sanctions for any of his earlier transgressions, he could therefore get away with more. The conversion of Hagia Sophia symbolizes the supremacy of Islam and that Christians and Jews are now relegated to second class citizens, or what we might call dhimmitude. Like the Islamic State jihadists, Erdogan has invoked “the right of the sword.” The head of the Greek delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy (IAO), Maximos Charakopoulos, pointed out that, “Turkey’s invocation of ‘conquest’ and ‘right of the sword’ to justify the conversion of the symbol of universal Orthodoxy into a mosque shows Ankara retreats into views not far from those of the Taliban, which destroyed World Heritage Sites for considering them pagan.”

According to Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament and a scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), Erdogan is trying to export his “conquest” mentality to Jerusalem and pouring gas into a powder keg region.  Dr. Erdemir pointed out that Erdogan is reversing Turkey’s traditional close relations with the Jewish state. Turkey was the first Muslim majority state to recognize Israel, and its armed forces have had a close military relation with Israel. Erdemir summed up the impact of Erdogan’s Hagia Sophia move as follows, “The conquest mentality that has shaped the Turkish government’s Hagia Sophia policy and rhetoric not only puts the sacred heritage of Turkey’s religious minorities at risk, but also threatens their lives, making them potential targets of hate crimes. Given the appeal of Erdogan’s pan-Islamist policies in the Middle East and beyond, such explosive rhetoric has the potential to embolden and incite other supremacists. This is a sad turn of events for a country that for decades remained a beacon of secular democracy for the world’s Muslim-majority nations.”

Erdogan’s Islamic bravado is endangering western interests in the Middle East and beyond. His periodic antisemitic outbursts, and hostile intentions toward Israel, makes the Jeremiah 1:14 prophecy, “Then the LORD said to me, Evil from the North will be poured out on all who live in the land…” true. That evil from the north is Erdogan’s Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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Photo credit: Pixabay

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