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Europe Bows to Erdogan on Hagia Sophia

Despite its importance to their heritage, Europeans have no interest in defending the monumental church.

For nearly a thousand years Hagia Sophia stood as the most imposing cathedral of Christendom. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian I in Constantinople and designed by the Greek architects Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, it was, at the time of its construction, the largest building in the world. The historian Procopius wrote that “it seems not to be founded on solid masonry, but to be suspended from heaven.” Dedicated to the holy wisdom of God and built in the 6th century AD, it became the spiritual center of the surviving eastern part of the Roman Empire and of Orthodox Christianity.

Last Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Hagia Sophia had been a museum since 1935. There are many reasons floatingaround as to why Erdogan made that decision now. It could be because Erdogan and his party suffered a serious defeat in municipal elections last March. Former notable members of his own party have created parties of their own, posing a grave threat to core constituencies of his. An economy that previously grew on limited reforms and mostly cheap and plentiful credit is facing heavy headwinds that have intensified since the appearance of Covid-19. Erdogan also seems altogether uninterested in an amicable relationship with Greece. The conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque could be a prelude to a larger crisis in the near future.  

There is also the diminution of returns on Erdogan’s foreign adventurism. The recent attack on the al-Watiya base in Libya where Turkish forces were based— which may have suffered serious casualties — could also be a cause for expediting the change of status of Hagia Sophia. All these are plausible explanations for the timing of the decision. But looking at the recent history of Turkey, it is clear that for Erdogan the erasure of all Christian vestiges is a foundational element of his vision of what Turkey should be. Other Hagia Sophia churches havebeen converted to mosques following a very similar process: in the town of Vize in 2007, in the town of Iznik in 2011 and the city of Trebizond in 2013. 

Devlet Bahceli, an Erdogan coalition ally, encapsulated the political and religious impetus behind the decision for the transformation to a mosque, when he stated that “Hagia Sophia is the conquest Mosque of the Muslim Turkish nation. This truth will not change.” Compare this statement with the response of Josep Borrell, the man responsible for the foreign affairs of the European Union. Mr. Borrell stated that the decision of Turkey was a “regrettable” one. And “Hagia Sophia has a strong symbolic, historical and universal value.” Besides, “As a founding member of the Alliance of Civilisations, Turkey has committed to the promotion of inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue and to fostering of tolerance and co-existence.”

Notice the cultural and historical neutrality in Mr. Borrell’s statement. As if he were talking about some dispute a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. And Mr. Borrell did not necessarily speak in those terms in an effort to be more persuasive to the other side. He spoke thus, because those are the terms he could use and still tolerate himself in addressing the issue at hand. Nothing is more distressing and awkward to the European political class than being in a predicament where they are called to defend the history, traditions and culture of Europe. For someone like Mr. Borrell, Europe is preferably a nebulous space, an odorless and vapid ether, malleable to the whims of an enlightened bureaucracy. 

In a similar spirit, a spokesman for the German foreign ministry said thatUNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural organisation, should have been consulted about the change to a listed item of world cultural heritage, and that this had not happened.” The German foreign ministry not only suffers from Mr. Borrell’s condition, but it has a few issues of its own to deal with. A Reuters report during the German elections of 2017 noted that,As a captive audience of television broadcast from Ankara, Germany’s Turkish citizens are caught in a tug-of-war for their loyalty ahead of a German national election on Sept. 24.” Even further, “The [German] parties worry that Erdogan has more access to Turkish-speaking German voters than they do.” Demographic changes taking place in Germany and across Europe bring the church-to-mosque transformation story closer to home. A 2015 report by the New York Times, for instance, told of a Hamburg church being converted into a mosque.

Greece, which has been the most aggrieved and vociferous party on the issue of Hagia Sophia has a mosque issue of its own. No, it’s not turning churches into mosques yet. But it built onewith taxpayer funds and has also issued permits for three more. A recurring joke on social media since the issue of Hagia Sophia surfaced has been that Greece and Turkey are in a race to see who is going to create more mosques. Greece is aiming to accommodate the thousands of Muslim immigrants who come via Turkey and who Erdogan considers and treats as his own constituency inside Europe. Greece, a country of 11 million, is estimated to have at least half a million Muslim immigrants. Perhaps in the future, it may become politically prohibitive for a Greek government to make a fuss if the Turkish president turns another church into a mosque.

Napoleon Linarthatos is a writer based in New York.

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