ON A CHILLY MORNING IN LATE JANUARY, in Istanbul’s bustling Sultanahmet area, Selahattin Akgul, a heavily moustached shoeshine man who works just outside the Hagia Sophia, contemplated the fate of the sixth-century monument. The building, a former mosque that is now a museum, attracts over three million tourists a year. “Everybody wants Hagia Sophia to go back to being a mosque,” Akgul said. “It will be much more beautiful that way, and people won’t have to pay to enter it.” Before him stretched a long line of international tourists, who had each paid an entrance fee of 25 Turkish lira ($11.5).
Akgul is not alone in holding this view. In November, Turkish deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç, of the ruling centre-right Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP), caused a furore when, at the opening of a new museum in Sultanahmet, he spoke about the “Hagia Sophia Mosque.” “We are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia,” Arınç said, “but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.” Arınç also expressed approval for the reconversion in recent years of two other former Byzantine churches elsewhere in Turkey—both also called Hagia Sophias—from museums into mosques.
The status of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia has been a point of religious and political contention throughout Turkey’s history; the building is a key national symbol, and its fate has closely mirrored the preferences of changing ruling elites. The Hagia Sophia was built as an Orthodox Christian cathedral in the sixth century CE, and immediately became the centrepiece of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, as Istanbul was then known. In 1453, the Ottoman emperor Mehmud II converted the cathedral into a mosque after he captured the city and made it his capital. Then, in 1935, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey, issued a decree converting the mosque into a museum as part of his campaign to secularise the country. The building’s status has come up for public debate on several occasions since, though reconversion never seemed a serious possibility until recently. A bill currently pending in the Turkish parliament, introduced by the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, has challenged the legality of Ataturk’s 1935 order on the grounds that it was never published in the official state gazette, as required by the constitution of all decrees.
Many Turks worry that the current controversy is yet another sign of the increasing religious conservatism—and alleged megalomania—of the AKP and its leader, prime minister Reycep Tayyip Erdogan. Near where I met Akgul, I spoke to Sulayman Ozkalkan, a vendor of roasted chestnuts. “We have so many mosques, but no museums,” he said. “[The Hagia Sophia] should stay as a museum open to all.” My interpreter, Ayse Cavdar, a journalist and researcher, was visibly upset when I mentioned the AKP. “Religion is an excuse for Erdogan,” she said. “It’s simply a way for the state to take control of our bodies and … to keep us subservient.”
Erdogan took office in 2003 on the back of a landslide election victory for the AKP, which sells itself as a conservative—some say Islamist—alternative to the liberal Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or CHP). Prior to that the CHP had held power continuously since it was founded by Ataturk in 1923, a year after the creation of the Republic of Turkey. As the patriarch of Turkish politics, over the duration of its rule the party pushed through a secular agenda that alienated many conservative Turks in the country’s hinterland. The AKP came to power promising a break from the heavy-handed secularism of the CHP, and also strong leadership to end years of political instability and economic crisis under a series of shaky coalition governments. Since then, the AKP has, for the most part, delivered. The Turkish economy boomed under Erdogan—per capita GDP grew from $4,595 in 2003 to $10, 666 in 2012, according to the World Bank. The AKP also bolstered its popularity by building numerous infrastructure projects across Turkey. After being re-elected in 2007, the AKP and Erdogan returned for a third term in 2011, with 49 percent of the vote.
Encouraged by that popularity, in more recent years Erdogan has increasingly promoted conservative social reforms. In 2012, he called abortions “murder” and proposed to ban them after the sixth week of pregnancy. He backed down after furious protests by women’s rights activists, including some within the AKP. Erdogan has also urged all Muslim women to have at least three children, ranted against social media, criticised smoking, and introduced some restrictions on the advertising and sale of alcohol. Last year, he enraged many liberals by saying Turks should give up raki—an alcoholic spirit—and drink ayran—yoghurt—instead.
“It’s not that Turkey has become more religious,” Mustafa Akyol, an author and commenter who often writes in favour of the AKP, told me. “It’s simply that the religious section of Turkey has become more visible and powerful. Earlier they were poor and had no voice.” Akyol said that while Erdogan himself has not publicly weighed in on the Hagia Sophia controversy so far, the AKP’s stance on the building could become an increasingly important issue as a new round of elections looms.
Turkey will hold municipal elections at the end of March, a presidential election in August, and then a parliamentary election early next year. These polls come at a time when the AKP’s grip over the country seems to be weakening. In January, a survey of 3,025 people from roughly a third of Turkey’s eighty-one provinces, conducted by the polling group Sonar, showed approval of the AKP at 42.3 percent—the lowest since Erdogan took office. Many, especially in Istanbul, were dismayed by the government’s brutal response to last summer’s protests against Erdogan’s proposal to construct a shopping centre that threatened part of the city’s beloved Gezi Park. In December, Erdogan was accused of corruption by the Gülenists—followers of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric in voluntary exile in the US—whose religious and pro-business leanings had allied them with the AKP until a falling-out last year. Gülenists hold many key administrative positions with the Turkish state, and they soon moved to arrest dozens of Erdogan’s loyalists, accusing them of bribery and smuggling. Following this split in the conservative bloc, Akyol said, “both sides—the Gülenists and the AKP—are trying to show that they can be good Muslims. It’s not impossible that Erdogan might suddenly wake up and see [the Hagia Sophia] as a symbol [that can help] get votes.”
Since the beginning of this year, Erdogan’s troubles have only increased. After December’s political feuding scared foreign investors, the lira tumbled to a record low of 2.27 against the dollar in January. By February, the country’s deficit—a key economic concern—had risen to $65 billion, a 33 percent increase over the same time last year. That same month, several voice recordings appeared on the internet, one purportedly of Erdogan speaking about easing zoning laws for a construction tycoon in exchange for two villas, and another supposedly of him telling his son to hide €30 million ahead of police raids. Erdogan reacted savagely, dismissing the recordings as fabrications. The parliament approved a bill tightening government control of the internet, allowing it to block websites without a court ruling and to collect browsing histories. Thousands of protestors took to the streets, and were tear-gassed by the police. Then, in late March, the government blocked access to Twitter, where the recordings had originally been circulated.
The fuss over the Hagia Sophia has only added to the AKP’s difficulties. In the past, Erdogan has repeatedly expressed his determination to join the European Union, and has even said the EU is “incomplete” without Turkey. Yet European fears over the AKP’s increasing conservatism and authoritarianism seem to have drastically reduced Turkey’s chances of membership. Arinç’s remarks in November provoked great anger from neighbouring Greece, an EU member with which Turkey shares a tense history that has included four wars. Greece sees the Hagia Sophia as a reminder of the turbulent past of Greek Orthodox Christians in Turkey. The community numbered over one hundred thousand at the declaration of the Turkish republic, but discrimination and violence drove thousands out over the following decades; today, only a few thousand remain. The Greek government called Arinç’s views an “insult” to Christians, and described them as “anachronistic and incomprehensible” from a state that wanted to join the EU. Further evidence of European patience wearing thin came after Erdogan’s visit to Brussels in January, when the president of the European Council released a statement stressing the need for Turkey to uphold the rule of law and the separation of state powers.
“The prime minister says one thing in Turkey and another in Europe,” Mihail Vasiliadis, the editor-in-chief of Apoyevmatini, a tiny Istanbul-based Greek daily, told me in late January. “He has a double-sided discourse that will not be tolerated.” Vasiliadis said he understood why the Hagia Sophia and other churches were transformed into mosques following 1453. “All the Greeks at that time either died, or left the city, or they were sold as slaves,” he said. “The new inhabitants were Muslims and the number of mosques was not enough.” But he saw no sense in a reconversion, and said that “now [the Muslims] have plenty of mosques.” He told me the Hagia Sophia controversy had revealed the truth behind Turkey’s vaunted secularism, which he called an “anomaly” in the history of the Turkish nation. “I do not understand what secularism means in Turkey,” he said. “Those people who call themselves secular also call me a gavur”—a pejorative term for non-Muslims.
Many Turks certainly retain strong religious feelings. Outside the Hagia Sophia, I met Hanife Gure who had travelled almost 600 kilometres from the town of Izmir to see the monument. “Turkey is a secular state, yes,” Gure said as she adjusted her headscarf against the wind. “We can join the EU, fine. But I need an environment where I can be free to live my religion, where I can be a Muslim.”
Kavitha Rao is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore and Istanbul. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The National, the New York Times, and other publications. Her website is www.kavitharao.net.