Cagaptay: Erdogan seeking to appeal to base with Hagia Sophia conversion

Soner Cagaptay is an American political scientist of Turkish descent and the author of several books on modern Turkey and its strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, most recently of the critically acclaimed “Erdogan’s Empire.” (His books are published in Greece by Sideris and Pedio).

Cagaptay, who is also the head of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spoke to Kathimerini’s Sunday edition about the special significance of Hagia Sophia in Erdogan’s broader political plan.

Primis Player Placeholder

“Erdogan is, I believe, one of the inventors of nativist populist politics globally, which means that he always needs a narrative for his base that they are victims,” he told Kathimerini. “In Erdogan’s narrative of victimization Hagia Sophia is the one remaining issue that appeals to the base.”

What is the special significance of Hagia Sophia for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

I have often argued that Istanbul is a city of mosques and the politics that surrounds them, and that is where Hagia Sophia’s significance comes in. In 1935 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk converted Hagia Sophia into a museum to underline his commitment to his style of politics, that he would make Turkey a secular democratic republic. So, he “un-mosqued” Hagia Sophia to underline his commitment to secular politics, to taking religion out of education, public policy and government – in the form of secularism that Ataturk established in Turkey 100 years ago. Just about a century later Erdogan is doing the opposite. He converts Hagia Sophia into a mosque, underlining his commitment to his own revolution – a religious revolution vis-a-vis Ataturk’s revolution – to flood Turkey’s public space, education and government with Erdogan’s conservative brand of Islam. I think it is very significant, therefore, to understand that if I had to pick one building to symbolize Ataturk’s revolution, that would be Hagia Sophia. And because so much of Erdogan’s revolution has been to recalibrate and undo Ataturk’s revolution, I would say that Hagia Sophia is definitely the object of Erdogan’s revolution.

Can we assume that he is seeking the reversal of Ataturk’s decision to demonstrate that he can turn Turkey to its former Ottoman glory?

Apart from a city of mosques, Istanbul is also the city of Erdogan’s political ascent. He was born in Istanbul in 1954. He became a nationally known figure when he became Istanbul’s mayor in 1994 and then he benefited from running Turkey’s biggest city until he lost it in 2019, when the opposition took it away from him. Nevertheless, I think Erdogan wants to leave a legacy in Istanbul, which is why he has built what it has been called “Erdogan’s Mosque” known as Camlica Mosque. This mosque sits on Istanbul’s virtual “eighth hill.” The city has seven hills and Ottoman sultans built mosques on each of these seven hills that crowned the city. Erdogan built an eighth mosque to compete against Istanbul’s Ottoman hills not in the old city but across in the Anatolian side. The second mosque Erdogan is building is on Taksim Square, that is Istanbul’s main square – something like Omonia or Syntagma in Athens – and it is about to be finished. Until recently, this square only had a Greek church on it, Agia Triada, and Erdogan I think is leaving his imprint on this square by adding a mosque. The third mosque, I think, he wants to leave behind is Hagia Sophia. That’s why there is a personal significance in terms of Erdogan’s legacy. He wants to be remembered as the “sultan” who left three mosques in Istanbul, one that is complete, one that is being built and one which is going to be converted.

So, it’s a contest for a place in history?

There’s also a more tactical part to this. Erdogan is, I believe, one of the inventors of nativist populist politics globally, which means that he always needs a narrative for his base that they are victims. Therefore, they should never stop supporting him because if they stop voting for him, they will be victimized again. This narrative was something Erdogan could easily apply when he came to power, because under Turkey’s secular system established by Ataturk, the pious and conservative Muslims who wanted to wear their religion on their sleeve sometimes felt that they were second-class citizens. Erdogan benefited from that legacy and used it to remind his conservative right-wing base that they are victims of secularism. But after two decades of Erdogan’s rule, that narrative doesn’t sell because it is not those who wear religion on their sleeve but all those who don’t want religion in education and the state that are approached as second-class citizens. So, in Erdogan’s narrative of victimization Hagia Sophia is the one remaining issue that appeals to the base. By emphasizing that Hagia Sophia should become a mosque Erdogan is telling his base that: “How can they, the secularists, deny us pious Muslims the liberty to pray in Hagia Sophia?” So, I think that’s why the conversion issue is a big deal; it reminds the base that it is victimized and continues to be victimized by the legacy of secularism. It is an issue for him to use because there are no other issues over which to tell his base that they are not being given fair treatment.

What is the general political climate and public opinion in Turkey regarding Hagia Sophia?

That the issue is a day too late and a dollar too short, because Erdogan has won over a dozen elections and consolidated so much power primarily because he delivered phenomenal economic growth, until recently. Yes, his nativist populist rhetoric helped but it was his economic growth that attracted people to vote for him and this legacy is important. When Erdogan came to power infant mortality was comparable to pre-war Syria. Now Turkey’s infant mortality rate is comparable to Spain. So basically, Turks lived like the Syrians and now live like the Spanish, which is why Erdogan wins elections. But that’s where the problems start for him, because in 2018 the economy entered a recession for the first time since Erdogan came to power – defined as two quarters of no economic growth. It’s the main reason why Erdogan lost Istanbul, Ankara and other big cities in last years’ local elections. The economy exited recession in 2019 but reentered recession this year because of Covid. Erdogan’s fear is that his base will weaken and so he wants to use the Hagia Sophia issue to consolidate his base. I think it is too late; he might get 2-3% bump in popularity from the Hagia Sophia issue but it will not be permanent and it will not be significant enough to prevent the erosion of his popular base.

Short of delivering economic growth, there’s nothing that will help Erdogan rebuild his base. Regardless, the damage to Turkey’s brand will be significant. Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum underlines Turkey’s brand as a country at peace with its Christian heritage, Christian citizens and Christian neighbors, so the end of its museum status will be damaging. That said, I think Erdogan’s political instincts are now all about survival and he believes that if he can get a boost from this conversion, he will do it. And at this stage, Erdogan gets from Turkey’s courts what Erdogan wants, so in other words, we are really entering an historic era in terms of Hagia Sophia’s status in Turkey as a museum. This era will end and we will go to a new period where it becomes part of the trilogy of Erdogan’s mosques in Istanbul: Camlica, Taksim and now, of course, Hagia Sophia.

Soner Cagaptay