Friday, July 24, 2020, would be long remembered in Turkey. On this day the iconic Hagia Sophia was opened for Friday prayers after a hiatus of 86 years. This was history in the making. The site having been used as a mosque for less than 500 years was declared a museum in 1934 by the secular founder of the new Turkish Republic that took power upon the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The new secular government attempted to cut off Turkey’s connections with its Islamic past and in so doing, crossed all thresholds of moderation.
Erdogan’s leap of faith
For President Erdogan, the conversion of the museum into a mosque was not an easy decision. Turkey already has lots of problems with its NATO allies. It has strained relations with Greece. The change in the status of the Hagia Sophia would further aggravate Turkey’s relations with NATO member states. This was known to the leaders of Turkey. But the President took the plunge disregarding the consequences of his action.
Only a leader of substance, of courage, of a vision could embark on a course of action that many thought was ill-advised. President Erdogan, in restoring Hagia Sophia’s Islamic status, was responding not only to the aspirations of millions of Turks but also righting a wrong that was committed more than 80 years ago. More than 350,000 Muslims turned up to offer the Friday congregational prayers. The spontaneous response of such a large number of people took many by surprise.
It was truly a moment of glory for President Erdogan who is known to have the capacity to take bold decisions. There was criticism of the action from neo-liberals both within and outside the country. It was argued that the site has been a museum for so long. Critics said Hagia Sophia was a UNESCO World Heritage site and belonged to humanity. They also emphasised that the monument was originally built as a church by the Byzantine emperors and that the 1453 conversion into a mosque was unfair.
Turkey’s leader allowed such a large number of refugees fleeing from the multi-dimensional conflict in Syria and Iraq to seek asylum in his country
Reclaiming a piece of Ottoman History
This only tells part of the story. The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 was a historic turning point in the history of the region and the city. Such conversions were commonplace in medieval times. More recently, scores indeed hundreds of mosques were converted into churches, market places, hotels, etc in Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia, Greece, Spain, Portugal, etc.
But the present conversion of the Hagia Sophia should not cause an alarm because firstly the mosque is not being created by dismantling a church. Secondly, the historic museum will remain intact to be visited by tourists every day from all over the world. It will be closed only for the duration of the prayers for short intervals five times a day.
There are many within and beyond Turkey who do not agree with the Islamic orientation and credentials of the political party currently in power in Turkey. Such opponents of the regime got an opportunity to launch an onslaught against the government. These elements had the backing of those who consider Erdogan as an obstacle to the lop-sided concept of European unity.
Reinventing Turkey’s Islamic past
They would rather work with a more pliant group of politicians who would promote Turkey’s secular ideology and abandon any notions of Turkey having had a magnificent Islamic history. President Erdogan is widely believed to be trying to reinvent Turkey’s Islamic past. This does not go down well with most Western nations who see a danger in a country as close to Europe as Turkey moving in a direction that could pose problems to the stability of the region.
There is a rising tide of opposition to Erdogan’s policies as far as his opposition to Israel’s expansionism is concerned. His support for the internationally recognised government in Libya has also irked some powerful Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.
There is a danger of the Libyan conflict escalating into a regional war if Egypt decides to send its military to the country in support of the warlord, Khalifa Haftar. In that case there would be a conflict between Egypt and Turkey. It will be a testing time for the leadership of President Erdogan.
The restoration of the 500-year-old status of Hagia Sophia has filled the hearts of millions of Muslims around the world with pride and has added a new feather to the cap of the leader of Turkey in these difficult times
Erdogan has to fight on many fronts
Mr Erdogan has to fight on many fronts. Within Turkey, he has to overcome the challenge posed by his ‘liberal’ political rivals. Then there is the issue of about three million refugees, mostly Syrians. Turkey’s leader allowed such a large number of refugees fleeing from the multi-dimensional conflict in Syria and Iraq to seek asylum in his country.
Few leaders on the world stage would have reacted with such unequivocal clarity and determination to allow hundreds of thousands of uprooted people to settle in their country without any external support for their upkeep.
As most of the Muslim North African countries and the Arab Middle Eastern nations are in turmoil in the wake of devastating conflicts, wars, and fighting, Mr Erdogan has emerged as a leader with the vision and foresight of a proud nation. He has put his country on a trajectory of progress and stability while adhering to the goals of lending support to the cause of Muslim unity in the face of mounting challenges, both economic and political.
In this backdrop of widespread destruction and anarchy in most of the Islamic world, he has shown remarkable leadership at the cost of annoying his NATO allies. The restoration of the 500-year-old status of Hagia Sophia has filled the hearts of millions of Muslims around the world with pride and has added a new feather to the cap of the leader of Turkey in these difficult times.
Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade. The article originally appeared at The Express Tribune and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.