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Erdogan's Hagia Sophia decree, a power move

Erdogan’s Hagia Sophia decree, a power move
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Erdogan’s Hagia Sophia decree, a power move

Highlights

Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree recently, ordering the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) to be converted into a mosque, an action that immediately provoked international furore

Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree recently, ordering the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) to be converted into a mosque, an action that immediately provoked international furore. Ayasofya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site cherished by Christians and Muslims alike for its religious significance, for its stunning structure and as a symbol of conquest.

The presidential decree came minutes after a Turkish court announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia's status as a museum, which for the last 80 years had made it a monument of relative harmony and a symbol of secularism that was part of the foundation of the modern Turkish State.

Pope Francis said he's "pained" by Turkey's decision to convert Istanbul's Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. Speaking at a service in the Vatican, the Roman Catholic leader added that his "thoughts go to Istanbul".

Built in the sixth century as a cathedral, the Hagia Sophia stands as the greatest example of Byzantine Christian architecture in the world. But it has been a source of Christian-Muslim rivalry, having stood at the centre of Christendom for nearly a millennium and then, after being conquered, of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, when it was last used as a mosque.

Erdogan's decree transferred control of the site to the Religious Affairs Directorate, sealing the removal of its museum status and allowing Hagia Sophia to become a working mosque once again. If it was nationalism that was on display, it was so for all wrong reasons, one should say. President Erdogan who is struggling to retain his supreme position in Turkey has been resorting to dramatics for a long time.

He is also aiming to be the supreme leader of the Islamic world in the mid-west itself. This is the reason other non-Islamic countries in the region termed the move as backward by at least six centuries. For Erdogan, changing Hagia Sophia's status appears to be a move to appeal to his Islamist base and assert his political brand — a strident nationalism inflected by his religiosity that anchors itself in a decades-old ideological struggle with more secular Turks.

his move, therefore, is bound to boost Erdogan's global credentials as the staunchest defender of Islam. Erdogan made sure to appeal to this crowd in his victory speech, that "the resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the reignition of the fire of hope of Muslims and all the oppressed, wronged, downtrodden and exploited," which will include the "liberation of the Al-Aqsa mosque," essentially meaning Israel should be ejected from controlling Jerusalem's Old City.

Erdogan's Hagia Sophia decree is a power move, both symbolically and geopolitically. It is in many senses the apex of his 18 consecutive years in power. But this move is primarily for domestic consumption – it is a quick fix to his sinking approval ratings.

Erdogan has managed to embed his hold over part of northern Syria (with help from Donald Trump, who withdrew a significant number of US troops, at Erdogan's request and Turkey has also managed to play a strong role in Libyan conflict.

If Erdogan sees himself as Caliph of the Islamic world, Hagia Sophia has seen many emperors and caliphs come and go. It has withstood rival religious and political agendas over centuries.

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