Can Europe Make It?

Turkey’s presidential dictatorship

Re-converting Ayasofya takes a major symbolic step towards the President’s ideal goal of an Islamised one-party state.

Murat Belge
22 July 2020, 10.22am
Muslims celebrating Hagia Sofia’s re-conversion into a mosque, July 10, 2020.
Diego Cupolo/PA. All rights reserved.

When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, the church of St. Sophia was immediately turned into a mosque. This was the normal procedure at the time. In war the victor would convert the most prestigious house of worship of the vanquished into a house of his own faith. The Spanish had done the same to the mosques in Toledo, Seville and Cordoba. While there was an element of self-glorification in this, at the same time it demonstrated a certain respect for what the Ottomans called “people of the Book”, namely Jews and Christians. In spite of all their wrong beliefs, these people believed in the same God. On a practical level the conversion of the church was like a guarantee that the building would not be left to fall into ruins.

In spite of all their wrong beliefs, these people believed in the same God.

One authentic tradition of the Ottomans obliged the tribal leader, the “bey”, to perform his Friday prayer with his people. After the “bey” became a “sultan”, the mosque regularly chosen for this ceremony was St. Sophia, or Ayasofya as the Turks called it. The frescoes and mosaics of the church were not destroyed; they were not even covered until the seventeenth century.

For nearly 500 years Ayasofya was regarded as the most majestic, the most precious mosque of the Ottoman Empire. In 1934, nearly ten years after the creation of the Republic of Turkey, Ataturk decided to turn it into a museum. There was no external pressure for this move. It was a purely civilized act by the Turkish President, emphasizing the international human value of this magnificent structure and its universal appeal.

However, the change did not affect all Turks in the same way. Two political tendencies, especially, were mortified: İslamists, for most of whom Ayasofya as a mosque demonstrated the might of Islam, and the fascists who had similar sentiments mixed with delight at the victory of the Turkish race. For those who believed in right-wing ideologies, converting Ayasofya back into a mosque has been an important issue ever since, though it was not an explicit demand or part of a political agenda.

President Tayyip Erdoğan, no doubt, shared this feeling of frustration over the Ayasofya but did not express it. When asked publicly about the possibility of a “re-conversion”, he replied: “We may think about that when the Blue Mosque is full.” (Also known as Sultan Ahmed, it is a vast mosque next to Ayasofya.) More recently he even implied that harping on about the issue was provocative. But now, all of a sudden, he raised the subject himself and Ayasofya is a mosque again. Why? What happened?

Now, all of a sudden, he raised the subject himself and Ayasofya is a mosque again. Why? What happened?

In Turkey one usual answer to such questions is that Erdoğan is having a hard time on the economic level, which is eating away his electoral support, and so he is trying to change the agenda. That the economy is in difficulties is correct. He and the AKP, the party which he heads, are not gaining in popularity at the moment. Even though the earliest elections are not due until 2023, which means there is a lot of time, it is highly doubtful that things will be put right by then. So economic problems may be forcing Erdoğan to look to new initiatives, whether military and international in Syria and Libya or ideological as with Ayasofya.

Basing their argument on his economic failures, the opposition often claims that Erdoğan “invents” such issues to “divert” attention from the real problems for which he doesn’t have answers or any good news. There may be some truth in this interpretation but overall the “diversion” explanation is not convincing. The Ayasofya conversion brings Turkey closer to the kind of society Erdoğan is trying to engineer. In this respect it is no “diversion”; rather it takes a major symbolic step towards his ideal goal of an Islamised one-party state.

“Our difference”

The other flagrant question of recent months is the new legislation on bar associations. In Turkey there are 81 departments and each one has a bar association. Most of them participate in often vocal opposition to the Erdoğan regime. Recently, a new bill was passed in parliament which stipulates that where more than 5,000 lawyers are registered, 2,000 of them can organize a new bar. It’s striking that only three bar associations, Istanbul, Ankara and İzmir have that many members, and in Istanbul about 2,000 lawyers follow the AKP line.

Obviously this is a manoeuvre to divide the bars in the big cities, create new pro-AKP bars that will contradict the others, then change the procedure of electing the members of the overall “Turkish Union of Bar Associations”. Already those associations that are AKP-led influence the judges, who overall have lost most of their autonomy. Breaking the independence of the judiciary is too serious to be seen as an effort at “diverting attention”. It is bound to have long-term effects.

Further, the government is now discussing opting out of the Istanbul Convention. This began as an initiative of the Council of Europe based on the idea that states should guarantee the safety and protection of women from violence of all kinds. It was signed by twenty European countries, Turkey under Erdoğan being the first to sign in 2011.

This law has been anathema for certain right-wing groups and sects. A clause about the protection of gays has been misinterpreted as an example of the exhortation “to become gay”! The Convention has been condemned as contrary to Turkish “family values”, whatever they may be.

Erdoğan now seems to back efforts to withdraw from the Convention. Even if it is doubtful that this is favoured by conservatives, who would presumably prefer a milder form of Islamism, the shift pleases the MHP, the ultra-nationalist party in alliance with Erdoğan; it may also appeal to the ‘core’ partisans of the AKP. Erdoğan is taking another step in steering Turkey away from the West in a determined fashion, proclaiming that Turkey does not share the Convention’s values such as gender equality.

Such U-turns have become habitual, as he steps back from his pre-Gezi days. Gezi was the popular occupation of a central square in Istanbul in 2013 which led to demonstrations in many parts of the country. It was a clear expression of popular opposition to his rule and the corruption and abuses of power that had grown up around it over the past decade.

Religious conservatives have a place in every democracy including the right to win elections. But democracy also means they will lose elections and must respect the independence of the judiciary. Erdoğan, however, once said that democracy is like a bus which you can leave at the most convenient point. His regime has no internalized respect for democracy, which is regarded as a ‘Western’ invention. Now the President is also demonstrating “our difference” at the legal level.

Leaving the bus

The abuse of law under Erdoğan is especially harsh when it comes to the political trials, and the imprisonment of people like Ahmet Altan, Osman Kavala, Mümtazer Türköne, Selahattin Demirtaş and Mehmet Baransu, as well as hundreds and thousands of others who have suffered from injustice. A short ‘lockdown opera’ has even been composed for Osman Kavala, the first time a Turk plays a major role in European opera since Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

But criticism from the democratic world appears to have little effect on the ‘authorities’ as Erdoğan develops the kind of ‘justice’ that is the first word in the name of the AKP – the Justice and Development Party. A similar indifference accompanies the decision to convert Ayasofya back into a mosque. It is intended as a lasting symbol of presidential dictatorship.

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