At one point in history, as the 19th century drew to a close and the 20th set in, the Ottoman Empire which ruled from its capital city, Istanbul, and which was in a state of hopeless decline, was labelled “the sick man of Europe”. Today I borrow this term with a little twist to apply to Turkey’s current President Erdogan whose pugnacious moves appear beyond understanding. I do not know whether his trouble making in several spots in the world, and his wetted appetite for infuriating countries, be they Turkey’s neighbours or not, is to vent gargantuan arrogance, belligerence, and evil. Or is he out to strike in any and all directions provoking one and all to divert the world’s attention from his greed and objective to take the world back to the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, to dark ages out of place in our modern world?
The most curious and obnoxious aspect in the Erdogan predicament is why global powers—the US, Russia, and EU—allow the chaotic mess to grow and aggravate without attempting to address it. All they do is denounce and condemn it. It appears that human values, international law and world peace are side stepped in favour of political balances and compromises. In the process, world powers succumb to blackmail by Erdogan who frequently throws in their face the issue of illegal migrants, Turkey’s membership in the NATO, its multi-source arms purchases from east and west, or the Russian Natural Gas lines that travel through Turkey to Europe. The result is that global powers have let Erdogan loose in Syria, Iraq, the Kurds, Libya, Cyprus, Greece and the Mediterranean. He even has military footholds in Qatar, Sudan and Ethiopia. Any surprise then that his wild greed pushes into reviving the Ottoman Empire? He has started by paving the way in Turkey itself, obliterating its modern secular character and Islamising its institutions, arrogantly boasting of his deeds.
Erdogan’s recent announcement of converting Hagia Sophia, a historic monument of world heritage, into a mosque was thus not surprising, even if it shocked many in a helpless world. The Museum of Hagia Sophia of which Istanbul, Turkey’s cultural and economic capital boasts, was built in 532 as a magnificent cathedral by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It was opened in 537 and remained more than 921 years an icon of the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Church. When the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II invaded the city in 1458, killing, looting, burning, and enforcing Islamic rule, he usurped Hagia Sophia and turned it into a mosque. It remained so for 482 years, until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, issued a decree in 1935 to turn this great edifice into a museum to bring together Christian and Muslim heritage treasures side by side.
Since then, Hagia Sophia remained an international museum visited by tourists from the world over. It stood witness to the coexistence of Islam and Christianity in the modern State of Turkey which Kemal Ataturk pulled out of ignorance and the dark ages; the Turkey he freed from the legacy of the gruesome Ottoman Empire. Besides entrenching secularism, Ataturk established a firm democracy and a Constitution that placed its army as the vigilant protector of this democracy. Turkey shed its Ottoman character and crossed over to European modernity. And thus it remained until the beginning of the third AD millennium when Erdogan came to power and relentlessly worked towards shattering all the gains of Ataturk’s Turkey, and taking it back to confusion, decline, and regression on political, economic and civilisational levels.
The most recent scene in the gruesome scenario of reviving the Ottoman Empire and Islamising the core of Turkey, has been the conversion of Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque. Is Istanbul in need of more mosques? Are its numerous mosques not sufficient for worshippers? The obvious answer being “no”; this is but one more strike by the sick man of Turkey, intended as a trouble making episode to take the international community unawares.
Response to Erdogan’s decision varied: whereas the Turkish prosecutor initially denied that Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque, the Turkish Supreme Court ruled that the edifice is no longer a museum but a mosque. UNESCO issued a statement saying that Hagia Sophia is part of Istanbul’s heritage and that any country that possesses historic property must be keen not to impose any modification on it that could harm its outstanding value.
As for Russian, American and European response; these only ranged from surprise at to denouncement of Erdogan’s decision. I refer my reader to the second paragraph of this editorial to comprehend the depth and significance of that response.
16 July 2020