The integration of Hagia Sophia into Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy and the stance of Greece

* Speech delivered by Ambassador Vassili Moutsoglou at IHA Zoom ForumΔιαβάστε την ομιλία στα Ελληνικά

We feel sorrow for the conversion of the church of the Holy Wisdom Of God, Hagia Sophia, into a mosque. This is an act of cultural vandalism. Sadly, a World Heritage site, the jewel of Byzantine art, loses its character. Humanity cannot admire any more in a museum’s civilized ambiance, the magnificent Byzantine mosaics.

A lot of comments could be made. The same court previously dismissed a similar action, considering it unfounded. Or that the same court recognizes the tribute to Hagia Sophia but does not attribute it in the same way to the various Greek institutions, whose property Turkey seized in multiple ways. The conversion was not the result of a court decision but a political one, the responsibility of which lies solely with the President of that country. The judicial route was nothing but a pretext for legality.

But let us take a brief historical look back. In the second half of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire realized that there were many Muslim tribes on its territory, but Turks were a minority. The decline in their population was due to the fact that they were committed to martial arts and avoided having a family. So the Ottoman rulers put the Muslim religion as a unifying factor at the center of their domestic politics. Islam was the primary component that characterized the Turk. This was etched in the consciences of the Ottomans. Turk was who Muslim was.

Neo-Turks brought back the nationalistic element, and according to Mustafa Kemal, Turk was whoever considered himself as a Turk. Kemal wanted to make Turkey equal to European states and believed that the Muslim religion was responsible for the Ottoman Empire’s regression in all areas.  To this end, he tried to convert Turkey to a secular state.

In the context of secularization, Kemal had already allowed, since the early 1930s, the revelation works of the Hagia Sophia mosaics. In 1930, Kemal perceiving the development of the political situation in Europe, and realizing Turkey’s weakness, aimed to strengthen its relations with Greece, the geographical area that a European power could use to attack Turkey. Thus, he signed various agreements with the ever-willing Greece for peace. Of course, with Greece, Turkey was at war eight years ago. For reconciliation, he needed something more.

Hagia Sophia continues to symbolize, for the Greeks, the capture of Constantinople, the point of time considered by historians as the beginning of the modern Greek nation. Kemal probably thought that Turkey’s best response to Greece’s offer of oblivion of the Great Idea would be to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum. This is an assumption, of course, as Hagia Sophia at that time was considered a Greek-Turkish issue. However, Kemal had not any positive feelings about Hellenism or honestly believed in reconciliation. In addition to his past acts, he wanted to expel the Greeks of Istanbul from the very start.

The secular Turkish state, despite the expressed frustration of the people, lasted for about 90 years. Whenever there was an attempt for return, the Kemalist army intervened. Although President Erdogan was one of the politicians expressing this distastefulness for the secular state, he respected Kemal’s secular principles at the beginning of his career as Prime Minister. Once established, he began to overthrow them gradually, along with efforts to weaken the influence of the Kemalist army that he achieved through court rulings, which concerned real or hypothetical coups against him. After all, despite Erdogan’s claims, the coup attempt against him in 2016 seems that it was staged by him, according to information that appeared in the Nordic Monitor. In doing so, Erdogan settled the case with the fans of Fethullah Gulen, who opposed him.

The time to settle also with the Kemalist state had come. After all, the Turkish people have never embraced the concept of a secular state, and the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque would give him additional advantages in the domestic sector. The Turks, in their national affairs, are united in absolute terms. There could be no objection to a religious matter; thus, there were no reactions to the conversion inside Turkey.

According to Turkish analysts, Erdogan, until March 2019, argued that the benefits of turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque were less than the damage that Turkey would suffer. He said he was afraid of reactions.

What’s changed since then?

1. The loss of the municipalities of Istanbul and Ankara in last year’s municipal elections.

2. The problematic situation of the economy, further exacerbated by the pandemic. Inflation and unemployment rates have reached their peak.

3. The creation of parties through the potential of the AKP Justice and Development Party, the Gelecek party of Davutoglu and DEVA of Babacan which will draw voters from Erdogan’s party.

Erdogan also expected gains from a possible adverse reaction from the People’s Party, CHP. Still, Kilincdaroglu did not react negatively, while Mayor of Istanbul Imamoglu made only an ironic comment about Turkey’s finances not improving with this decision.

In terms of international reactions, political ones were lower than expected. However, in the consciences of the civilized world, Turkey has taken another step downstairs.

As Turkish analysts write, Ankara does not take into account Athens’ reactions. Regarding the European Union, its relations with Turkey, as Turks themselves say, are already at the nadir. But the Union will not, according to the Turks, sever its ties with Ankara. Neither side dares say, “it’s all this way”. However, they did not expect the reactions of the European press and the “condemnation” of the E.U.  Matters with the U.S. are more important. But the problems between the two countries are so many that, always according to the Turks, one more, one less makes no difference. Turks are afraid of the Greek lobby in the U.S., but there seem to be weaknesses. The Turks do not say so, of course, but President Trump, as it is known, has unique political and economic relations with Erdogan. He doesn’t seem to have done anything to stop him. The Turks would be afraid of Russia, but President Putin did not take a negative stance, probably because of both the Prespes and the expulsions of its diplomats, and the case of the Church of Ukraine. 

Turkish analysts point out that by now, in the upcoming elections, the parties will not be able to promise to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. The AKP can say that “well, I did”, but again this will not affect the election result for a long time.

In the external sector, Erdogan’s Turkey, based on its economic potential, the demographic factor, but above all on the support of the Westerners, is inspired by dreams of significant regional power and, in the future, of global power. Turkey is not with the West or the East. Turkey’s NATO alliance is nothing but a relic of the past. Turkey is not interested in any ideal but of itself. But the Westerners, who do not realize that Turkey does not any longer belongs to the democratic faction, and allow it to invade Cyprus, Iraq, Syria, and Libya undisturbed, have to do their calculations better.

Since the Arab Spring era and with the encouragement of Westerners who presented Turkey as a model of political Islam, Erdogan has sought to take over the leadership of the Arab World. Dreams of an Arab night. For Arabs, the concept of “Political Islam” is indeterminate. The only thing that interested Arab leaders back then from the idea of Political Islam was how Erdogan managed to seize power and hold it for so long. They wanted nothing else from Turkey.  Already the Arab League, referring to Libya, has claimed that Turkey is threatening the security of Arab countries.

Erdogan, staying at the helm of his country for so long, apparently does not realize that he belongs to the chorus of eternal leaders such as Kim Jong Un, Castro, Lukashenko, Maduro, and other authoritarian leaders, in Asia or Africa.

With the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a Mosque, Erdogan believes that he will turn the culturally eternal Byzantine Constantinople into the third pole of Islam with a church in the City that nor the name neither the character, engraved in world memory, cannot change in fact.

The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque saddens all Greeks. Hagia Sophia is the symbol of medieval Hellenism, Byzantium. President Erdogan and Turkey are accountable for the damage they cause to a world cultural heritage monument but also a symbol of the peaceful coexistence of religions, to which Erdogan pioneered in 2005, for short-sighted interests, as it turns out. Turkey is accountable to international public opinion on this. Turkey shot itself.

For the record, Turkey cannot become a leader of Islam. It is not accepted mainly by Arab countries. Already, there do not seem to be many Muslim states that have issued a supportive statement on this abhorrent act.

Many Turks believe that they are one of the most important peoples in the world in all areas, and Turkey is one of the militarily strongest countries. Their arrogance does not let them see reality.

Turkey does not pay attention to the modus vivendi with Greece. It sees it as a fragile state. In recent years, a tendency in Greece regarding as fascistτ whatever is national has contributed to this view. Various internationalist forces, sometimes behaving as an advocate for the country’s enemies, do not act based on ethnicity but a distorted ideology. Sometimes defeatist views are expressed. Concessions can be made; no one starts a negotiation saying that I am not giving in to anything, but this should be left to the negotiating team to do so. It should not be done in public, and in advance.

Greece is in the zone of peace, but on its limits, with all that this entails. Around it, Turkey, Syria, the Middle East, Libya are in a state of war. Turkey has chosen to take a hostile stance to attack the country’s territorial integrity. The northern neighbors do not shake Greece’s hand with the same friendliness that it is tended to them.

Greece, in any case, must keep its heavy fire to protect its threatened territorial integrity. And our seas are also Greece. And if various Turks come out and say that we have excluded them from the sea, we answer them instead that they are the ones who excluded us from Anatolia, our ancestral land opposite.

We are a peaceful European country. But we are a country with an army. We are not a defenseless state like Cyprus nor weak like Iraq, or Syria, or Libya so that Turkey would invade and achieve an easy victory. The Greek government sent the message. We wish Turkey good reception.

International Hellenic Association

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