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Posts Tagged ‘Hagia Sophia

Don’t Panic

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The AKP has been making some insane policy threats lately.  These statements have (justifiably) caused an uproar from many Turks and Turkey watchers.  However, I think we all need to take a step back and consider the possibility, or probability, that despite their current vice-like grip on Turkish politics, the neither Erdoğan nor the AKP in general have the power or mandate to carry through with many of these proposed “reforms.”  It is too early to predict the long-term consequences, but Erdoğan’s antics seem to be backfiring and causing even some former supporters to question his leadership.

The first piece of good news is that Erdoğan is not going to get his wish to become the first American-style President of Turkey anytime soon.  The commission tasked with reforming the current constitution, which was created by the generals in the wake of 1980 military coup, has fallen apart.  The AKP had already agreed in August not to push for a presidential system to be included in the new constitution.  Turkey still desperately needs a more liberal constitution but the AKP does not seem to be ready to make the concessions needed to make this happen.

Erdoğan’s rhetoric over the past year has necessitated almost non-stop damage control from the other high-ranking members of the current administration, namely President Gül, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç .  It appears that at least Arınç is getting sick of being the PM’s apologist.  He publicly made statements both during the Gezi protests and the recent co-ed housing controversy that clearly articulated his opposition to the Erdoğan’s position.  In an act of censorship shocking even in Turkey, critical statements Arınç made regarding PM Erdoğan were censored by the state TV network, which Arınç himself is tasked with overseeing. There were even rumors that Arınç would be quitting politics after both controversies but it seems he will be staying in government at least until the 2015 elections.  Gül, who in some polls rivals Erdoğan’s popularity, has not been as confrontational in his opposition.  However, many of his speeches as of late has notably contradicted Erdoğan on the same talking points.  Gül very well may be trying to distance himself from Erdoğan in anticipation of the 2015 elections.  There has been much speculation as whether Gül will run for Prime Minister or continue to occupy the position of President, but it is too early to tell.  What is clear is that Gül wishes to maintain his reputation as a moderate figure amongst the increasingly polarizing voices coming out of the AKP.

Erdoğan’s antagonism isn’t just limited to within in the party.  For reasons that are not quite clear to even experts on the subject, Erdoğan has begun a campaign to close down the private extra-curricular “cram” schools that have become a fixture of the Turkish educational landscape.  This proposal is clearly directed at the Gülen movement, who control about a quarter of these institutions.  The Gülen Movement’s followers generally fall within the AKP’s core demographic.  However, since the Gezi protests the movement’s leader, Fethullah Gülen, has made some official statements that could be interpreted as critical of the current government’s increasingly conservative bent.  The announcement of Erdoğan’s intention to close down study centers has started a war of words between Gülen and Erdoğan.  The impact of this rupture between arguably the two most powerful figures in Turkey is hard to predict, if for no other reason than the secretive nature of the Gülen Movement has left its scale largely unknown.

The fight against the closure of privately owned schools has already been taken up by groups outside of the Gülen Movement.  These “cram” school have become an indispensable stop-gap in the inadequate Turkish educational system.  Though the constitutional court is expected to overturn any law that would ban them, the damage has already been done.  Erdoğan once again has stubbornly continued to insist that these schools need to be closed, despite widespread public outcry and protests against such a measure.  The issue of education touches all segments of Turkish society, thus this issue may have a greater impact on the AKP base than the Gezi protests.  The opposition within the AKP has already been apparent.  One AKP minister who opposed the proposed prep school closures quit the party on Saturday after being actively marginalized and threatened with an internal disciplinary measures.

Loudly and publicly declaring the intention to implement politically or legally impossible reforms is par for the course for the AKP.  The direction of the latest round of the perennial threats to reconvert the Istanbul Hagia Sophia into a mosque illustrates this trend nicely.  At a speech marking the occasion of a new carpet museum on the premises November 16, Bülent Arınç stated that “we currently stand next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque … we are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia, but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”  Then last week it was reported that former monastery turned mosque turned ruin  in another part of the old city would in fact be soon renovated and opened as a mosque.  This property just happened to be administered by the Hagia Sophia Museum.  As I have stated previously, any real attempt to turn the Istanbul Hagia Sophia into a mosque would be an international and domestic political disaster.  However, this latest announcement regarding the monastery seems to be part of a quiet campaign to turn lesser known Byzantine churches into mosques, often without the knowledge or support of the local community.  Similarly, Erdoğan and the AKP may talk of instituting extremely conservative social policies, but the best they can do now is chip away at laws affecting only the very secular population (such as those associated with the sale of alcohol).

Significantly, the latest controversies, mostly sparked by Erdoğan, have begun to touch the pious majority.  No political party has yet emerged that could rival the AKP’s currently numbers.  However, if a combination of the opposition parties could together take a chunk out of the AKP’s 50%, the hegemony of the AKP could be greatly diminished.  The regional elections in March 2014 will give us a better sense of how the social and political unrest has affect the AKP’s popularity.  In the meantime we should take the AKP’s policy threats with a grain of salt, but continue to watch for attempts to institute conservative social policies in small but significant ways.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

December 2, 2013 at 6:49 pm

Museum or Mosque?

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While in Turkey last year, I had the opportunity to visit Iznik, known better to Christians as Nicea.  In my travel blog I discussed the trip, which included a visit to the ruins of the church of Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), the site of 7th and final ecumenical council in the pre-schism church.   This history of the building is typical of many ancient churches in Turkey.  The present 11th century structure was built as a church but was converted to a mosque during Ottoman times.  The building eventually fell into disrepair and disuse and was  a ruined shell when it was reopened as a state run museum in 2007.  However, in  October 2011 it was refurbished in order to serve as a mosque.

I wrote the following observations shortly after my visit to Iznik:

We visited Iznik on a Friday, the Muslim day of communal prayer.  Outside the Green Mosque, which was already filled to capacity, men lined up dozens of rows deep for the mid-day prayer.  The call to prayer echoed from the Ottoman minaret of what a sign now identifies as the Aya Sofya Mosque, however the area was nearly abandoned, with just a few men hanging around outside.  It certainly appears that locals prefer to pray at other mosques, even when they are overflowing, rather than use this church turned mosque turned ruin turned museum turned mosque.  My pious host family was shocked and surprised to hear that the church-museum was now a mosque.  Because hardly anyone actually uses it as a prayer space, the re-sanctification of the building made little real impact on our ability to visit and look around the building.  There is even a small benefit to the visitor.  Since the building is now a mosque rather than a church, there is no entrance fee.

The lack of interest in using the building as a prayer a space that I observed, combined with the opposition from locals as reported in the Times article convinced me that this kind of “re-Islamization” of historic buildings was unlikely to become a trend.  However there have recently been actions taken toward converting a second recently restored Aya Sofya church-cum-mosque  in the Black Sea city of Trabzon.  In both cases the impetuous for the conversion of restored churches to mosques has come from the General Directorate of Foundations, a somewhat shadowy government agency which is officially in charge of Islamic religious foundations.  In the last year the General Directorate has also taken up what was formerly an extremely fringe position and has begun advocating for the re-conversion of the most famous Aya Sofya into a mosque.

News of moves made toward converting the Trabzon and Istanbul Aya Sofyas forced me to reconsider my dismissal of the Iznik conversion as an isolated incident.  An article Thursday by Andrew Finkel characterizes the Iznik’s Aya Sofya’s conversion as well as the threat to convert the two others into mosques as another sign of creeping Islamization and general government mismanagement of cultural treasures.  I share Finkel’s despair regarding the irreparable damage done to historic sites.  Ill conceived restorations are all too common in Turkey and little has been done to reconcile the problem.  The General Directorate is indisputably overstepping the bounds of its authority as well as acting against both the interests and wishes of the Turkish people.  Though I believe most accusations of creeping Islamization in Turkey are overblown if not downright false, in the specific case of the General Directorate it appears that there is Islamic ideological as well as Turkish nationalist bent to their recent actions (see Turkish-Islamic Synthesis).  By returning these buildings to use as mosques the Directorate is not only creating more Muslim religious spaces, but imposing a Turkish and Islamic history on the buildings and the cities themselves, whitewashing both the Byzantine Christian history and the Ottoman cosmopolitan legacies.

Despite the damage that General Directorate has done and may still do to Turkey’s historic churches, I don’t yet believe there is reason to panic regarding the  Aya Sofya in Istanbul.  In setting its sights on one of the world’s most famous landmarks, and Turkey’s most visited site, the Directorate may have set the stage for its own undoing.  The ecumenical service cited in the beginning of Finkel’s piece did not propose that all Turkey’s important churches that were then in use as mosques be returned to the Orthodox community, just Istanbul’s Aya Sofya.  The congregation that gathered in 1921 were not interested in reclaiming the Aya Sofya for Christendom just because of its fame, but because it symbolized a lost outpost of Christianity.  “Capturing” it would pave the way for the reconquest of this territory from the Turkish Muslims.  Today, the conversion of the Aya Sofya Museum into a mosque would serve a similar symbolic purpose for Turkey’s fringe Islamists.  The Aya Sofya was “secularized” when it was opened as a Museum in the early days of the Republic by Ataturk himself.  It therefore has subsequently come to symbolize the secular values of the Republic as opposed to officially Muslim Ottoman state.  The reversion of the space into a mosque would be an unquestionable victory for Islamistsover the nearly sacred principle of Turkish secularism.

Erdogan may be happy to allow the General Directorate to quietly go about its Islamization campaign in small towns, but he could never allow such a public affront to the principles of the Turkish state and the near sacred legacy of Ataturk.  Additionally, Turkey cannot risk alienating its Western, Christian allies during a period of such regional turmoil.  Whether framed as an affront to the separation of church and state or against Christianity as a religion, US public outcry against the conversion of Istanbul’s Aya Sofya would be swift and loud.  The US would certainly exert diplomatic pressure to keep the conversion from going through.  If the General Directorate would succeed in getting to the planning stages of the conversion, Erdogan would be forced to finally check the out of control actions of the Directorate.  If the Directorate is smart, it will not force Erdogan’s hand in such an international crisis.  Right now, except for a handful of tourists and dedicated Turkey watchers, the world is largely oblivious to the archaeological, cultural and economic destruction it is causing.  The Directorate could potentially go on with its museum to mosque campaign indefinitely, unless it lets its power go to its head.

*A previous version of this post had stated that the Trabzon Aya Sofya was also a ruin.  It has been recently restored but was an intact building before restoration began.  My references to its condition has been corrected.

Written by ataturksrepublic

May 7, 2013 at 8:13 pm