Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan always chooses to remain in the news for all the wrong reasons. This time, he has been on cloud nine since Friday, 10 July when a top Turkish court awarded a judgment allowing the 1,500-year-old Byzantine Hagia Sofia structure, sacred for Christians, to be used forthwith as a mosque with permission to offer prayers. This historic monument was captured by the Ottoman rulers in 1453, who converted the extant church into a mosque.
Later, due to a slew of dynamic measures to modernise Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, it was declared as a museum in 1934. It is a world heritage site which sees millions of tourists pouring in every year. The pathbreaking court decision is a major setback to the secular credentials of Turkey, the foundations of which were so laboriously laid by Attaturk.
Erdogan will not be judged kindly by history for his acts of regression as also for pushing his country towards religious fundamentalism. Orthodox Christians, especially in Greece and Turkey, have already condemned the decision and Christian bodies the world over, including the World Council of Churches, have begun castigating this order which is seen as parochial and anti-Christian.
To put things in perspective, Quranic verses were recited at the Hagia Sofia in 2018 with the express encouragement of Erdogan, signalling commencement of the grand design unleashed by the Turkish government to assert Islamic influence over the monument. Rejecting international criticism of the contentious court order, Erdogan has emphasised that as a free country, Turkey has simply used its sovereign rights.
He remains unfazed and feels triumphant amongst Islamic rightists by taking credit for facilitating the court order and helping in the creation of a pro-Islamic order in Turkey, in complete contrast to the ideals and tenets of Attaturk, widely regarded as the father of modern Turkey. In a dramatic unfolding of events, in May this year, Erdogan presided over a meeting in Hagia Sofia to commemorate the 567th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul.
The recitation of Quranic verses two years ago, and the commemoration event two months ago were clearly designed to set the tone for the conversion of the 1,500-year old monument to a mosque which became a reality on 10 July, to the rejoicing of religious bigots. Meanwhile, grand preparations are afoot to celebrate the fourth anniversary of a failed coup against Erdogan this month. It is clear that the AK or Justice Party of Erdogan is utilising this historic site for furthering the Turkish President’s political ambitions.
Erdogan came to power in 2002 and since then there has been a steady erosion of Attaturk’s secular vision as part of a thoughtfully crafted blueprint to promote a muscular form of Islam. It’s well known that in order to checkmate Saudi Arabia and its brand of Wahhabism, Erdogan with his robust agenda of pursuing tenets of Muslim Brotherhood (MB), has tried to play the role of a policeman, championing the cause of Islam the world over.
He wanted his footprint everywhere, be it in the ISIS pockets in Syria, in strife-torn Libya in the post Qaddafi period and in challenging the US and openly siding with Qatar to marginalise Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s influence in the Middle-east. These instances of meddling apart, Erdogan has developed a vibrant axis with Pakistan in an apparent bid to corner India in raising Kashmir in the UN, toeing the Pakistan stance rather blindly.
Last year, Erdogan had roped in Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia too to extend his Islamic support base to alienate India. Mahathir had to step down and this weakened the axis. But Erdogan continues to cause pinpricks to India, expressing solidarity with the separatists in Kashmir and often offering military help to Pakistan in case there is a confrontation with India. His frequent visits to Pakistan, at least twice a year, are testament to his anti-India commitment.
Utilising the Hagia Sofia verdict, Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood are likely to get a boost in further radicalising the Islamic ultras, even in India where many already have allegiance to Erdogan. Indian security agencies would do well to see that funding from Turkey and Qatar is not stepped up for MB adherents particularly in view of the rechristening of the Istanbul monument into a mosque.
Turkey watchers believe that Erdogan’s move to convert the 1500- year old monument into a mosque was to essentially conceal the ills the country is afflicted with. His own position within Turkey is fragile and he faces the risk of military coup. Just because the 2016 coup against him failed does not mean that sentiments simmering against him have disappeared. They may not be overtly visible, but the undercurrents against him have the potential to explode as the country’s economy struggles, with debt and unemployment both on the rise.
All this points to a weakening leadership. Erdogan may be nurture pan- Islamic ambitions with a fan following outside Turkey. But in fact he may be reading too much into his own chances. Opponents like his toughest adversary, 79-year-old Mohammad Fethullah Gulen, now in refuge in the US, are waiting in the wings to strike at an opportune moment. A literary figure, Gulen has traces of Rumistyled Sufism in his profile and enjoys a good support base in Turkey. He was earlier suspected by Erdogan of being complicit in the 2016 coup. Gulen could very well spring a surprise. These are warning signals which the world can ill afford to ignore.
(The writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views expressed are personal)