• Arwa Hanin Elrayess

What Lies Beyond The Hagia Sophia: Simplifying Turkey's War Between Secularism & Islamism




Turkey is among the very few nations of the World that can truly take pride in being the centerpiece of ancient society.


Through acting as the historical capital of both Roman and Ottoman Empires, modern-day Turkey not only cradles the ethnic diversity these kingdoms left behind, but it also houses some of the greatest religious landmarks of both Islam and Christianity, with the Hagia Sophia being the best representation of both.


Originally built by the Romans and used as an orthodox church, the Hagia Sophia was converted to a Mosque throughout Ottoman rule, before finally becoming a religiously neutral museum during Turkey’s secular era.


Since then, the monument has been considered a symbol of Turkey’s religious and cultural evolution.


However, many fear that this legacy is now under threat.


Following a court ruling, the President of Turkey announced that the Hagia Sophia will, once again, be converted to a Mosque, sparking mixed reactions from all corners of the World.


Whilst some consider this transformation a triumph for Turkey’s abandoned Islamic history, others view it as a step towards cultural cleansing and a set-back to decades of Turkish development.


And although on the outside, this issue doesn’t seem to be worthy of all the commotion it has stirred, especially under today’s pandemic-related events; in reality, it is a reminder of a much larger conflict- one that has divided the Turkish population for decades: the war between secularism and Islamism.


Why Is The Hagia Sophia So Important?


Now, before we jump into this controversial topic, there are a few facts we must know about the Turkish population and the Hagia Sophia’s history.


Even though the Romans ruled over the Turkish region for almost a millennia, the majority of modern-day Turks do not view themselves as their descendants; instead, they consider the Ottomans to be their ancestral origin.


Therefore, any changes the Ottomans introduced to the population, including the conversion of the Hagia Sophia, are considered cultural milestones for the Turkish identity.


After the Ottoman Empire captured Istanbul from the grasp of the Romans, the Ottoman Sultan bought the Hagia Sophia from Christian authorities, converted it to a Mosque, and decreed that it would forever be used as a place of Islamic worship.


For over 400 years, this monument symbolized the end of Roman authority, and the beginning of the Ottoman legacy and Islamic Ummah, until the first president of Turkey turned it into a museum, illegally defying the will of the sultan in the process.


So, you may be wondering: if this conversion was, indeed, illegal, then how, and why, did it take place?


This is where the rise of Turkish secularism comes into play.


When, and Why, Did Turkish Secularism Begin?


Following the end of WWI, the Ottoman Empire was in a vulnerable and defenseless state. They had lost nearly all of their European territory, and were being further divided by the victorious powers.


Nonetheless, whilst Ottoman officials finalized these partitioning plans, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a field Marshal in the Ottoman Army, had other plans.


He was convinced that the fall of the Ottoman Empire was not going to extinguish the Turkish flame. So, he rallied an army, fought off the colonizing powers in the ‘War of Independence’, and subsequently established the Republic of Turkey in 1923, becoming the country’s first president.


Yet, this is not where Ataturk’s legacy ends.


After raising Turkey from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk set out on a new goal- one that, he hoped, would steer Turkey away from the tragic fate the Ottoman’s endured.


Ataturk believed that the religious leadership the Ottomans relied on was what led to their downfall. As a result, he abandoned any religious guidelines the Ottomans left behind.


Out went the Islamic Caliphate, Sharia Law, and Islamic Judges, and in came European legal codes, guidelines, and traditions.


Ataturk claimed that he was modernizing Turkey; yet, as the years passed, it became increasingly clear that this ‘modernization’ actually meant Westernization.


Instead of treasuring Ottoman heritage and expanding on it, Ataturk’s government strived for a nation that met the Western World’s criteria of ‘modern.’


So, they adopted European laws, such as women’s suffrage and free and mandatory education.


However, he also banned the fez in favor of European-styled hats; discouraged the hijab; changed the Turkish alphabet from Arabic to Latin; remodeled the Arabic call to prayer so that it would sound in Turkish; advertised secularism over Islamism and Turkish nationalism over any other ethnicity in the region.


Ataturk was a firm believer that religion should remain in one’s subconscious, not in public or in the government.


So, he closed religious schools; ensured that Islamic politicians were unable to exert any real influence; and converted the Hagia Sophia from a Mosque to a museum, in hopes that this ‘refined’ Turkey would be more attractive to Western alliances.


So...Why Is The Hagia Sophia Being Transformed To A Mosque?

Ataturk’s experiment had successfully shifted Turkish society into one more compatible with the West. Yet, in the process, he had alienated a vast number of religious Turks and ethnic minorities, who found themselves detached from the traditions that constructed their identities


So, after a few decades of secular Turkish leadership, the public became more determined on finding a leader who would exercise passive secularism.


Passive secularism refers to the acceptance and general accommodation of religious traditions in public, meaning that citizens would no longer be free from religion, but that they would have the freedom of religion.


As a result, the AKP party, which was known for its appreciation of this passive ideology, won a sweeping victory in the 2002 elections.


The party was quick to pass a series of reforms that increased accessibility to healthcare, housing, and food distribution; but most importantly, improved the rights for religious and ethnic minorities.

Despite these promising reforms, however, the party soon began to receive harsh public criticism.


Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the party’s leader and modern-day president, has been blamed and condemned for tilting Turkish society back to its Islamic roots and deserting the secular legacy Ataturk left behind; allegations he strongly denies.


Instead, he claims to be correcting historical mistakes and re-establishing the Ottoman roots many Turks hold dear to their hearts.


Nonetheless, with the Hagia Sophia’s conversion marking the fourth church to be transformed to a Mosque during Erdogan’s rule, and with the government’s escalating restrictions on non-Islamic tradition such as drinking, many Turks have now begun to prepare for the possibility of another authoritarian government on the horizon.