Hagia Sophia conversion a 'slap in the face' to west – columnist

Turkey’s decision to re-convert the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque is not just a setback for secularism in the country, but is also a blow to Turkey’s alignment with the West, Mark Almond said in the Daily Telegraph on Friday.

On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the opening of the Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship after the Council of State - Turkey’s highest administrative court - ruled that the building’s conversion to a museum by modern Turkey’s founding statesman  in 1934 had been illegal.

“The court ruling is not just the latest round in the intensifying ‘culture war’ between secularists and Islamists in Turkey. It also marks the emergence of an aggressive synthesis between Muslim fundamentalism and a neo-Ottoman Turkish nationalism there,” Almond said.

“President Erdoğan’s appeal to a specifically anti-Western Ottoman model for modern Turkey should set off alarm bells.”

The Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Byzantine cathedral in 537, was turned into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul on May 29, 1453, and then became a museum via cabinet decree under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s presidency.

Over the years, Erdoğan has repeatedly suggested turning the UNESCO World Heritage Site into a mosque again to fulfil a long-standing demand by Turkey’s Islamists.

The move is not only about rejecting Atatürk’s secularisation of the Hagia Sophia, but it is also part of a wider effort to use Ottoman myths to justify growing Turkish military assertion overseas, Almond said.

“Apologists for the change in Hagia Sophia’s status say it is only “symbolic”, but that is precisely the point. It is a dramatic encapsulation of the current Turkish government’s rejection of integration with the West,” Almond said. “It is not just a religious gesture. In fact, it is primarily a political slap in the face to Turkey’s NATO allies.”