In Turkey, Erdogan likes his extreme right by turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque

If the decision to resume Hagia Sophia to Muslim prayers pleased the Islamist electorate of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it made it especially possible for him to gain points among the ultranationalists, which he increasingly needed to ensure his sustainability the political scene.

Behind the transformation of the famous ex-Saint-Sophia basilica into a mosque, made possible by Turkish justice on Friday 10 July, hides a long political battle. The goal of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: to keep the country’s right wing.

“The transformation of Saint Sophia into a mosque is an old litany of political Islam, but very much in the minority,” said Ahmet Insel, professor emeritus at Galatasaray University. interviewed by RFI. On the other hand, the Turkish ultra-nationalists have been questioning the status of Hagia Sophia as their workhorse for a very long time.

Converted to a mosque after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, the building returns to its function as a mosque for this section of history. It represents one of the most visible symbols of the Ottoman Empire. This gesture can therefore be seen as “a concession to some of the current electoral suspension of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is less on the side of Islamist circles than on the side on the far right”, explains France Inter Jean-François Pérouse, specialist in Turkey and former head of the French Institute for Anatolian Studies.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision provoked condemnation and remorse in Greece, France, Russia, the United States but also in UNESCO, which had classified Hagia Sophia as a World Heritage Site.

Erdogan “plays his last cartridges”

By killing two birds with one stone, Recep Tayyip Erdogan pays homage to Turkey’s glorious past and reaffirms its sovereignty by repeating to the West that it does what it hears. The pro-Erdogan press has also used this incident to the head of stateand saw in him the Savior of Hagia Sophia, or even Turkey as a whole. A communication operation that hides the weaknesses of the strong man from Ankara, whose image is beginning to crumble on the domestic political scene.

“Without the ultranationalist party [le Parti d’action nationaliste, NDLR] Recep Tayyip Erdogan would not have his majority in the House, “explains Alexandre Del Valle, a professor of geopolitics in France. To seduce the nationalists, who previously disliked Islamists, the Turkish president has used this type of provocation, this is what I call the Islamist national synthesis. It works very well, which is what got him his life span. “

The Turkish head of state is in a sensitive political situation with recent surveys reveals “wear and tear on his Islamist electoral base”. “The economic crisis is here and it has accelerated with the pandemic [de Covid-19], to this is added an unemployment rate exceeding 20 to 22% “, continues Ahmet Insel.” I think it uses its last cartridges today. Will it have a positive impact on broadening its electoral base? I don’t think so, but it helps to consolidate their electoral base and prevent further erosion, “the Turkish researcher added.

Neo-Ottomanism, a long-standing political plan

Since Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s arrival in power in 2003, activities related to Islam have multiplied inside Hagia Sophia, with special sessions of reading the Koran or collective prayers in the square in front of the monument.

“Recep Tayyip Erdogan often talked about Hagia Sophia with Ahmet Davutoglu, his ex-adviser [dès 2003] became his former prime minister. They launched the slogan of neo-Ottomanism. The neo-Ottoman doctrine includes the return of Hagia Sophia to Islam because it had become a mosque of an Ottoman Empire, “explains Alexandre Del Valle.

The Hagia Sophia, reopened for prayers from July 24, remains open to visitors and tourists of all faiths, the Turkish president said. UNESCO was classified as a World Heritage Site and has been one of the largest tourist attractions in Istanbul to date with approximately 3.8 million visitors in 2019.

Hagia Sophia, “wonder of wonders”. © France24 / Graphic studio