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Erdogan's Hagia Sophia Distraction Masks His Mounting Problems

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

In a desperate attempt to remain in power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dealt the Turkish republic's democratic structure a symbolic, historical insult so divisive it has the potential for serious, systemic political damage.

In so doing, the man derisively nicknamed Sultan Recep once again exposed his intense jealousy for Kemal Ataturk, the soldier-statesman and political genius who founded the modern Turkish state.

Understand Erdogan's government faces multiple and mounting problems. Here's a sampling: the COVID-19/Wuhan virus pandemic, wars in Syria and Libya, a domestic debt crisis and fraying domestic political alliances. Recent polls show Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) is in severe trouble with the electorate. For the record, Erdogan is also threatening to censor social media outlets that have mocked his family.

Given his country's myriad genuine problems, does Sultan Recep try to address them? No. He creates a political and media distraction loaded with international religious and historical symbolism.

On July 10, 2020 AD, Erdogan decided to wage a religion-baiting political war on modern Turkey's political structure and Ataturk's historical legacy by issuing a decree making Istanbul's Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque.

Reconverting is more accurate. Completed in 537 AD, Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom) was Byzantine Greece's greatest Christian cathedral until 1453 AD, when Sultan Mehmet II seized Constantinople. Mehmet the Conqueror immediately made it a mosque.

On July 24, 2020 AD, Erdogan worshiped at Hagia Sophia. According to Turkish media, his action "sealed the deal."

Beyond Hagia Sophia serving as a mosque, what's the deal? The deal for Erdogan is political survival by securing support from AKP Islamists. Their support does not secure his political fortune.

Here's the highly problematic deep deal: the survival of Turkish democracy.

In 1924, Hagia Sophia abolished the Islamic caliphate and separated political and religious authority in Turkey: rule by parliamentary law and a national identity shared by free citizens as united Turks, not religion or ethnicity.

That decision affects contemporary affairs, with 9/11 as an example. Twenty-first-century militant Islamists claim to wage a global war to revive the caliphate. In al-Qaida's view, dividing secular and religious authority is an attack on God's divine plan.

Ataturk's subsequent 1934 decision to make Hagia Sophia a secular museum served as a dramatic demonstration Turkey intended to create a secular parliamentary democracy in a culturally Islamic society. Based on post cards alone, media-savvy Ataturk knew the structure symbolized Istanbul. Secularizing the building sent a global message that republican Turkey wasn't rooted in the Ottoman Empire.

Many Greeks saw the act as a reconciling gesture by an enemy. To be fair, other leaders sought reconciliation. In 1934, Eleftherios Venizelos, prime minister of Greece during World War I, nominated Ataturk for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ataturk rejected Ottoman imperialism and colonialism. As time passed, the Republic of Turkey's Arab and European neighbors might have seen Turkey's breaks with the sultan's oppressive legacy as a sign that new relationships, based on common interests and respect, were possible.

The Ottomans had Arab colonies, populated by Arab Muslims, Arab Christians and, in notable places, Arab Jews.

Oh. Ataturk also emancipated Turkish women.

Erdogan took power in 2003. Turkey is now waging war in Syria and Libya. The Sultan Recep nickname may not be a joke.

In December 2011, I gave a speech at a United Nations forum as a guest of Turkey's U.N. mission. My speech discussed Ataturk's political reforms as a model for Arab Spring revolutions. The current Turkish UN ambassador and -- if I recall correctly -- at least four former ambassadors were seated together in the crowd of maybe 250 people.

I said, "The democratic structure, the social and political process Ataturk authored, are Turkey's most valuable foreign policy tool and greatest domestic asset."

I glanced down at the ambassadorial front row. Eye contact. I swear, all of the Turk diplomats nodded.

Erdogan is on the verge of destroying the foreign policy lever and the domestic gift. Citizens of Turkey, take note.

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