Samuel Huntington, in his book ‘‘Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order,’ predicted the prospective potential of Turkey as a core Islamist state and a rising player in world politics if it redesigns its outlook towards westernization and realigns its political and socio-religious affiliations with the Islamic civilization.
“What if Turkey redefined itself? At some point, Turkey could be ready to give up it’s frustrating and humiliating role as a beggar pleading for membership in the West and to resume its much more impressive and historical role as the principal Islamic interlocutor and antagonist of the West” and in order to do this Huntington predicted that Turkey “will have to reject Ataturk’s legacy even more thoroughly than Russia rejected Lenin’s.” He also emphasized the requirement of a leader of Ataturk’s calibre to turn Turkey into the core state of the Islamic civilization.
Today, 24 years later Turkey stands at an important juncture wherein all the above-mentioned requirements have been realised and Turkey is on its way to ‘Re-Islamise’ itself amidst rising concerns from the West.
Erdogan’s move to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque is not an isolated move of religious commitment, rather a pre-meditated and well-thought-out move to add to the larger revisionist theme of religious revival and Neo-Ottomanism in Turkey’s growing populist political culture.
Turkey, like many other countries today stands at a critical governance shift from liberal democracies wherein right-wing governments are aggressively combining religious fundamentalism with governance policies. Ethno-cultural cleavages within and outside of nations are becoming more pronounced than ever. Narendra Modi’s recent visit to inaugurate the Hindu Temple built on Ayodhya’s disputed territory after a green light given by the Supreme Court is another feather in the cap of religious right-wing government’s attempt to whisk up ethno-nationalist sentiments amongst the majority in their countries.
Interpreting Erdogan’s move requires an understanding of Turkey’s socio-political outlook under Ataturk Kemal Pasha and its subsequent rejection from the Western club. The Kemalist outlook left Turkey in an identity crisis, wherein it was neither an accepted and equal partner in the western civilization nor a core Islamic state. Simultaneous rejection from the EU as well as the OIC reinstates the lack of civilizational belonging within Turkish historical thinking and rooting.
More than two decades later, Turkey is rethinking its choices and socio-religious and political outlook.
Constructivists have propounded the importance of identity and ideologies in state politics. States are not shrewd ‘black boxes’ who act for profits and power maximization only, identity production and self-identification are very important incentives for states. Therefore, the identity of the Ottoman successor is an important variable that motivates and defines a lot of Erdogan’s actions abroad as well as in the domestic sphere.
The move to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque is an additional attempt to Re-Islamise the identity of Turkey and to forge revisionist links with its grand historical identity as the successor of the Ottoman Empire.
Secondly, and more simply it is a time-tested populist cliché. Leaders across the globe are resorting to distracting their public from their ham-handed handling of the pandemic. The best distraction offered in the time and age of ethnonational populism is that of religious or cultural polarization of the majority.
Right-wing ultra-nationalist governments have continued to associate their official support and state propagation of particular religions. This defies the primary tenet of religious freedom, equality, and secularism of a democracy.
Either way, Turkey has joined the movement of populist, right-wing ultra-nationalist authoritarian regimes which defy secularism and civil liberties as a bane of western corruption and propound religious fundamentalism to redefine and forge a greater role in world politics.
Erdogan’s decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque and Narendra Modi’s decision to attend the inauguration of the Hindu Temple on the disputed soil of Ayodhya clearly shows a growing anti-secularist trend in many states, one that explicitly spells out “All religions are equal but some are more equal than the others.”
Interpreting the Symbolism in the First Prayers Offered at Hagia Sophia
When examined from a lens of state-sponsored propaganda, the prayer offering in Hagia Sophia on Friday symbolically reiterated the above-mentioned goals of revisionism, cultural battle, and populism.
Using media and pompous symbols has been an authoritarian trait since the times Hitler and Mussolini pioneered these tactics in the dictatorial handbook.
Similarly, the prayer ceremony held in Turkey on Friday saw the explicit use of symbols and religious sentiments to create a religious “Us vs. Them” divide in Turkish society.
Firstly, the prayer meeting sought to cover all Christian symbols and mosaics with white drapes of Islamic symbols and texts. This move is highly symbolic of the global trend of redefining one’s identity on racial, religious, civilizational, or cultural lines. Samuel Huntington truly seems to be emerging as the Cassandra of the 21st Century. He might have not predicted the awful pandemic but he has predicted the future fault lines of conflict, which were to be based on civilizational lines.
Secondly, the Minister for Religious Affairs, Ali Erbas addressed the crowd of Turkish Muslims with an Ottoman sword in his hand and read out quotes regarding religious conquest from the Qur’an. This is a worrisome development for the world at large, not only does this move symbolize the end of Church-State separation and secularism in Turkey but it also foreshadows Turkey’s move towards religious expansionism, extremism, and fanaticism. Erban’s address with the Ottoman sword is indisputably and unequivocally symbolic of Turkish reconsolidation of its erstwhile Ottoman identity and the sword demonstrates the inherent aggressiveness implicit in achieving that identity.
These actions clearly spell trouble for Turkey’s neighboring countries, the EU, and Greece who fear Turkish expansionism might translate as an aggressive loss on territorial conflicts like that of Cyprus and the Mediterranean Sea.
Therefore, this move if religious revisionism by Turkey is in no way isolated from the larger geopolitical identities, foreign policies, and tensions that are brewing in the regional cauldron.
-Tamanna Dahiya is a third-year student at O.P. Jindal Global University pursuing B.A. (Hons.) in Global Affairs and a Research Assistant at CNES.