Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is enjoying strong support from many American Islamists for his decision to revert the ancient Christian cathedral of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, following a court ruling earlier this month that the decision in 1935 to turn it into a museum had been illegal.
Erdoğan foreshadowed the move in May when, to condemnation from Greece, he arranged the recitation of the Koran’s “Conquest Surah” at the Hagia Sophia on the 567th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Just a month later, however, the AKP denied there any intention to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
To much applause in the Islamist world, the Turkish president then attended Friday prayers at the Hagia Sophia to celebrate the conversion.
Strong sentiments have been expressed in American Islamist circles. Anwar Omeish, daughter of prominent Islamist activist and Erdoğan supporter Esam Omeish, tweeted that “there’s really no good explanation for the global drama about [turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque] and the language being used except for Islamophobia.”
Her father, Esam, has close ties with Erdoğan and is a public supporter of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. He is former president of the Muslim American Society (MAS), which, in a 2008 court filing, federal prosecutors described as the “overt arm” of the Muslim Brotherhood in America.
Last fall, Esam Omeish met with Erdoğan, together with members of the Islamist U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations. He called Erdoğan’s Turkey a continuation of the Ottoman caliphate and complained about the territory Turkey lost following the 1923 Lausanne treaty that established its current borders in 2018.
Anwar Omeish added:
“like??? have you seen turkey’s mosques??? They’re beautiful & well-maintained & open to everyone & meanwhile the world is acting like turning the hagia sophia back into a mosque is some profound defilement. do you care about HS or do you just hate muslims taking up space?” wrote Omeish.
She claimed the opposition was “regressive” because “Christianity” and “Western heritage” is what’s being erased, claiming that no similar grief was given to the Spanish reversion of the Mosque of Cordoba into being a church.
“[T]o close I’ll just say that my feelings about turkey generally & Erdoğan specifically are, as always, very complicated. but it’s moments like these that show how disingenuous the collective western hatred for them can be (even if there also may be good reasons for it)” she wrote.
Her statements resemble those of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), founded by radical Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi. Esam Omeish’s MAS is, in fact, closely aligned with the IUMS.
IUMS president Ahmed Raissouni claimed in an article titled “Is it a grief for Hagia Sophia, or is it an expression of Islamophobia ?!” that the Turkish government’s decision served to “transform a damaged mosque into a functioning mosque.” He further denounced “Christian” opposition to Erdoğan’s decision.
As with Omeish, Raissouni complained about the status of mosques in Spain that were transformed into churches after the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula.
Former CAIR board member Sarwat Husain likewise denounced opponents:
“There is no threat to the historical heritage of the Mosque, neither to it’s Christian nor Muslim history. In light of ALL the historical details shared here, such outrage is wholly ridiculous not to mention completely manufactured by clandestine Islamophobic elements in society by whom ‘woke’ Muslims are way too easily swayed and herded like bleating sheep,” Husain wrote on Facebook.
Not all have expressed support. Unexpectedly, the president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Sayyid Syeed, condemned the Turkish move in a column published on the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Described as an “Official Statement of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA),” Syeed’s column, interestingly, can be found nowhere on ISNA’s website or social-media pages. ISNA, one of the largest Islamic groups in the United States, subsequently issued a statement saying it took no official position on the conversion.
“In our times, under the leadership of President Erdoğan, a populist sentimental wave has been rising to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque,” wrote Syeed. “This is seen as an ascendency of Islam. It is unfortunate that such an act is not giving glory to Islam which strongly forbids Muslims from such a sacrilegious act.”
“The conversion of Hagia Sophia will reopen the wounds of the Greek Orthodox Christians, Russian Orthodox Christians, and Christian communities across sectarian bounds around the world.”
This stance has caused many to send Syeed hate mail and public criticism, he said.
Notorious Salafi preacher Daniel Haqiqatjou—a frequent critic of other American Islamist groups—denounced ISNA and Syeed.
He wrote on Facebook: “Do your part and boycott ISNA. If you’re in North America, refuse to go to their conferences, especially their annual one, and call out any figures who decide to participate. And if you don’t think a boycott of ISNA is called for, then ask yourself: Is Dr. Sayyid’s position the thinking of this whole organization, its members, and its affiliates?
“If not, then what steps will these affiliates do on the statement of Dr. Sayyid? If they don’t take any action, then the Muslim community will reasonably believe that the whole organization has the same stance and deserves full boycott.”
Syeed told the Middle East Forum that he chose to take the stand against the Turkish regime’s transformation of Hagia Sophia into a mosque because of his experience working with Christians through ISNA’s “Shoulder to Shoulder” initiative. He compared Erdogan’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque with Florida Pastor Terry Jones’s threat to burn the Koran, which he said unnecessarily promoted hatred between Christians and Muslims.
He called on majority Muslim countries including Turkey, Malaysia and other nations to promote peace and harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Exiled Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt, who served as an editor at the Turkey’s shuttered newspaper Today’s Zaman, told Middle East Forum that the conversion of Hagia Sophia is an Islamist-backed distraction from Turkey’s worsening economic picture and corruption.
“Conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a rallying point for Erdoğan and his allies including the Muslim Brotherhood to distract the attention from their corrupt and criminal activities, and a new kit they add to their tool box to recruit more followers and enlist sympathizers in Muslim communities,” said Bozkurt. “This also has to do with Erdoğan’s long-harbored caliphate ambitions, his dream of reclaiming the lost glory in former Ottoman territories and his desire to polish his credentials in order to position himself as the leader of entire Muslim Ummah.”
Zuhdi Jasser, founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AFID), agrees this move aims to solidify Erdoğan’s position as the “caliph” of the Islamist world. He notes that Turkey repeatedly told the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) during his four years as a member of that body that Hagia Sophia would remain a museum.
“They are finding the most divisive structures in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic world to rally his Islamist base,” Jasser told the Middle East Forum. “This is a significant election ploy for Erdoğan, and there’s nothing more poignant than making Hagia Sophia a mosque.”
John Rossomando is a writer for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.