The decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to convert the Hagia Sophia Cathedral turned museum in Istanbul back into a mosque reinforces his long-held plans for promoting Islamic supremacy and lifts his sagging popularity at home.

Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, told JNS that “Erdoğan comes from an Islamist tradition for which Hagia Sophia’s conversion has been a key goal for decades. For Erdoğan and his mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, converting Hagia Sophia was not only a symbol of reversing secular republican reforms and asserting their sectarian agenda, but also a pan-Islamist move that helps propagate their supremacist ideology across the globe.”

Erdemir pointed out that since the rise of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002, Erdoğan “has shown strategic patience by remaining silent about and delaying the conversion of Hagia Sophia until he consolidated enough power to push it through the judiciary and the executive branch.”

Burak Bekdil, a Turkish journalist who writes for the Gatestone Institute and is a fellow at the Middle East Forum, told JNS that Erdoğan “made the move now because he wants to stop and reverse the erosion of his popularity.”

“Credible polls, one after another, demonstrate that he is on a sharp decline. As a political survivor, he knows that what appeals to the average Turkish voter is some neo-Ottoman nostalgia with a sauce that makes Turks feel great again; it will boost his ratings,” he said.

Built in the sixth century C.E. by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the Hagia Sophia served as the world’s largest Christian church, an architectural marvel and the seat of Orthodox Christianity for nearly 1,000 years until Constantinople (now Istanbul) fell to the conquering Ottoman Turks in 1453. They converted the church into a mosque until 1935, when Turkey’s secular president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had the building renovated, including uncovering some long-hidden Christian mosaics, and converted into a museum open to all.

Since then, the Hagia Sophia has served as one of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The move by Erdoğan has been widely criticized by the international community and many Christian leaders, including those in the United States, European Union, Russia and the World Council of Churches. In particular, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople have spoken against it.

‘A reflection of his diminishing legitimacy’

MEMRI reported that the Turkish office of the president and Erdoğan’s personal account tweeted English messages of openness. In both Turkish and English, the postings conveyed tolerance and pluralism, stressing that the Hagia Sophia will continue to be open to the members of all faiths.

Conversely, a tweet in Arabic on Erdoğan’s personal Arabic-language page presented Turkey as an active player working tirelessly for its pan-Islamic role and that of Muslim nations—from Bukhara, Uzbekistan in the east to the Andalusia region of Spain in the west—and for the “liberation” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. News channels in Turkey have already begun to echo Erdoğan’s rhetoric about Al-Aqsa.

In a Gatestone article published last week, Bekdil wrote that after the move, a flurry of anti-Semitic statements was posted on social media with statements such as “You Jewish dogs, it will come to Al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem] too.”

Erdemir said the timing coincides with the Turkish president’s desperation with the ongoing economic crisis in the country, which has eroded his voter support to unprecedented levels since 2002, as evidenced by his loss of Istanbul and Ankara in the 2019 municipal elections.

“Erdoğan’s move to convert Hagia Sophia is simultaneously a reflection of his growing power, and diminishing legitimacy and popular support,” added the former member of the Turkish parliament.

Moreover, Turkey’s lira fell to its lowest level since a record low in May as inflation spiked by 12.6 percent in June, according to a CNBC report earlier this month.

This combined with Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy supporting Islamists and allies throughout the region in countries such as Syria, Libya and regarding the Islamic Movement in Jerusalem could cause problems for Erdoğan in Turkey. Turkey has allied itself with Qatar in support of Muslim Brotherhood movements and Islamists.

Furthermore, Turkey’s geopolitical position is precarious as it has drifted away from Washington and warmed to Russia and China instead.

The United States removed Turkey from its F-35 fighter-jet program in 2019, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers is now pushing the Pentagon to stop buying parts from Ankara for the new jet.

The question is whether Turkey’s increasingly Islamist domestic and foreign policies, coupled with continued negative repercussions from the Hagia Sophia fallout, will cause voters to turn him out of power in the next elections, which are scheduled for 2023.

As Erdoğan’s fiery comments about Turkey’s secular opposition and liberating Al-Aqsa show, Erdemir said that “he will continue to escalate tensions at home and abroad since he desperately needs to divert the electorate’s attention away from the political and economic problems caused by his ill-advised policies and corruption.”

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