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Turkey: Islamism’s corrupted symbolism

Modern Islamists in Turkey have created a new version of Islam for themselves that differs from the religion’s origins.

Turkey’s top Muslim cleric, professor Ali Erbaş, holds a sword on his way to deliver a Friday sermon the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul on July 24, 2020. Credit: MEMRI.
Turkey’s top Muslim cleric, professor Ali Erbaş, holds a sword on his way to deliver a Friday sermon the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul on July 24, 2020. Credit: MEMRI.
Burak Bekdil
Burak Bekdil
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based columnist. He regularly writes for the Gatestone Institute and Defense News, and is a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is also a founder of, and associate editor at, the Ankara-based think tank Sigma.

Turkey’s Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, took yet another step toward undoing the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, when he changed the status of an ancient Orthodox cathedral from museum to mosque.

The monumental Hagia Sophia church, built in 537 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, had served as a museum since 1934. In July, the Turkish Supreme Court declared Atatürk’s decree null and void and converted the museum into a mosque.

A display of the Islamist “conquest fetish” quickly followed. Ahead of the first Friday prayers on July 24, Erdoğan, himself a trained imam, recited verses from the Quran. In well-choreographed prayers, Turkey’s top Muslim cleric, professor Ali Erbaş, climbed the stairs to deliver the Friday sermon while dangling a sword from his left hand—a tradition practiced by Ottoman sultans in the wake of conquest. That image looked ridiculous to millions of secular Turks: had we conquered Istanbul all over again?

The sword was a deliberate deployment of Islamist symbolism. It amplified Erbaş’s words when he said the revival of Hagia Sophia to its status as a mosque augured the “liberation” of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. In Erbaş’s (and other Islamists’) way of thinking, “liberation” means “conquest.” It was clear to all listeners that Erbaş was calling for Jerusalem to be conquered by Muslims and taken from the Jewish state.

None of that has roots in the Quran. Most Islamists similarly believe Istanbul is one of Islam’s “most sacred cities,” but none of these cities is mentioned by name in the Quran.

The Quran’s message about houses of prayer is simple: the whole world is a mosque for believers, meaning Muslims can pray everywhere, including non-Muslim houses of prayer. The prophet Muhammad never converted a single Christian or Jewish house of prayer into a mosque. On the contrary: There are examples of respect for other religions in Islam’s early years.

In a sermon in 2012, former top cleric (and predecessor of Erbaş) professor Mehmet Görmez made a reference to Hazrat Omar, or Omar bin Khattab (579-644), one of the most powerful and influential caliphs in Muslim history. He said: “After Hazrat Omar conquered al-Quds [Jerusalem], he was invited to pray at a church [as there were no mosques yet in Jerusalem]. But he politely refused because he was worried that the [conquering] Muslims could turn the church into a mosque after he prayed there.”

Modern Islamists have created an Islam of their own that differs from the original. While the Quran commands that “there is no compulsion in religion and it is up to people to choose one path [faith, or no faith] or another,” modern Islamists think all non-Muslims are infidels, apostasy is an unforgivable sin and all infidel lands should be “conquered.”

Secular nationalists are no better equipped intellectually. It is unacceptable in Turkey to refer to Istanbul as “Konstantinoupolis,” its original Greek name. Few Turks know, however, that the “Turkish” name of the city is in fact a cognate of the Greek eis tin polin, meaning “to the city.”

In July, former Turkish admiral Cihat Yaycı proposed that the name of the Aegean Sea (Ege Denizi in Turkish) be changed because the Turkish word “Ege” comes from the Greek “Aegeo.” He suggested that the Aegean should be called the “Sea of Islands” or “Northern Mediterranean Sea.”

The admiral apparently does not know that 42.9 percent of female names in Turkey are Arabic versus only 22.7 percent that are Turkish, and 49.7 percent of male names are Arabic with only 35.8 percent of them Turkish. Even the president’s name, Tayyip, is Arabic—“Tayeb.”

Place names in Turkey are no more Turkish. Atatürk was born in Thessaloniki (in today’s Greece), which is Selanik in Turkish. The name of the founder of Turkey was Arabic (Mustafa Kemal). Turkey’s capital, Ankara, comes from the Greek “Ancyra.” President Erdoğan is from Potamia (“rivers” in Greek) in “Rize,” (the Greek “Rhizos”). His predecessor, Abdullah Gül, is from Kayseri (the Greek “Caesarea”). Before Gül, the three Turkish presidents came from, chronologically, Afyon (the Greek “Akroenos”), Isparta (the Greek “Sparta”), and Malatya (the Arabic “Maldiye”).

Turkey owes its independence largely to its military success at “Gelibolu” (the Greek “Gallipoli”). Turkey’s third-biggest city is Izmir (the “Greek “Smyrni”). Other big cities include Antalya (the Greek “Attalios”), Bursa (the Greek “Prousa”), Trabzon (the Greek “Trapezounda”) and Amasya (the Greek “Amaseia”).

If the admiral’s proposal to Turkify geographical names were to be accepted, it would need to be applied to hundreds of locations in the country. If the Turkification extends to human names, more than half the Turkish population (including this author and the president) will be rendered nameless.

Symbolism is a colossal part of Turkish ideology. It often reflects the overall level of education of the country (on average, Turks are educated up to school year 6.5). But ideological symbolism is not limited to those who lack an education. The admiral who wants to give a Turkish name to the Aegean Sea is not a seventh grade dropout.

Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based columnist. He regularly writes for the Gatestone Institute and Defense News and is a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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