(July 16, 2020 / MEMRI) Following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reversal last week of a 1934 law converting the Hagia Sophia Mosque into a museum, his personal Twitter account and that of his office emphasized different aspects of the half-hour speech in which he announced the move.
The Presidency’s tweets, in both Turkish and English, conveyed a message of 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 the Muslim nation—from Bukhara, Uzbekistan in the east to the Andalusia region of Spain in the west—and for the “liberation” of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. News channels in Turkey have already begun to echo Erdoğan’s rhetoric about al-Aqsa.
The Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 C.E. as a church under the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It was converted into a mosque in 1453 after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul under the leadership of Sultan Mehmed II, and was converted into a museum in 1935 under the secularist government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey.
In practice, the building has been serving some religious functions for decades: the Islamic call to prayer has reportedly been given from the building since as early as 1980, and noon and afternoon prayers have been held in the Hünkar Kasri section of the building since 1991. In October 2016, Turkey’s Ministry of Religious Affairs appointed an imam for the mosque in the Hünkar Kasri section, which from then on was open for Friday services and all five daily prayers.
In his July 10 speech, Erdoğan said that the building’s main space would be used for worship, beginning with Friday prayers on July 24. It has been reported that the mosaics and frescoes on the walls of the Hagia Sophia will be covered with curtains or by technological means while Islamic prayers are performed in the space, and uncovered for viewing at other times. Turkey’s Religious Affairs Ministry announced that two imams and four muezzins would be appointed to the Hagia Sophia. It is estimated that under normal conditions, 3,000-4,000 people at a time will be able to pray there.
In recent years, Erdoğan has paired an aggressive foreign policy, including military action in Syria, Libya and Iraq, and the construction of bases in Qatar and Somalia, with rhetoric that extols past Ottoman and Islamic greatness and connects present Turkish policy to that past. Erdoğan’s July 10 speech on the Hagia Sophia was in line with this approach.
An English translation published on the official website of the Office of the Presidency reads: “The resurrection of Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the footsteps of the will of Muslims across the world to come out of the interregnum.”
The word “interregnum,” defined as “a period when normal government is suspended, especially between successive reigns or regimes,” is used in place of Turkish phrase fetret devri, which usually refers specifically to the period of Ottoman civil war in 1402-1413, between the rule of Sultan Beyazid I and that of Sultan Mehmed I. The phrase has also been used by influential Turkish religious scholar Said Nursi and some religious groups in Turkey to refer to the period following the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924. Indeed, commentator Fatin Dağistanli said following the decree on the Hagia Sophia that “after this, the caliphate should come.”
Others have used the phrase more broadly as a metaphor for infighting among Muslim groups.
In his speech, Erdoğan also connected the conversion of the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque to four battles in which Ottoman and Turkish forces were victorious: “The resurrection of the Hagia Sophia represents our memory full of heydays in our history from Badr to Manzikert, from Nicopolis to Gallipoli.”
Following are tweets from the Office of the Presidency and from Erdoğan’s personal accounts in Turkish, English and Arabic quoting different sections of the speech for different audiences.
Erdoğan tweet in Arabic: “The revival of Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of al-Aqsa.”
Erdoğan’s personal Arabic-language Twitter account posted a graphic quoting sections of the speech that read: “The revival of Hagia Sophia [as a mosque] heralds the liberation of the al-Aqsa Mosque. The revival of Hagia Sophia is a new beginning for Muslims worldwide and heralds the end of the periods of darkness. The revival of Hagia Sophia brings new hope not only to Muslims but to all the oppressed, persecuted, downtrodden and exploited people. The revival of Hagia Sophia is a greeting issued from the bottom of our hearts to all the cities that represent our heritage, from Bukhara to Andalusia.
“The revival of Hagia Sophia—the trust of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror—[arriving] 70 years after the renewal of the call for prayer, is a new revival [too long] delayed. It is the best response to the loathsome attacks on our values and symbols in every Islamic region. With every step it has taken in the recent period, Turkey has stressed that it is an active rather than passive [player] at this place and time. With the help of Allah the Almighty, we will continue traveling on this blessed path, without stopping, without weariness or fatigue, with determination, sacrifice and persistence, until we reach our hoped-for destination.”
Erdoğan’s Arabic-language Twitter account stated on July 15: “Hagia Sophia is not the issue. The issue is who has control, by virtue of his sovereignty, over this place of worship and the city in which it is located. We have no intention of relinquishing our 1,000-year presence in this geographic region, nor our 600-year rule of Istanbul.”
Presidency tweet in English: “Hagia Sophia’s doors will be open to all”; “Hagia Sophia is a matter of Turkey’s sovereign rights.”
A graphic tweeted on the English-language account of the Office of the Presidency presented different quotes from the speech. It highlighted that “Hagia Sophia’s doors will be, as is the case with all our mosques, wide open to all, whether they be foreign or local, Muslim or non-Muslim,” and added that “with its new status, Hagia Sophia, the shared heritage of humanity, will continue to embrace all in a much more sincere and original way.”
This last sentence was also quoted on the Presidency’s Turkish-language account. The English graphic also stressed heavily that making decisions about the status of the monument was the sole prerogative of Turkey as a sovereign country.
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