Last week, in defiance of Pope Francis and the entire Christian world, Sultan Erdoğan’s dream became reality. Images depicting the Archangel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary and Christ Pantocrator, along with numerous other famous mosaics and paintings at Istanbul’s famed Hagia Sophia, were covered by sliding curtains on Friday, because according to Islam, no images are allowed in mosques.
Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdoğan joined thousands—hundreds of thousands, according to the sultan—of Muslim faithful on Friday to take part in the inaugural prayers outside the Byzantine-era monument-turned mosque, their prayer carpets carefully spaced out in accordance with social distancing directives.
Make no mistake: What happened on Friday in Istanbul was no simple prayer ceremony. Far from it. It was a declaration of war.
The day after Erdoğan’s July 10 decree that the former cathedral would be reconverted to a mosque, he posted a video on Twitter in which he argued that its “resurrection” as an Islamic site was of value to the entire Muslim world, from “Bukhara to Andalusia.” In addition, he vowed to “liberate” Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque from its “invaders” (the Jews). For Erdoğan, it’s forever about the Muslim Ummah.
The Hagia Sophia move was part of a far-reaching, religiously motivated political operation originating from within the Sunni Islamic world, in parallel and in competition with the efforts of Shi’ite Iran, which for decades has been proclaiming not only doctrinal but also warlike dedication to the idea of a greater Muslim state. To both the Shi’ites and the Sunnis, the Ummah‘s foremost enemies are the Jews and the Christians, but for both Iran and Turkey, the Jews play a particularly significant role, being the flag around which both regimes seek to rally support.
Thus Sultan Erdoğan’s vow to conquer Jerusalem, which was once a part of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, according to the Islamic point of view, this is still the city’s true identity, historically, morally, religiously. Jews are to be cancelled, as is the Christian origin of the Hagia Sophia. The Muslim Ummah, according to Erdoğan’s plan, is to be fully restored, including any territory, buildings and peoples that have ever been a part of it. Whatever he pretends in the hopes of maintaining Turkey’s legitimacy in the eyes of the West and retaining its NATO membership, he perceives his main enemies to be the other two fundamental monotheistic religions—plus apostate Muslims, Saudis, Egyptians and whoever else has joined the West opposing his ambitions.
The Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) cathedral, built in 537 C.E. by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, first became a mosque in 1453 after Constantinople (Istanbul) fell to the Ottoman Empire. However, in 1934, Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had the idea of converting it into a museum, as part and parcel of his numerous reforms that aimed to transform Turkey into a historical bridge for the Muslim world to democracy and modernity.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Instead, Erdoğan arrived on the scene. Since his rise to power, the Turkish president has imprisoned two hundred thousand dissidents, persecuted the Kurds, financed and helped Islamic State, used the poor Syrians and other migrants as bargaining chips, silenced newspapers and dissidents with thousands of police raids and incited Jew-hatred at every opportunity. Meanwhile, his Turkey has fostered violence and corruption.
The conservative Muslim circles that have always demanded that the Hagia Sophia revert to being a mosque subscribe to the “Hellenic enemy” theory based on hatred for Greece, as does Erdoğan himself, among the manifold hatreds he endlessly constructs.
It is abundantly clear that there is a structural weakness in his leadership that ignites continuous fires throughout the world, bringing his country’s army from Libya to Syria to Iraq, contributing funds to Hamas, and going as far to seek new ties with Shi’ite Tehran. In addition, his country’s grave economic situation, which demonstrates his complete mismanagement, along with his loss of consensus even in his capital of Ankara and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, have led Turkey to suffer immensely.
Not satisfied with this, Erdoğan designs new alliances for the future; a troubling new relationship among Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and with Qatar as an additional partner has emerged in recent months. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, a leader of anti-Semitism in the Islamic world, has invited the most anti-Western leaders to a summit in Kuala Lumpur.
New alliances, animated by visits and common plans, in which Iran endlessly appears and China ogles, accompany Erdoğan’s regional dreams. He seeks a position of strength throughout the Mediterranean, challenges Greece, Cyprus, France and Israel on marine gas reserves, attacks Egypt and Saudi Arabia, all the while, like Iran, vowing Israel’s destruction.
Now, at the center of all this, there is a magnificent basilica-museum dear to the Christian world which has now been reverted into a mosque. And again, the Christian world, despite the direct challenge of Erdoğan’s outrageous invitation of the pope to the Islamic inauguration, doesn’t find the words to answer.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.