Hagia Sophia: Security aspects and repercussions – by Maria Chr. Alvanou 

While the international discussion about the reasons Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque is mostly about his political domestic strategy (e.g. rallying his followers, making up for a collapsing economy etc), there are also significant security issues to be taken into account. In a world where national and religious extremism have been seriously endangering peace, moves that polarize and cause tension can create more fertile ground for conflict and unfortunately even violence. The following are some points from a security/counter-extremism aspect:

  1. Islamists and far-rightists/nationalists are two sides of the same coin. One in reality is feeding the rhetoric and fanaticism of the other. They are associates in a vicious circle of hate, which they both diligently perpetuate. In Greece – and other countries with a large percentage of Christian population and a strong relevant cultural tradition – Erdoğan gave to nationalists and far-rightists a great present and strengthened their propaganda against Islam and Muslims. They will take advantage of the whole issue to support their confrontational agenda and pose as self-proclaimed protectors of the nation and the faith. They can take even the role of avengers ensuring there will be punishment. It is only alarming to read in social media calls for “retaliation” that include e.g. the closing down of mosques or returning Muslim refugees back to their countries. It is highly improbable (fortunately) that the Greek state (or other Western countries) will follow such a path. International laws, treaties, the protective status of refugees and the right to religious liberty and free religious worship are not conditional. Human rights are not depended on reciprocity. For countries to follow such a suggested policy in order to “punish” Turkey would be detrimental for their own rule of law and could create grievances to Muslim minorities resulting to grievances and radicalization. However, this doesn’t mean such hostile rhetoric is harmless. It could actually lead to vandalisms and physical attacks by “ultra-patriots” and “ultra-Christians” who will decide to take matters in their own hands. It would not be a surprise, if inside the next manifesto of a far-rightist behind a bloodbath like the one in New Zealand, we read about the change of Hagia Sophia to a mosque as a sign that Christianity, the Western and secular world are under threat and there is need for action. Furthermore, Turkish embassies, consulates, enterprises and bank institutions of Turkish financial interests could be targeted in order to take revenge. Especially in Greece, attacks of violence against members of the Muslim minority in Thrace and even generally against Muslim immigrants and refugees could be a potential danger. This whole situation creates a security risk to be taken seriously in to account from now on and thus, it is not a coincidence that the Greek Police is already monitoring the situation[1].
  2. The decision to turn the museum of Hagia Sophia (inscribed on UNESCO’s world heritage list[2]) into a mosque is aligned with the extreme beliefs of Islamists, who consider it a legitimate goal to try and reclaim any “lost Muslim territory”. Whatever land used to be under the “Caliphate” must be “liberated”. In the same logic (“once a mosque, always a mosque”) the Turkish state has regarded that- since the emblematic Christian Cathedral was turned into a mosque once before and functioned as such during the Ottoman Empire- it is legitimate to change today the status of Hagia Sophia. Especially since as a museum, it represents a meeting place of tolerance, the reign of beauty and art above and beyond any cultural or religious clash. For Islamists such a symbolism is redundant, even unwanted. Turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque, like Mehmet II did, is an act and sign of conquest. There is nothing tolerant and respectful to secularity, other religions or cultures in such a gesture. On the contrary, it supports radicalization and polarization, all deeply desired by Islamists. This is why it came as no surprise that Hamas stated “Opening of Hagia Sophia to prayer is a proud moment for all Muslims”[3]. The legitimization of such a “Muslim conquest” mentality by a country like Turkey bears negative significance and it is not helping at all international attempts to deconstruct fundamentalist and jihad type propaganda online and offline.
  3. Turkey is of course a sovereign country, with the right to decide about its internal affairs, however respecting international law and religious freedom. The decision itself about Hagia Sophia is not infringing directly the rights of its Christians citizens, yet it can be considered as part of a bigger picture. It raises several concerns about the conditions Christians face in Turkey. The marginalization of Christian Turks has been repeatedly brought to surface[4] with accusations of priests getting arrested as alleged members of terrorist groups, the properties of Syriac-Aramaic Christiansendangered and churches destroyed during armed confrontation.[5] Apart from Turkey’s obligations under the Treaty of Lausanne regarding the rights of its non-Muslim citizens, creating an environment that encourages the treatment of religious minorities as second-class citizens is never a good recipe for domestic peace.
  4. It should not be overlooked that a large percentage of Turks wants the country to remain secular, to be part of the Western civilization and way of thinking. They see a severe blow by Erdoğan against the secular character of Turkey. How they will react, not for the sake of Hagia Sophia per se, but against this islamization trend remains to be seen. The state Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created has been under threat for a long time now, with religion not just returning to the public sphere, but aiming to dominate it. It is unknown how secular forces inside Turkey shall react in order to protect whatever has been left from Atatürk’s political legacy. The political history of Turkey is a turbulent one, with terrorism, dictatorships and attempted coups. Extreme gestures that accentuate political differences and make parts of the population fear about the course of the country are hardly the way to prevent or counter political radicalization and extremist expressions of it.
  5. Turkey is setting a dangerous precedent. Although Hamas rejoiced for the Turkish President’s decision, its leaders have not understood how catastrophic it would be if tomorrow e.g. Israel decided to change in any way the status quo of the Dome of the Rock (another member of the UNESCO World Heritage Site list)[6]. A “do it like Erdoğan” move would surely satisfy part of Israelis (the extreme religious) who see no reason why they cannot access freely the area, or even why a Muslim monument should be on their perceived as holiest ground. Of course a decision like that would create a “super Intifada”[7] and a mess in the Middle East and beyond, insulting millions of Muslims. It would make more difficult (if not impossible) any solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and make Muslims all over the world feel offended and under religious attack. In a nutshell it would be a stupid, unreasonable decision, one able to create chaos. There are enough churches and synagogues in Jerusalem; the Dome of the Rock status can be left as it is. And there are enough mosques in Istanbul; Hagia Sophia can be left as it is. Governments can not and should not play with the religious sentiment of people, neither provoking it, nor over-feeding it to win political supporters. Cultural and religious identities not only can be collective and concern millions of people (in and outside the country where certain symbols are situated), but they can also cause dispute and pave the road to violence.

There are some monuments whose value goes beyond the religious purpose they were built for. This is why they are important not only to the religious followers of a particular faith. They are part of the journey of man in this earth and the creation of civilization. Hagia Sophia is such a monument and it has the symbolic power to play a unifying role between people of all cultures. A role much needed during our times. For decades scholars dealing with Islamist extremism and terrorism try to explain that a clash of civilizations is not an inevitable reality and Islam does not equate to violence. These voices recognize that in order to have security we must ease and prevent conflict. It has not been an easy task and the struggle still continues for future societies of peace, tolerance and inclusion of all people regardless religion or culture. Decisions like the recent Turkish one for Hagia Sophia is surely not helping towards the above direction. On the contrary it creates unnecessary tension, translated to more risks for security.

[1] https://www.thetoc.gr/koinwnia/article/sunagermos-stin-elas-gia-pithanes-epitheseis-ethnikiston-se-tourkikous-stoxous/ 

[2] Read also UNESCO’s statement https://en.unesco.org/news/unesco-statement-hagia-sophia-istanbul

[3] https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/hamas-movement-supports-hagia-sophia-decision/1906747

[4] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/01/hagia-sophia-erdogan-erase-turkeys-christian-past/ 

[5] https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-christians-a-welcome-scapegoat-in-turkey/a-53918937

[6] The Crusaders had used it as a Church, and it is on the Temple Mount in the Old city of Jerusalem, actually on the site of the Second Jewish Temple.

[7] It should not be forgotten that the visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount fuelled the Second Intifada and generally the issue of access to the Al- Aqsa compound has been the reason of tension and violence between Israelis and Palestinians, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/furor-temple-mount