Erdoğan’s Hagia Sophia move an international triumph, but real battle at home – analyst

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan knew there would be no genuine price to pay internationally over his decision to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, but the move could spell trouble at home, where the opposition is ready to remind him of his limits, wrote Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College.

Turkey’s strongman has seemingly scored a personal ideological triumph that "won him global Islamist plaudits and muted international backlash”, but it could also galvanise the country’s anti-Erdoğan opposition, Fishman wrote in Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

On Friday, Erdoğan signed a decree allowing the 6th-century UNESCO World Heritage site to function as a mosque again. The decree came after a Turkish high court revoked the site's decades-long status as a museum.

Built almost 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, later turned the structure into a museum in 1934.

Friday’s move has been met with international condemnation, with critics accusing Erdoğan of using the iconic structure as a political tool to meet the long-standing demand of Islamists.

"Erdogan’s Hagia Sophia decree is a power move, both symbolically and geopolitically,” Fishman said.

"It is, in many senses, the apex of his 18 consecutive years in power, enabled by his newly recharged international standing, and aimed to reinvigorate his standing domestically.’’

In a speech following the decree, the Turkish president linked Ankara's decision to convert the structure into a mosque with a pledge to "liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque" in Jerusalem as part of a pan-Islamic awakening.

According to Fishman, Erdoğan’s choice of wording was carefully calculated.

"Among Islamist groups, the restoration of Hagia Sophia to a Muslim house of prayer is nothing less than proof that Islam is winning its ancient battle with the West, and that includes against the ‘new’ Crusaders,” he wrote.

The reactions to the conversion from Europe have been somewhat muted by the power Turkey holds over Europe, according to Fishman, who pointed to Ankara’s hold over the continent on the refugee issue, as well as the reliance of EU economies on the country.

Turkey’s opposition, too, has chosen to remain silent, the analyst said, not because they agree with the move, but because they know this is not a battle they can win.

The Hagia Sophia decision may have boosted the brand of Erdoğan as the confident leader of Muslims, Fishman wrote, but at home more "mundane" questions of survival, such as the economy, that will determine the future of Turkey and its political parties.