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Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, one of the ancient world’s most beautiful surviving examples of Eastern Orthodox Christian architecture, was on July 10 declared a Muslim mosque by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, secular Turkey’s populist, Islamist president.

hagia sophia secularism christianity islam turkey
Hagia Sophia: The iconic structure was first an ancient Orthodox Christian church, then a mosque, then a museum — and this week Turkey’s ostensibly secular Supreme Court ruled that it could be designated a mosque again. (Blackdiamond67, Adobe Stock)

Erdogan’s bald political move pandering to his conservative, Islamist base in Turkey, after the Turkish Supreme Court curiously endorsed the idea, illustrates the relentlessly grasping political power of religion in societies.

Erdogan’s political capital has been broadly eroding in recent years and, like U.S. President Donald Trump’s huge minority base of largely unschooled, conservative, aggrieved supporters, Erdogan’s devotees are mostly undereducated, conservative and religious.

Although modern Turkey is a Muslim-majority country, Kemal Atatürk, its charismatic, anti-faith founder and first president, secularized the country and then Hagia Sophia — a mosque at the time — designating it as a museum in 1935.

Originally an Orthodox church and later a cathedral, Haga Sophia (“St. Sophia” — the Orthodox martyr is historically associated with Christian faith, hope and charity) was repurposed as a mosque in 1453 after the conquest by Muslim Turkish armies under Mehmed II of Constantinople (Istanbul’s name in that day), according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Yet, despite Haga Sophia being used as a mosque for 482 years before its redesignation by Atatürk as a non-sectarian museum in the early 20th century, it previously had been an Orthodox church and cathedral for 16 centuries — and the supreme symbol of Orthodox Christianity for a millennia. If anyone has a historical claim to the structure, it’s Orthodox Christians, of whom many remain in Turkey.

But the compulsion by Islamists is as strong as ever to recapture and publicly re-emphasize Istanbul’s Muslim past, even in a society whose government, as in America, is secular.

To understand the persistent staying power of religious passion, consider that it is now just shy of a century since Atatürk transformed Turkey into a bastion of Enlightenment values “almost overnight,” Britannica notes:

“Almost overnight the whole system of Islamic law was discarded. From February to June 1926 the Swiss civil code, the Italian penal code, and the German commercial code were adopted wholesale. As a result, women’s emancipation was strengthened by the abolition of polygamy, marriage was made a civil contract, and divorce was recognized as a civil action. A reform of truly revolutionary proportions was the replacement of the Arabic script—in which the Ottoman Turkish language had been written for centuries—by the Latin alphabet. This took place officially in November 1928, setting Turkey on the path to achieving one of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East. … Education benefited from this reform, as the youth of Turkey, cut off from the past with its emphasis on religion, were encouraged to take advantage of new educational opportunities that gave access to the Western scientific and humanistic traditions.”

Modernization and redemption from the religious and intellectual ignorance of the past was Atatürk’s whole program. He saw religion — traditional Islam, in his nation’s case — as an immovably heavy anvil chained to the foot of progress (as religion remains everywhere in the modern world).

Well, modern Turks who love Islam more than true knowledge and the fruits of democracy are today still clamoring to return to the comforting faith fantasies of the past. And they are arguably having some success, considering they’ve achieved the re-sanctifying as a fully Islamic mosque one of the world’s great historical Christian churches.

The government says tourists will still be able to visit the site if its becomes an open-for-worship mosque, naysayers argue that its reclassification is “religiously divisive” and that the building’s appeal as a go-to attraction regardless of visitors’ faith could be undercut, potentially eroding tourism revenue.

Although President Trump touts his strong relationship with conservative stalwart Erdogan, his administration is apparently not in favor of Hagia Sophia’s reclassification.

“The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability — so rare in the modern world — to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement this month.”

If it were possible, I’m sure Atatürk would not just roll over in his grave but literally resurrect himself to action against the religious contamination the Hagia Sophia move inflicts on the fact-based, Enlightenment-lit nation he envisioned.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...