"Islamising stones is easier than Islamising souls"

The photos of the first Friday prayers in Hagia Sofia in 86 years triggered passionate and diverse responses around the world. Surrounded by a coterie of ministers, Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, led worshippers in prayer at the recently rededicated mosque. Eren Güvercin spoke to the renowned French political scientist Olivier Roy and asked him about the significance of the controversial reconversion

By Eren Güvercin

Mr Roy, what motivated President Erdoğan to rededicate Hagia Sophia to Islamic worship? Was it really religion?

Olivier Roy: He was not really motivated by religion, but more by ideology. Why is he doing this now and not 20 years ago when he came to power? For him, it is a symbol of his policy of moving "back to the Ottoman paradigm", which has dominated his foreign policy since the departure of Ahmet Davutoğlu.

Nevertheless, this Ottoman reference does not translate into domestic policy, which is largely based on a conservative version of nationalism. He is thus "staging" the return to Ottomanism on the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, which established the new international status of the Turkish Republic.

What is he trying to compensate for with this decision?

Olivier Roy (photo: AFP/getty Images)
According to Olivier Roy, there has been no great popular enthusiasm for the transformation of Hagia Sophia into a mosque: “only a few thousand believers attended the prayers, while Greater Istanbul counts 16 million inhabitants, and I am unaware of popular demonstrations of support across the rest of the country, not to mention the Muslim world," says Roy.

Roy: His growing unpopularity. It is also a concession to the nationalist right, on whose agenda the transformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque has always been. He lost the last municipal elections in Ankara and Istanbul, and his party has turned into a clan- and family-run organisation since the departure of independent minds such as Ahmet Davutoğlu, Abdullah Gül and Ali Babacan.

Paradoxically, the AKP never actually controlled the religious field, such as mosques and Imam Hatip schools. The religious arm of the AKP was for years the Gülen movement, which betrayed Erdoğan – a fact that made him more paranoid. He did not succeed in "Islamising" society in depth, except in some rather marginal points such as the freedom to wear a veil, increasing duties on alcohol, rewriting some school text books, etc. His only religious tool is the Diyanet (Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs), which is a state bureaucracy that lacks any capacity to mobilise young people or to stir up a religious spiritual revival.

Hagia Sophia has been an important symbol for political Islam in Turkey for decades. Like former prime minister Erbakan before him, Erdoğan repeatedly claimed that the "liberation" of Hagia Sophia is an important move for political Islam in Turkey and also in the whole Islamic world if former strength is to be restored …

Roy: Once again, it is a symbol, not a policy: Islamising stones is easier than Islamising souls. Apparently there has been little popular enthusiasm for the transformation of Hagia Sophia into a mosque: only a few thousand believers attended the prayers, while Greater Istanbul counts 16 million inhabitants, and I am unaware of popular demonstrations of support across the rest of the country, not to mention the Muslim world.

The narrative of political Islam has run out of steam. I would compare it with the narrative of the "Christian identity" in Europe and specifically in Poland, where the electoral patterns are very close to that of Erdoğan's Turkey: religious populists have lost the big cities, the intelligentsia and the youth. It is a mix of nostalgia and coercion, not a programme of mobilisation for the youth and the future.

Moreover, Erdoğan's Turkey is not a beacon for political Islam in the Middle East. Arab public opinion does not buy the "Ottoman" narrative; the demonstrators in the streets of Algiers, Khartoum or Baghdad are calling for democracy, not for the implementation of Sharia. The Turkish TV "novellas" have more influence in the Middle East than Erdoğan's speeches. To my knowledge, there have been no demonstrations of support in the Arab world for the rededication of Hagia Sophia.

So the spectacle surrounding the reconversion of Hagia Sophia is not actually a sign of strength?

Roy: It is a sign of weakness. His party has lost many members, has no intellectuals; the figure of the "Islamist intellectuals", who were influential in the 1980s and 1990s, has disappeared; the economic miracle of the 2000s is dead; and there is no sign of a popular religious revival in Turkey. The non-state religious networks like the Gülen movement have been crushed; others, like the various Naqshbandi orders, are keeping a low profile. In short, Erdoğan's activism is not supported by popular mobilisation, even if he still has a stable electoral basis.

This kind of religious escalation will accentuate the isolation of Turkey in the Middle East. It will antagonise the EU, the Russians and the Americans, without bringing it new allies at a time when Turkish military activism in Syria, Libya and Kurdistan is bringing the country more and more into troubled waters.[embed:render:embedded:node:40873]

If you look at young people in Turkey, especially in the conservative and more religious parts of Turkish society, you can see two groups: one subscribes heavily to the ideology peddled by AKP propaganda, but more and more religious young people are disillusioned by the autocratic system and Erdoğan's nepotism ...

Roy: We have to look at the trends, and clearly, the popular Islamic "moment" has passed. The AKP's first electoral victory allowed religious people to enter the public space as "believers", but the bureaucratisation of Islam by the state has alienated most practising Muslims. They don't necessarily oppose the AKP and might vote for it, but they have reverted to a more private and non-political form of religion.

Once again, Erdoğan has lost the support of the tarikats. Even if they are not turning to political opposition, they are just keeping out of politics, which is rather new in Turkey. I think observers have underestimated the impact of the Gülen coup and the subsequent repression of non-state religious expression. We probably tend to concentrate too much on the tensions between Erdoğan and the intelligentsia on the issue of freedom of expression, but ignore what is going on among conservative religious "ordinary" people.

Eren Güvercin

© Qantara.de 2020

Olivier Roy is a French political scientist and expert in Islamic studies. He has worked as a political consultant, diplomat and UN envoy, leading among other things the OSCE mission in Tajikistan. He is currently chair of the Robert Schumann Centre of Advanced Studies at the European University Institute near Fiesole in Italy.