In the case of Turkey, it seems as if a returning imperial fantasy and the rise of religious nationalism have gone hand in hand. The Ottoman Empire reached its peak with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Hagia Sophia, which had been a church for ten centuries (its construction was completed in 537, during the reign of Justinian), where the Byzantine emperors (and Empress Theodora) were crowned, was becoming a mosque. Atatürk's Turkey, seeking modernity and secularism, then took a step that no longer seems so natural today, during a time of religious nationalism and quests for identity, from Modi to Erdoğan.
Some will surely want to say that Turkish President's gesture is revealing of Islam’s profound conquering nature. The youngest of three monotheistic religions, in its quest for legitimacy, wants "more and always more", especially after centuries of geopolitical humiliation and geographic shrinkage. There is no rebirth without self-affirmation, as there is no affirmation without – litteral - re-appropriation. "The more people I shock, the more certain I am to be heading in the right direction", seems to think Erdoğan, as did Putin before him.
The Turkish President is also probably, if not primarily, motivated by domestic political calculations. His country is going through a particularly difficult economic and social period, aggravated by Covid-19. Doesn't Erdoğan intend to win back his Istanbul supporters, the city to which he owes his political success, but also the city that could, judging by the latest municipal elections, be the cause of his political downfall ?
One thing is for sure. The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is not a victory for Turkey. It is a defeat for universalism.
Copyright: Ozan KOSE / AFP