Updated: May 6, 2021
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to “liberate al-Aqsa mosque” from Israel after “resurrecting Hagia Sophia” as a mosque on Friday.
The decision to change the status of the ancient Hagia Sophia church, which had been transformed into a mosque in 1453 and then into a museum in 1934, was made controversially last week.
It follows an increasingly religious authoritarian agenda from Ankara that has made Turkey the world’s largest jailer of journalists, seen dissidents imprisoned for “terrorism” and witnessed increasing military invasions of neighboring countries by Turkey.
The resurrection of Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of the al-Aqsa mosque, the Turkish Presidency website says. “The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the footsteps of the will of Muslims across the world to come… the resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the re-ignition of the fire of hope of Muslims and all oppressed, wrong, downtrodden and exploited.”
The speech, which was in Turkish, was translated slightly differently to Arabic and English, apparently as a way to hide part of Ankara’s full views on how it has linked Hagia Sophia to a wider agenda.
In Arabic the speech says that turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque is part of the “return of freedom to al-Aqsa,” essentially meaning Israel should be ejected from controlling Jerusalem’s Old City where al-Aqsa is located.
Hagia Sophia Converted to Mosque Again | Political Move By A Populist Leader
Turkey’s president linked the decision to reviving Islam from Bukhara in Uzbekistan to Andalusia in Spain. This terminology, linking al-Aqsa in Jerusalem to Hagia Sophia and Spain, is a kind of coded terminology for a wider religious agenda. In the Turkish translation the same reference to Spain does not appear to be included as in the Arabic.
Turkey’s current president has long championed the Palestinian cause and been an extreme critic of Israel, famously walking off the stage at Davos during a discussion with former president Shimon Peres in 2009. Turkey then sent the Gaza flotilla to try to breach Israel’s blockade of Gaza, leading to the deaths of 10 Turkish citizens when Israeli forces raided the Mavi Marmara ship.
In recent years Turkey’s religious and political authorities have been making increasingly adversarial statements about Israel, vowing to mobilize the “Islamic ummah” in June against Israel’s annexation plans.
Linking the major change at Hagia Sophia to Jerusalem illustrates that Ankara’s ambitions are far larger than just reasserting Islamic prayers at the historic mosque and church in Istanbul; it is part of a larger Islamic agenda for the region.
Turkey’s ruling AK Party is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey is a close ally of Hamas in Gaza. Hamas is also rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood. This strategy by Turkey seeks more influence across the region with like-minded groups and countries, such as Qatar and the Government of the National Accord in Libya.
Turkey is seeking to supplant Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, such as Egypt and Jordan, as the main determiner of what is “Islamic.”
This means Ankara’s leadership believes that its changes to Hagia Sophia are only one step of a larger religious militarist agenda in the Middle East. Turkey invaded part of eastern Syria in October 2019 after depopulating the Kurdish region of Afrin in Syria in January 2018.
Turkey then recruited Syrian refugees to fight in Libya’s civil war as part of an energy and military deal with Tripoli. In June, Turkey launched airstrikes in Iraq against Kurdish groups, claiming to be fighting “terrorism.”
One day, Turkey could even aim its sights at Jerusalem. The speech about Hagia Sophia clearly indicated this is on the agenda in the future.