Most Western media analyses of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision Friday to convert Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque have asserted that Erdogan has wanted to do this because the move is popular among Turks and will shore up his base. But there is a great deal more to it: The conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque is actually as clear an indication of Erdogan’s overall plans as Mein Kampf was of Hitler’s, and just as sinister, as well as just as likely to be disregarded until it is too late.
The Jerusalem Post reported Saturday that following the announcement that Hagia Sophia would again become a mosque, the Turkish Presidency website stated: “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 reignition of the fire of hope of Muslims and all oppressed, wrong, downtrodden and exploited.”
The Post added that Erdogan “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.”
No kidding. Erdogan is signaling his aspiration to restore the caliphate, the single unified Islamic government to which, in Sunni Islam, all Muslims owe allegiance. The last caliphate was abolished by the secular Turkish government in 1924; now that Erdogan has just about completed his work of destroying Turkish secularism, he is moving more directly than ever to reestablish the caliphate that the secularists themselves destroyed.
In light of that, the reconversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque has enormous importance. For nearly 1,000 years, from 537 to 1453, Hagia Sophia was the foremost cathedral in Christendom. When the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror finally defeated the Byzantine Empire and took Constantinople on May 29, 1453, he almost immediately had the Islamic call to prayer proclaimed from Hagia Sophia, so as to herald its conversion to a mosque.
The glory days of the caliphate and Hagia Sophia’s status as a mosque thus went together. Hagia Sophia stood as a symbol of the triumph of Islam over Christianity, and of the power of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan is positioning himself as a new Mehmet, destroying the monument to secularism that the Hagia Sophia museum has been since 1935, and emulating his illustrious predecessor by converting it to a mosque once again.
With these caliphate dreams come territorial ambitions, about which the Turkish would-be caliph has made no secret. In February 2018, Erdoğan declared: “Those who think that we have erased from our hearts the lands from which we withdrew in tears a hundred years ago are wrong. We say at every opportunity we have that Syria, Iraq and other places in the geography [map] in our hearts are no different from our own homeland. We are struggling so that a foreign flag will not be waved anywhere where adhan [Islamic call to prayer in mosques] is recited. The things we have done so far [pale in comparison to the] even greater attempts and attacks [we are planning for] the coming days, inshallah [Allah willing].”
And now these “greater attempts and attacks” are upon us with the conversion of the Hagia Sophia. More are certain to come, and Erdogan, convinced as he is that he is fulfilling the will of Allah in all this, is not going to be deterred. Russia and Greece, as well as the United States, France, and others, have stated their opposition to Hagia Sophia becoming a mosque. That Erdogan would move ahead with this anyway shows that he is not worried about antagonizing either friend (Russia and ostensibly the U.S.) or foe (Greece). He appears to be much more concerned to position himself as the defender and protector of Islam.
Hagia Sophia as a mosque was a key symbol of the triumph and supremacy of the caliphate, and of Islam itself. Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly wants it to be again, for the new caliphate of his own, the caliphate of the reborn Mehmet.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is author of 21 books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is Rating America’s Presidents: An America-First Look at Who Is Best, Who Is Overrated, and Who Was An Absolute Disaster. Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.