Secular Turkey at a crossroads
23 Jul 2020|

By reconverting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and holding celebratory prayers there for the cameras, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems keen to divert attention from the fact that his country is entering a new phase of acute political and financial turmoil.

The Hagia Sophia dates to the sixth century, and for almost a millennium was one of the Christian world’s most magnificent and well-known churches, carrying forward the traditions of both the Roman and the Byzantine empires. It was first converted into a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, but was then fashioned into a museum by modern Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

Ataturk sought to create a secular Turkey that could flourish in the modern world. That required bridging historical divisions, which meant that the Hagia Sophia would be neither a church nor a mosque. As a museum, it would attract visitors from around the world, serving as both an embodiment of Turkish history and a symbol of forward-looking cosmopolitanism.

By overturning Ataturk’s founding vision in this respect, Erdogan is trying to signal a fundamental change in direction for the country. After all, it’s not as though Istanbul suffers from a scarcity of massive, magnificent, historically significant mosques. Those designed by the Ottoman master architect Sinan reside just nearby.

For more than a decade, Turkey was on track to adopt democratic reforms and align itself with the rest of Europe, even overhauling its constitution and beginning formal accession negotiations with the European Union in 2005. The country’s transformation at the time was both impressive and deeply inspiring to those of us watching from the outside.

But those hopeful days are gone. Instead of modernising and moving closer to the rest of Europe, Turkey under Erdogan has been sinking into the mire of the Middle East. This fundamental change has many causes and cannot be placed at the feet of one man. The country’s official dialogue on the Kurdish question has collapsed, and in the summer of 2016, segments of the military, part of the secretive Gulen movement, attempted to stage a coup.

The Gulenists were once a key ally to Erdogan and their attempted power grab tilted the country in a decidedly more authoritarian direction. Erdogan quickly started centralising government functions and consolidating his own power with a widespread purge of the state and society, followed by a constitutional amendment establishing a presidential political system. Complicating matters further, the civil war that has been raging in Syria since 2011 increasingly spilled over the border, dragging Turkey into the conflict in numerous destructive ways.

But, for all its faults and recent disappointments, Turkey is still a country where elections matter, and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has gradually suffered a loss of popular support. In last year’s municipal elections, the party lost control of all the country’s major cities. And respected political leaders whom Erdogan once could count as allies—including former president Abdullah Gul, former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan, and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu—have all abandoned him and set up new political parties to challenge the AKP.

With his support eroding, it’s unlikely that Erdogan could survive another election, even with the aid of the AKP’s current coalition partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party. Shoring up the religiously conservative nationalist base with gambits like Hagia Sophia’s reconversion is unlikely to help much. Nor are further incursions into Syria or adventures in Libya, all of which have a limited shelf life for bolstering popular support. Urban and younger voters have left, or are leaving, the AKP in droves.

The upshot is that a political break has become inevitable. That could mean a smooth transition to a less centralised governance arrangement and a return to the path of modernisation and alignment with Europe, which is what Turkey’s friends should be rooting for. But, now that Erdogan knows his regime’s days are numbered, Turkey could also be heading for a more dramatic and disturbing scenario. One cannot rule out the possibility that Erdogan simply refuses to accept an unfavourable verdict by the electorate.

In addition to growing political tensions, Turkey has a brewing economic crisis, owing to rising fiscal and external deficits, which are being sustained with massive amounts of credit from state-owned banks. The debt burden was already a big problem before the Covid-19 pandemic, and is sure to become worse now. A recent US$15 billion loan from Turkey’s sometime-ally Qatar will help for a while. But the current situation cannot—and therefore will not—last.

In addition to these immediate sources of instability, the EU accession process remains in a deep freeze, and Turkey’s relations with the United States have become increasingly strained as the two countries stumble from one diplomatic crisis to the next. Nonetheless, it’s clear that Turkish society is ready for a change, and a major, dramatic shift would not be unprecedented in the country’s modern history.

Turkey is still a society with immense human potential. And no one can ignore its geopolitical importance, given its position straddling Europe, Asia and the Middle East. For now, it’s obvious that the country is heading for a political and financial bust-up. Against the backdrop of recent years, that is essentially good news. Sooner or later, something will set Turkey’s politics on a better course.