A controversial move - GulfToday

A controversial move

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Thousands of worshippers gather at Hagia Sophia on Friday for the first prayers held there in 86 years.

Once proclaimed a “moderate democrat,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become an immoderate autocrat bent on boosting his personal power both at home and abroad. On the domestic front, he led Muslim prayers at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, known in Turkish as Ayasofya, a week ago with readings from the Holy Qur’an before imams began the first service to be conducted there in the 86 years it had been a museum rather than a mosque.

The reopening was well orchestrated. In addition to the congregation of invitees within the UNESCO-listed world heritage site, 350,000 had gathered in the courtyard and nearby squares and streets. Many arrived from across the country on buses on the day before to witness the reconversion of the Byzantine cathedral, consecrated in AD 537, and turned into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by Turkish Sultan Mehmet II. Modern Turkey’s aggressively secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk turned the mosque into a museum in 1934 with the aim of forcing his countrymen and women to break with their country’s Ottoman past and strive for Western-style modernisation.    

Erdogan celebrated the occasion by saying, “This is Hagia Sophia breaking away from its chains of captivity. It was the greatest dream of our youth. It was the yearning of our people and it has been accomplished.” He meant, of course, by himself. Having repeatedly rejected taking such action after taking office in 2003, Erdogan ignored Turkish and international protests to boost his standing with conservatives and nationalists by abruptly taking this step at a time his popularity had waned. Turkey’s economy is in decline, mismanagement and corruption are rife, tens of thousands have been arrested and jailed, and Covid-19 contagion is on the rise.

Greece, the US, Russia, the Vatican, and UNESCO appealed to Erdogan not to go ahead with the conversion which deepens his and Turkey’s isolation on the international scene which has been caused by equally aggressive policies on the foreign front. Erdogan simply does not care. As leader of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), modelled on the Muslim Brotherhood which is outlawed in the Arab world, he fully intends to implement an expansionist agenda in lands once ruled by the Ottoman Empire.   

The transformation of Hagia Sophia coincided with an announcement by Turkey that it would deploy a drill ship to conduct a survey for natural gas and oil between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete. Ankara claimed its ship would operate within Turkey’s continental shelf although Greece has delineated the area as within its exclusive off-shore economic zone. Athens condemned the Turkish threat and the European Union EU) declared Turkey’s intention “not helpful and sends the wrong message.”

In recent years, Turkish exploration vessels accompanied by armed naval escorts have conducted surveys and drilling off the coast of Cyprus where large natural gas reserved have been discovered. Although Cyprus has concluded agreements with US and European multinational oil companies on the exploitation of these deposits, Turkish threats have postponed work.  

In November 2019, Ankara reached a deal with the beleaguered government in Tripoli to create an exclusive economic zone from Turkey’s southern coast to Libya’s north-east coast. This zone effectively bisects the Eastern Mediterranean.

In exchange, Turkey has provided the Brotherhood-leaning government in the west with arms and deployed more than 4,000 radical fundamentalist fighters in the battle against the forces of rebel General Khalifa Haftar who seeks to reunite Libya under the rival Tobruk parliament in the east. He is supported by the UAE, Egypt, France and Russia which has  dispatched Mig-29 war planes and few hundred Russian and Syrian mercenaries to reinforce Haftar’s army. While Russia and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire last week, Ankara has said Haftar has to withdraw from the oil hub of Sirte and al-Jufra airbase to the south. This is unlikely and could lead to fighting involving the Russian air force which is based at al-Jufra and the intervention of Egyptian troops.

Ankara and Moscow are also on opposite sides in the Syrian conflict. Turkey supports al-Qaeda-linked radicals in Idlib and the north while Moscow backs the government which seeks to restore Damascus rule over the whole country.

Turkey has intervened in Gulf affairs by sending troops to Qatar following the blockade imposed on the country by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt. Erdogan reinforced this connection by paying his first post-Covid foreign  visit to Doha early this month where he held talks with the Emir, Shaikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who also backs the Brotherhood.

Finally, Turkey has used the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Organisation to strengthen the Brotherhood in Yemeni coastal areas where the movement has a strong presence. Responding to widespread criticism of his policies, Erdogan took a defiant tone, “We do not have designs on anyone’s right, law, territory, sea and natural resources. But we do not allow anyone to step on our own right, law and interests.” He said Turkey had disappointed those who expected Ankara to “bow down.”

Why has Erdogan adopted such alienating policies? He has reverted to type. He comes from a lower-middle class family, did odd jobs as a kid, trained in a religious vocational school where he was known as devout, and joined the fundamentalist Welfare Party. Although banned, it became the model for Erdogan’s AKP.

His sudden decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque was not only domestically opportunistic, but also intended as a slap in the face to Europe which has refused to admit Turkey to its exclusive European Union club. He has been stung by the Arab world’s refusal to accept his and Turkey’s leadership. He fails to understand that the Arabs not feel kinship with Turkey due, in part, to Ottoman rule which the Arabs believe led to deterioration of their culture.

The Arabs also resent Turkey’s longstanding off-and-on alliance with Israel and the Turkish attempt to gain friends by insincerely espousing the Palestinian cause. The Arabs are reluctant to contract Turkish construction firms close to Erdogan. Turkish export goods are often subsidised and priced low, undermining local production. The Arabs reject Turkish interference in Egyptian domestic politics by backing the Brotherhood and hosting fugitive members as well as Turkish support of radicals in Syria, occupation of Syrian territory, and the intervention in Libya.


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