The Turkish court's decision to restore Hagia Sophia to its pre-Republic status as a mosque has caused both celebration and condemnation. Many Muslims in Turkey see this as the return of their birth right; as Constantinople was taken by conquest, the conversion of Hagia Sophia was the seal of its irrevocable belonging to the Turkish nation. On the other hand, Christians see this as an affront to Hagia Sophia's original status as a Christian place of worship, and the "continued Muslim occupation" a source of humiliation for Christian civilisation. Then, we have the secular liberals who are angry that religion and history are even being brought up at all!

From most sides, the conversation and analysis on Hagia Sophia has been incredibly myopic. It has largely ignored the incredibly complex history of Turkey, and the traumatic changes that the Turkish people underwent after the abolition of the Ottoman empire and Ataturk's reforms. This is the standard attitude to Turkey and its people who are treated in extraordinarily black-and-white terms. There can be no complexity to the Turk, only an ineffable rage and stupidity.

The matter of Hagia Sophia is not about Machiavellian scheming by President Erdogan to shore up some votes, or even related to contemporary geopolitical and energy disputes in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. It is the traumatic events at the onset of the Turkish Republic and reforms taken by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, that form the backdrop of the issue at hand; long-running legal battles over the status of various Awqaf, including Hagia Sophia, and what this battle to restore Hagia Sophia as a mosque symbolises for the socio-culturally and politically torn people of Turkey.


Ataturk's reforms: a nation severed from its roots

The story starts with the birth of the Turkish Republic. To create this new nation, Ataturk had to change a lot of things in Turkey. Firstly, the Ottoman millet system was abolished. Under this system, each millet organised their own courts according to their religious law; the Muslims under shari'a, the Catholics under canon law, the Jews under halakha, and so on. Each millet was represented as a community, which meant that their faith was guaranteed as such.

The new system was essentially a wholesale adoption of the French laïcité constitution (a particularly militant version of secularism that does not even include the right to exercise of religion, in contrast to Anglo-American liberalism and its genuinely liberal attitude), and the civil code was to be based on the Swiss civil law. The recognition of communities was replaced with the recognition and guarantee of individual faith, but, henceforth, all citizens would be subject to the same legal codes.

In this sense, Ataturk's internal colonisation of Turkey was far more successful than external attempts at colonisation, such as by the French in Morocco and Algeria, whose constitutions still have a place for shari'a. Indeed, the French attempt at implementing laïcité in places like Morocco was not received well by either the Muslims or Jews, as argued in ‘Across Legal Lines: Jews and Muslims in Modern Morocco’, an analysis of court cases in colonial Morocco.

The second measure Ataturk implemented, and one directly relevant to the issue of Hagia Sophia today, was that he proceeded to seize all Waqf property in the new Republic. The Waqf (pl: Awqaf) is an inalienable charitable endowment under Islamic law, and this legal instrument underwrote the majority of schools, hospitals, mosques and even public baths in the former empire. Non-Muslim denizens had also established their own religious places of worship, hospitals, schools and other institutions under the Waqf model, and so the impact of this instrument on the social fabric of the empire cannot be understated.

Ataturk's war on the Awqaf did not stop with the Muslim population, as he also seized the endowments of the churches of the Armenians and Greeks, among other millets. In one fell swoop, the entirety of Ottoman civil society lost its means of sustenance and the nascent Turkish state inherited everything. This was one of the most egregious seizures of charitable and private property in modern history, and would serve as a template for crony socialist nationalisation of land and property in places like Nasser’s Egypt and Sukarno’s Indonesia, among other post-colonial states throughout the 20th century.

Religious schools were closed, aiding Ataturk in his plan to eliminate Ottoman Turkish and replace it with a Latinised modern Turkish language. Very soon, a generation of Young Turks could no longer understand their elders, and their entire historical heritage became alien to them. All sufi orders and tekkes were disbanded and forbidden from forming again. They had played a key role across religion, education and even providing essential social services like soup kitchens for the poor.

All mosques were put under a centralised institution called Diyanet for the purpose of secular control. However, this gave the new institution a level of control over religion that no Ottoman institution could ever match, defeating the purpose Ataturk had tasked it with to control and suppress religious sentiment, and Diyanet would play a role in ensuring the preservation of Islamic teaching through the darker years of anti-Islamic sentiment in the Turkish state.

And so we come to Hagia Sophia. After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Hagia Sophia was endowed by a Waqf belonging to Sultan Mehmet II himself. For centuries after, she served as one of the chief mosques of Kostantiniyye, the seal of the seat of Sultans. Although Constantinople is now Istanbul, an urban sprawl of some 15-20 million people, the old city and its walls still remain and is called Fatih, or conqueror, after Sultan Mehmet II. This should give you some measure of understanding of the unabashed pride of the Turkish people, and, likewise, the deep feeling of humiliation over Hagia Sophia's current status. In 1931, the mosque was closed to worshippers, only to be reopened in 1935 when Ataturk rolled up the carpets and kicked out the muezzin, declaring that, henceforth, in line with the reigning secular world order, she would be a museum servicing neither Christianity or Islam, and, more importantly, God.

This was meant to be the end of the story. Turkish Islam was to go off into that good night, and no rage was to be offered in resistance. The 20th century would be one where “science and reason” would reign as the new Gods, and the conversion into a museum of the former Cathedral and seat of eastern Christianity-turned mosque and seat of the Muslim Ottoman empire signalled the final victory of the secular liberal world order.

But things didn’t quite work out that way. The fate of Turkey's Awqaf was not fait accompli, because the Turkish people had not actually had Islam forced out of them. For decades, it survived in underground learning circles, abroad, and even in the very midst of the secular Kemalist regime. They endured being locked out of universities and government, being assaulted in the street for wearing a headscarf or growing a beard, and being mocked as reactionaries and cavemen for believing in “the backward religion of an Arab bedouin”, but they bade their time. Coup after coup could not stop leaders like Adnan Menderes, Necmettin Erbakan and eventually Recep Tayyip Erdogan, expressing the Muslim ethos of the people. Like many other people today, Turks are coming into their own by re-embracing their heritage, traditions and faith.

The decision to restore Hagia Sophia as a mosque was not a quixotic or Machiavellian move by President Erdogan to secure some votes or lessen public anger over the dire economic situation of the country. Hagia Sophia, and many other historical Waqf properties, have been contested in long-running legal battles between advocate organisations and the Turkish state over whether Ataturk's seizure of Turkey's Awqaf was legal or whether these need to be returned to their historical owners. It may be useful to provide some context over the two general schools of opinion on the status of Hagia Sophia in Islamic law.

Supporters of President Erdogan hold huge pro-government rally in ...

Two schools of opinion

The first legal opinion is based on power laws; Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque by right of conquest, something that has been permitted regardless of its Waqf status, according to the opinions of one group of jurists. Ismail Royer has discussed the theoretical foundations of this argument in more detail. Of note is that the idea of converting the houses of worship of conquered non-believers was something that was seen as common-sense and widespread in all religions, as evidenced by the complete and total eradication of thousands of mosques in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece throughout the 19th century. Not even one mosque survives in Athens today, so thorough has been the Balkan state's efforts to eliminate its Ottoman Muslim heritage.

There is even an argument, according to some legal sources, that Hagia Sophia was not a Waqf, but, rather, the personal property of the Emperor Constantine XI Palaeologus himself. Therefore, Sultan Mehmet II inherited this as war booty and had the right to do what he wished with it. From what I can see, this is hearsay, and, without proper evidence showing that Hagia Sophia was in fact such an entity, not relevant. I am happy to be corrected by readers.

The second legal opinion is that Hagia Sophia was, in fact, under the Waqf of the Orthodox Christian community, and the “original sin” was Sultan Mehmet’s conversion of it into a mosque, as the right of conquest in seizing a people’s Awqaf is impermissible in shari’a. As the Awqaf of non-Muslims cannot be touched, the conversion of Hagia Sophia was legally unjust (and politically unwise) from inception. Therefore, it is best to be left as a museum and essentially suspend the matter, or, even, to turn it into a Cathedral again. Granted, while the idea to keep it as a museum is the popular position against restoring it as a mosque, the latter opinion to restore it as a Cathedral is held by an absolute minority of Muslims.

This is the political and legal context behind Hagia Sophia and what it means for the spirit of the Turkish nation. This is not political manoeuvring or geopolitical grandstanding, but the consequence of decades-long conflict that has caused significant trauma to Turkish people on either side of the debate. If we do not understand the role of Awqaf in Ottoman society and how Ataturk’s reforms left deep scars by seizing them, we cannot understand the attempts by those who are fighting for the restoration of Hagia Sophia. They believe it is part of the uphill battle in restoring Ottoman Turkish history, to reverse unjust reforms undertaken by the early Republic, and, ultimately, to gain some semblance of who they are again.

Hagia Sophia is not the first reversal of the Ataturk reforms’ seizure of Awqaf. Of the interesting reversals undertaken by President Erdogan since he came into power was to begin the return of Awqaf of the non-Muslim communities of Turkey. Churches and synagogues have been refurbished for use by these minority communities over the preceding decade, representing the largest such attempt by the Turkish government in the history of the Republic. The Armenian Church enjoyed a particularly large windfall from the return of a vast swathe of property to its Waqf in the Beykoz district of Istanbul, with the Turkish government also paying a sum of compensation.

As such, the principle of the Waqf is taken very seriously by the Turkish people. The legal efforts made to restore Hagia Sophia as a mosque are according to these longstanding principles. I think it is quite extraordinary that, in a nation much maligned for its lack of rule of law, the people feel so deeply for their historical customs and laws, with Waqf reclamation litigation being undertaken, successfully, by minorities in Turkey for the return of land and property unjustly seized from them by the Kemalist regimes in decades preceding the Erdogan government. And yet, like everything else, any move made by the Turkish government is met with condemnation regardless of what is actually occurring in the country itself.

Four decades later, the first Jewish wedding was held in the Grand Synagogue of Edirne in late May 2016 after its reconstruction was finished in 2015 thanks to the Turkish government.
The first Jewish wedding held in the Grand Synagogue of Edirne in late May 2016 after the Turkish government’s reconstruction efforts.

The Consequences of Ataturk’s reforms

The trauma of Ataturk’s reforms left a deep feeling of alienation and even inferiority among many Muslim Turks. They see western nations being able to celebrate their history and maintain their language and historical landmarks, while they themselves are repeatedly reminded that their religion is backward, their history is meaningless, and, therefore, their achievements in human history are minimal.

Additionally, for all Turkey's efforts to westernise and secularise, this has never been enough for the West to accept Turkey into their “family of nations”. Countries continue to drum up support for the recognition of the Armenian genocide, something many Muslims in Turkey, the Balkans and the Caucasus see as being a one-sided debate, owing to the near-total erasure of the annihilation of the Muslim population in most of these lands. According to Justin Mccarthy, nearly 2 million Muslims were killed in the final decades of the Ottoman empire as the nascent Orthodox Balkan states, supported by the Russians and further afield by the European powers, engaged in an orgy of slaughter, rape and the destruction of nearly every last Ottoman-era public monument throughout the late 19th to early 20th century.

Some half of the current Turkish population are the descendants of refugees who fled these wars of annihilation. They, in turn, engaged in acts of revenge against the Christians of Anatolia, who returned the favour, and thus was the cycle unleashed by the nationalist forces of Europe on the once multi-ethnic Ottoman empire. The world has forgotten this, but Turkey never has, and most of its stubbornness over the issue of the Armenian genocide lies in the failure of reciprocity for Europe to accept its role in the bloody destruction of the empire for their own colonial ambitions.

Arlet Natali AVAZYAN on | Istanbul, Old photos, Historical pictures
Hundreds of thousands of people streamed into Anatolia from the Balkans and Caucasus regions in the decades preceding the demise of the Ottoman empire.
 They fled an orgy of massacres, rape and the destruction of nearly every last vestige of Ottoman public culture and monuments.
Their story has nearly entirely been forgotten.

Furthermore, Turkey was led around for decades in regards to EU membership which was never truly coming. Europe could not even bear to stomach the descendants of Muslims. Under the doctrine of Enosis, the Greek Cypriot leadership made moves to restrict Turkish Cypriot rights and began to drum up support for a wider effort to "deal with the Turkish question", akin to what had happened in the Balkans a century earlier. Turkey launched an invasion of Cyprus in 1974 as violence was escalating in order to secure a safe zone in the northern half of the island. In return, Turkey was sanctioned by most of Europe and America.

These same countries would stand by two decades later as Serbs, aided by the Serbian Church, massacred and raped tens of thousands of Muslim Bosnians in an orgy of slaughter, culminating in the Srebrenica genocide, which we remembered this weekend, although the world forgets time and again. Again, Turkey has not forgotten that it has consistently been disarmed and maligned even as the communities it helped give birth to all around it are systematically slaughtered every few decades.

For any people with pride, such a situation is not sustainable. The current swelling of support for moves like the restoration of Hagia Sophia as a mosque is not a short-term political move aimed at garnering votes, but the resurgence of a long-repressed feeling among Turks that the essence of the Turkish nation, that is, Islam, had been unfairly locked away while other religions and nations' culture were elevated above their own. Hagia Sophia is seen as the birthright of Islam in Istanbul. Therefore, it is a matter of dignity, honour and the restoration of age-old legal rights - not just for Muslims, but for any community who suffered injustices in the history of the Turkish Republic.

International condemnation of Hagia Sophia’s restoration as a mosque merely acts to reinforce Turkish notions about the perfidy of those who tout human rights and equality of religion while turning a blind eye to or even actively engaging in the oppression and killing of Muslims all around the world. If the West was serious, it would at least try to respect Turks as equals with their own history, pride, and ability to govern according to their laws and customs, as evidenced by the successful Awqaf litigation undertaken by minorities like the Greeks and Armenians. The fact that age-old tropes about the barbarian Turk, with no agency and feeling still find themselves in the popular imagination is evidence no such progress has been made.


Further Reading

I have linked several works that should be read in order to develop a wider understanding of the Ottoman empire and the traumatic events occurring during its dying decades. Those with the [PDF] tag can be downloaded online via the hyperlinked titles. Those with the [Goodreads] tag are works that I could not locate digital PDF links to.

Ottoman governance:

[PDF] Territorial design and grand strategy in the Ottoman Empire, Burak Kadercan

This is one of the best academic papers I have read on how the Ottoman empire was governed, noting its very localist and hands-off system that gave the denizens of the empire freedom over most of their affairs.

[PDF] The Policy of Mehmed II toward the Greek Population of Istanbul and the Byzantine Buildings of the City, Halil Inalcik

This is an academic paper written by the late Halil Inalcik, God rest his soul, detailing the treatment (and rebuilding) of Constantinople after its conquest by Sultan Mehmet II throughout the 15th century.

Genocide of Ottoman Muslims:

[Goodreads] Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, Justin Mccarthy

This book details the genocides that Muslims faced across Anatolia and the Balkans in the 19th century. Justin McCarthy is one of the few academics who has been willing to take a deep dive into the tragedies that Muslims faced during this time, and, for this, he has faced heavy slander and attempts at ‘cancellation’.

[PDF] The Circassian Genocide, Walter Richmond

This book details the events leading up to the Circassian genocide and their exile to Anatolia.

The Ottoman Empire in World War I:

[Goodreads] War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Sean McMeekin

A great book that delves into Ottoman and Russian archives to piece together a narrative counter to the prevailing Anglo-French understanding of the Ottoman empire and WWI’s outcomes.

[PDF] The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, Eugene Rogan

A book that I recommend reading in tandem with McMeekin’s work.