Turkey is approaching crossroads


By reconverting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and holding celebratory prayers there for the cameras, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 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 Atatürk, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

Atatürk 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 Atatürk’s founding vision in this respect, Erdoğan is trying to signal a fundamental change in direction for the country.

After all, it is 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 modernizing and moving closer to the rest of Europe, Turkey under Erdoğan 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 around the Kurdish question has collapsed, and in the summer of 2016, segments of the military, part of the secretive Gülen movement, attempted to stage a coup.

Once a key ally to Erdoğan, the Gülenists’ attempted power grab tilted the country in a decidedly more authoritarian direction.

Erdoğan quickly started centralizing 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 Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has gradually suffered a loss of popular support. Continue reading

  • Carl Bildt was Sweden’s foreign minister from 2006 to 2014 and Prime Minister from 1991 to 1994, when he negotiated Sweden’s EU accession.
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