Garvan Walshe: Erdogan has failed his country – and turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque won’t put food back on Turkey’s tables

16 Jul

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy

Built by the Roman emperor Justinian as a church, the Hagia Sophia, like the Catsel Sant’Angelo in Rome, is a sort of architectural missing link. Larger than classical structures, and enclosed, the visitor’s first impression is of the sheer quantity of stone, its bulk needed to support what was then the largest dome in Christendom. The graceful minarets are, of course, a later Ottoman addition.

When the Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople for the Ottomans he had it turned into a mosque, and Attaturk later made it a secular museum. But if Justinian built it at the Byzantine empire’s height, five years after Mohammed fled from Mecca to Medina, and Attaturk as his secular regime established himself, Erdogan has reestablished it as a mosque as his regime begins to decline.

Erdogan is no stranger to culture war. He built his power on a rising class of conservative Muslims who felt ill-served by the secular governing classes of Attaturk’s republic. They moved to Turkey’s cities as the economy modernised during the 1980s and 90s, and gave him his first taste of national office in Istanbul, where he was mayor between 1994 and 1998, Attaturk’s secularised Hagia Sofia looming over his city.

Battles over women being allowed to cover their heads on public property, alcohol taxes, and against an “interest rate lobby” blamed for repeated falls in the value of the Turkish Lira, have characterised his time in office, despite it also featuring major terrorist campaigns, a bloody war in Syria, the hosting of two million refugees who escaped it, large-scale counter-insurgency against Kurdish rebels and an almost successful military coup against him.

His governing style has evolved since he first became Prime Minister in 2003, and not only because he’s become an executive president. His first battles were with the military, when he pretended to be a democrat and gave his supporters pride in having their voice heard, and in economic progress.

But he turned on his former allies on anti-militarist left and in the Gülen movement, and constructed a far more grandiose and personal presidency. He built an enormous palace to live in, dressed up his bodyguards like Ottoman janissaries and radically changed foreign policy.

He abandoned Turkey’s historic friendship with Israel, opting instead to support Hamas, and the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. He financed Islamist rebels in Syria, and invaded the Kurdish areas of the country after, apparently, convincing Donald Trump to withdraw US protection for them.

He has even chosen to intervene in the Libyan civil war against the Russia and Egypt-backed General Haftar. He seems to see no contradiction between this anti-Russian intervention and ordering an S-400 air defence system from Moscow, or at least no greater contradiction than exists between that order and Turkey’s continued membership of NATO.

Domestically, he has been seduced by huge public works, from a new airport in Istanbul, to his now-presidential palace, the attempted paving over of Gezi Park (which provoked serious protests in 2013) and the enormous GAP dam project in southeastern Anatolia.

All these, and corruption allegations that swirl around them have begun to damage his reputation and, together with his increasing authoritarian style, cost his AK Party the mayoralties of Ankara and Istanbul. Voters weren’t impressed by his leaning on the Supreme Electoral Commission to rerun the Istanbul race after a narrow loss, and returned opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu decisively when the vote was held a second time.

More serious is the emergence of two new parties led by Erdogan’s former Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, respectively. Erdogan has managed only narrow victories in recent years, and relies on the ultra-nationalist MHP for its majority in parliament. A referendum confirming the switch to presidential rule was only narrowly carried.

Turkey’s government has come under criticism for mismanaging the economic fallout of the Covid-19 epidemic. The weak currency, a victim of Erdogan’s crusade against that “interest rate lobby” has been unable to support the huge borrowing to which other governments have resorted, with private initiatives organised by opposition mayors of Ankara and Istanbul taking much of the strain.

Reconsecrating the Hagia Sophia may give some cheer to his more committed supporters, but won’t put food on increasingly bare Turkish tables. A more humble man would treat it as part of his legacy and begin looking for a successor.