HomeJendela PolitikThe Moderation of Turkish Secularism

The Moderation of Turkish Secularism

By Bayu Muhammad Noor Arasy

The reconversion of Hagia Sophia that was enacted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan causes backlashes from around the world. Does this decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque signify the rise of Islamism in Turkey, or is it just another chapter of the moderation on Turkish secularism?


After facing a year of controversies and back-and-forth social and political momentum, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally achieved his goal to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. His controversial decree to redesignate Hagia Sophia into a mosque had been decided legal by the Turkish highest administrative court on 10th July 2020 (Guardian, 2020).

The court’s decision was met with immense international outcry, despite receiving considerable domestic supports. Alongside with state-actor, plenty of international organization such as UNESCO and World Church Council had lodged an official protest (CNN, 2020; Euronews, 2020).

Foremost among the international community, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis condemned the decision of reconverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque. He also stated that the aforementioned decision will not only strain Greco-Turkish relationship in particular, but also European-Turkish relationship in general (Reuters, 2020).

Turkey’s seismic decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque was shocking; but it was expected, the decision had been planned by Erdogan since 2019. In fact, the reconversion of Hagia Sophia was one of his election promises that he made to strengthen his party and attract conservative-leaning voters at the 2019 Turkish Local Election (Reuters, 2019).

However, the fact that Erdogan finally decided to reconvert the medieval cathedral into a mosque is not really important in retrospective. Rather, the fact that this decision is a conclusion of decades long struggle between the conservatives and secularists in Turkey is far more noteworthy.

The plan to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque is not something new, nor was it originally planned by Erdogan and his party (AKP). In 2016, a member of the Association of Permanent Foundations and Service to Historical Artifacts and the Environment filed a petition for the right to pray in Hagia Sofia. At that time, the petition was rejected by the court (Daily Sabah, 2016).

The considerable domestic supports that was received by those who proposed the reconversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque startled many observers, especially those who understood the history and ideological nature of Turkey. It is well known to many people that Turkey is a secular state; and in the past, they had been enforcing that secularity with immense and almost unyielding zeal.

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To found out that the aforementioned plan to reconsecrate Hagia Sophia into a religious place of worship could be thought off in a strictly secular country was a shocking revelation. Especially, if one understood the historical fact that it was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who decreed that building to be turned into a secular museum. Without exaggeration, it could be said that Erdogan’s decision to turn that building into a mosque was a severe blow to the secular identity of Turkey.

Two days after the Turkish court ruled legal the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, a renowned Turkish academic, Orhan Pamuk, voiced his concern on the degradation of Turkish secularism by a particular conservative segment of Turkish society. He argued that any efforts to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque could be viewed as a severe blow to the secular history and identity of Turkey (Nikkei Asian Review, 2020).

Contemplating Pamuk’s recent comment on the reconversion of Hagia Sophia and its implication for Turkish secularism, I am prompted to rethink the position of secularism in Turkey; does it indicate that secularism is retreating in Turkey? Does the aforementioned decision spelled the death knell for secularism in Turkey? Does it merely indicate the moderation of once strict Turkish secularism—Laiklik?

First of all, the decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque undoubtedly had indicated that secularism in Turkey is retreating. The medieval cathedral which at that time functioned as a mosque was designated a secular museum by the foremost founding father of the Republic of Turkey—Ataturk (Mango, 1999, p. 542).

The decision was a part of Ataturk’s attempt to secularize the newly formed Republic of Turkey; he wanted to repurpose places of religious worship to fulfill the more secular needs of its visitors (Lewis, 1968, p. 416). By turning Hagia Sophia into a museum, Ataturk had consecrated it into a symbolic and functional monument for the new secular Turkish State.

Conversely, by reconverting that building into a mosque, Erdogan had deconsecrated one of the most important monument to secular Turkey. Even more, he had forced secularism into a retreat by blatantly favoring one religious group above the others.

Secondly, it is undeniable that Turkish secularism has been retreating from the public sphere recently; but the retreat could not be blamed solely on the current Islamist-led government, nor could it be blamed solely on Erdogan. As such the reconversion of Hagia Sophia did not sounded the death knell for Turkish secularism.

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The retreat of secularism has been a long and gradual process that happens since the death of Ataturk. The death of Ataturk marked the end of the Kemalist Revolution, and with that, the end of hardline secularist experiment in Turkey; but it is not until the 1970s onward that secularism truly experienced a consistent retreat from the societal and political landscape of Turkey.

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Throughout the 1970-2000s, the Islamist and conservative elements of Turkish society had been expanding its presence and capabilities to take part in Turkish domestic affairs; but, again, one could not attribute the retreat of secularism solely to the political agitations of the Islamists and the conservatives. From time to time, these steps of gradual retreats were ironically initiated by the secularist establishment in order to gain support from the Islamist and conservative elements of the Turkish society.

In 2013, the Turkish government revoked decades-long notorious headscarf ban on some governmental institutional buildings (Reuters, 2013). That decision was further expanded in 2017 and 2018 respectively to include military and university institution, further opening the country for more display of religious attributes and lifestyle (The Guardian, 2017; Daily Sabah, 2018).

The resurgence of religion in public sphere is likely, in part, encouraged by the Turkish government itself, including Erdogan. Directly related with the issue of the reconversion of Hagia Sophia, Erdogan recited an Islamic prayer at that building on an opening ceremony of an art festival in 2018 (Associated Press, 2018).

Three years before that, in 2015, an Islamic cleric recited a passage from the Qur’an for the first time in 85 years on Hagia Sophia at an opening ceremony of a religious exhibition (Al-Arabiya English, 2015).

The shift from enforcing secularism toward giving religion more space and acknowledgement socially and legally inside Turkish society by the government happened under the rule of Islamist and conservative political parties. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that it is not until the 1970s that social and political Islamism started to surface themselves in Turkey.

After facing severe restrictions for several decades from the secular Turkish government, the Islamists found themselves at an advantageous situation when the military sought allies to mend the growing rift that is tearing apart Turkish society. Between 1970 and 1990, the military establishment in Turkey developed and enacted a policy which is called the “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis”.

This policy is aimed to mend the ideological rift inside Turkish society between the left-wing and right-wing (White, 2013, p. 35). Therefore, the encroachment of Islamism on Turkish society is not something new.

In the midst of political upheaval and societal collapse, the Turkish military decided to strengthen the role of Islamists in order to diminish the influence of leftists and appease the more conservative elements of the society (Larrabee and Rabasa, 2008, p. 37). In this era of conciliation between the once opposing Islamists and military, many Islamist and conservative leaning parties rose and found prominence in Turkish politics.

Some of these parties became the precursor to the modern day conservative-democratic Justice and Development Party—AKP (Larrabee and Rabasa, 2008, p. 47). These parties are the Islamist National Salvation Party (MSP) and Welfare Party (RP); alongside these parties, there was a conservative party named the Motherland Party led by Turgut Ozal (Larrabee and Rabasa, 2008, p. 47; Yavuz, 2009, p. 50). It was during the rule of the Motherland Party that institutionalized Islamism held ground in Turkey.

Under the leadership of Ozal, the institutionalization of Islamism in Turkey was not done by force; rather, it was done by relatively peaceful and democratic means—a far cry from the nature of many notorious fundamentalist Islamists of that time.

This peaceful and democratic approaches to social, economic, and political issues would be followed by the AKP for some time before the 2015 failed Turkish coup. Despite being a conservative, Ozal retained a relatively liberal stance on the issues of economic; this allowed him to gain favor from the international communities without having to face enormous opposition domestically—at least in his early years as prime minister.

Being a stalwart liberal and capitalist, Ozal reformed the Turkish economy in a way that it became more inclusive to those who were marginalized at that time, most notably, the Islamists and conservatives.

The new opportunities that were available for the Islamists and conservatives to develop and manage their own financial capitals gave birth to organized platforms for societal, cultural, and political movements (Yavuz, 2009, p. 58). These organized platforms were supported and sustained by a considerable rank of conservative—not necessarily Islamist—businessmen who felt the need of introducing conservative moralities into Turkish society.

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These businessmen were involved in various sectors of Turkish industries, ranging from automotive to media (White, 2013, p. 36). Their levels of involvement in supporting the broad Islamist and conservative oriented movements vary; some of them supported the movement by marketing and indirectly encouraging Islamic fashions and lifestyles among urbanite Turks.

This way, Islamic lifestyles were introduced to the Turkish public; some of them went even further, men like Fethullah Gulen rallied supports from other businessmen like him and transformed those supports into a worldwide Islamist movement (Larrabee and Rabasa, 2008, pp. 16-17; White, 2013, p. 36).

Being invited to participate once again in the societal and political affairs of Turkey by the secularist establishment, the Islamist proved to be able to adjust themselves with the secular nature of Turkey. For about five decades, they had developed a middle-class, bourgeoisie, and cosmopolitan ethos.

More than just being relatively cosmopolitan and modern than their counterparts in other parts of the world, the new middle-class Islamist also seem willing to compromise with secularism; it is well known that the conservative elements of Turkish society preferred a “soft” and democratic Anglo-Saxon styled secularism rather than the “authoritarian” and undemocratic rendition (implementation) of Turkish “Laiklik” secularism (White, 2013, p. 46; Akyol, 2019, pp. 8-9).  

The positive response to a milder version of secularism from the Islamist middle-class in Turkey came as a surprise, especially when one thought of the turbulent relationship between them in the past.

In relation with the final aforementioned question regarding the moderation of Turkish secularism, it could be said that the long and continuing retreat of secularism in Turkey would not lead to its demise, rather a moderation into a mild rendition of it. Turkish secularism had been developing itself since the early years of the Republic, and still is; the AKP and Erdogan are products of that still ongoing development.

To put it into comparison with the early Islamist political entity of the early 1970s, AKP and Erdogan are far more pragmatic and compromising. A far cry from the Turkish Islamist during the early 1970s, AKP and Erdogan abandoned the older generation’s archaic (out-of-date) and harsh approach on many issues such as relationship with the West, human rights, and democracy; instead, they preferred on directing the political Islamist on line of a broader worldview.

The subsequent official comments made by the Turkish government after they had decided to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque reflected that broader worldview, albeit it could still be debated. For example, AKP’s spokesman, Omer Celik announced that the Turkish government will not erase centuries old mosaics and Christian religious symbols at Hagia Sophia; instead, they will cover it by using curtains or laser devices during Islamic prayer times (The Jakarta Post, 2020).

Following his decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia, Erdogan also said that the former museum would still be opened to all visitors, regardless of their religion and nationality (BBC, 2020). The decision might not be celebrated happily by some element of Turkish society, especially the secularist.

Despite being received with resentment from some element of Turkish society, it is worth knowing that the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque might not spell the death knell for secularism in Turkey; rather, the reconversion might just signify another step of moderating secularism in Turkey.  

As a conclusion, I am convinced that what is happening in front of the eyes of the world is merely an opening of a new chapter of the long history of secularism in Turkey. Like every ideologies, Turkish secularism or “Laiklik” never maintained an existence of stagnancy; rather, it adapted and adjusted itself to fit in to the contemporary condition of the Turkish state and society.

The changing status of Hagia Sophia from time to time itself is a reflection of the aforementioned adaptation and adjustment of secularism in Turkey; and the latest decision to reconvert it into a mosque while still preserving part of its secular function—that is, a historical building that could be visited by anyone—might end up concluding the debate on the disputed status of Hagia Sophia, until another controversy arises.

This opinion belongs to Bayu Muhammad Noor Arasy, Student of Political Science Programme at Universitas Indonesia.

“Disclaimer: Opini adalah kiriman dari penulis. Isi opini adalah sepenuhnya tanggung jawab penulis dan tidak menjadi bagian tanggung jawab redaksi PinterPolitik.com.”

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