Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to “liberate Al-Aqsa mosque” from Israel after “resurrecting Hagia Sophia” as a mosque on Friday. The decision the change the status of the ancient Hagia Sophia church, which had been transformed into a mosque in 1453 and then into a museum in 1934, was made controversially last week. It follows an increasingly religious authoritarian agenda from Ankara that has made Turkey the world’s largest jailor of journalists, seen dissidents imprisoned for “terrorism”, and witnessed increasing military invasions of neighboring countries by Turkey.
The Beast from the Sea
“Then stood I on the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name.
Now the beast which I saw was like a leopard, his feet were like 2 the feet of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. The dragon gave him his power, his throne, and great authority. And I saw one of his heads as if it had been mortally wounded, and his deadly wound was healed. And all the world marveled and followed the beast. 3 So they worshiped the dragon who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who 4 is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?”
And he was given a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and he was given authority to continue for forty-two months. 5 Then he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme His name, His tabernacle, and those who dwell in heaven. 6 It was granted to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them. And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation. 7 All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” 8
The resurrection of Hagia Sophia heralds the Liberation of the Al-Aqsa mosque, the Turkish Presidency website says. “The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the footsteps of the will of Muslims across the world to come…the resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the reignition of the fire of hope of Muslims and all oppressed, wrong, downtrodden and exploited.” The speech, which was in Turkish, was translated slightly differently to Arabic and English, apparently as a way of hiding part of Ankara’s full views on how it has linked Hagia Sophia to a wider agenda. In Arabic the speech says that turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque is part of the “return of freedom to Al-Aqsa,” essentially meaning Israel should be ejected from controlling Jerusalem’s Old City where Al-Aqsa is located. Turkey’s president linked the decision to reviving Islam from Bukhara in Uzbekistan to Andalusia in Spain. This terminology, linking Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem to Hagia Sophia and Spain, is a kind of coded terminology for a wider religious agenda. In the Turkish translation, the same reference to Spain does not appear to be included as in the Arabic.
Turkey’s current president has long championed the Palestinian cause and been an extreme critic of Israel, famously walking off the stage at Davos during a discussion with Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2009. Turkey then sent the Gaza flotilla to try to breach Israel’s blockade of Gaza, leading to the deaths of ten Turkish citizens when Israeli forces raided the Mavi Marmara ship. In recent years Turkey’s religious and political authorities have been increasing statements about Israel, vowing to mobilize the “Islamic ummah” in June against Israel’s annexation plans.
Linking the major change at Hagia Sophia to Jerusalem illustrates that Ankara’s ambitions are far larger than just reasserting Islamic prayers at the historic mosque and church in Istanbul, it is part of larger Islamic agenda for the region. Turkey’s ruling AK Party is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey is a close ally of Hamas in Gaza. Hamas is also rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood. This strategy by Turkey seeks therefore more influence across the region with like-minded groups and countries, such as Qatar and the Government of the National Accord in Libya. Turkey is seeking to supplant Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region such as Egypt’s Al-Azhar and the Kingdom of Jordan’s role in Jerusalem, as the main determiner of what is “Islamic.”
This means Ankara’s leadership believes that its changes to Hagia Sophia are only one step of a larger religious militarist agenda in the Middle East. Turkey invaded part of eastern Syria in October 2019 after depopulating the Kurdish region of Afrin in Syria in January 2018. Turkey then recruited Syrian refugees to fight in Libya’s civil war as part of an energy and military deal with Tripoli. In June Turkey launched airstrikes in Iraq against Kurdish groups, claiming to be fighting “terrorism.” Turkey’s President has referred to Israel as a “terrorist state” in the past, illustrating that when Turkey vows to “fight terrorism” it could one day aim its sights at Jerusalem. The speech about Hagia Sophia clearly indicated this is on the agenda in the future.