In the morning of 10 July 2020, an expectant crowd gathered outside the Hagia Sophia museum, a World Heritage Site laden with political and religious meaning and marked by controversy. The Byzantine basilica, a cultural icon of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, served as the imperial cathedral until the conquest of Constantinople (now İstanbul) by Mehmet II in 1453, when it was converted into a mosque, a highly symbolic moment for Turkish Sunni Muslims and nationalists alike. The alteration of the building’s status from a mosque into a museum in 1935 by the Republic of Turkey that emerged after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was represented as a marker of its “secular” orientation.
The turbulent past of the building, but also by extension of the Turkish Republic, was the backdrop against which those gathered outside the museum, and many more throughout the country, had turned their eyes to the Turkish Council of State (Danıştay) that was about to annul the decree that had converted Hagia Sophia to a museum, clearing the way for it to become a mosque once more. The decision was met with cheers and tears of joy among the crowd, with some of them chanting “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”). Minutes later, in a carefully choreographed follow-up to the Danıştay decision, president Erdoğan signed a decree transferring control of the site to the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), unmistakably signaling that Hagia Sophia would become a working mosque once again.
A photograph of the presidential decree was posted on Erdoğan’s official twitter account with the congratulatory comment “Hayırlı olsun’’. During the day, a muezzin called the jubilant crowd outside Hagia Sophia to a thanksgiving prayer, while, towards the evening, hundreds of people joined those already there for evening prayers. The event acquired prominence on social media platforms, with many users reposting president Erdoğan's tweet, others sharing the recorded call of the muezzin and photographs and videos from the day as it was unfolding outside Hagia Sophia. Prominent government members joined this chorus of jubilation by making public statements in the media or commenting on twitter and other social media platforms.
The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque after ninety-six years represented an important moment for president Erdoğan and his party. Erdoğan had campaigned for and promised the conversion of the building, and had skillfully cultivated the anticipation that prevailed in the run-up of the Danıştay decision. The AKP apparatus had ensured that the news of the court decision and the subsequent opening of Hagia Sophia as mosque were to be communicated in a way that appealed to an array of emotions. This affective repertoire has been evident in the discourse and practice of the AKP since 2007-8, when the party moved from a “politics of patience”—seeking accommodation with the military and the judiciary, the pillars of Turkey’s Kemalist political order, and their political allies—to one of “controlled tension,” to use Duran’s terminology, and, later on, in the course of what has widely been called Turkey’s majoritarian authoritarian turn. Indeed, emotion has frequently been chosen by the AKP as the field of choice for advancing its social and political vision, countering the arguments and positions of its political opponents, and reaching out to and inspiring its constituency.
Hagia Sophia has proved a potent affective resource, a symbol with the potential to persuade and mobilize meaning, and a key element of what I call the politics of emotion in contemporary Turkish politics. Despite the reluctance of social scientists to integrate emotions in the study of politics, as Marcus points out, ”emotion’s role . . . is pervasive both because it enables past experience to be encoded with its evaluative history and because emotion enables contemporary circumstances to be quickly evaluated”. Accordingly, my discussion of the debate on Hagia Sophia, will unpack pivotal aspects of the mobilization of affect in the context of the transformation of the contours of the political landscape in Turkey. In particular, I will attempt a cursory charting of the negative, both aversive and anxious affectivity the debate has revealed. Furthermore, given that these emotions do not arise in a vacuum but are historically conditioned, I will situate them in their social-historical context in which they were nurtured and assess their potential impact in shaping Turkey’s political landscape in the period presided by the AKP.
Contested Narratives, Contested Emotions
The 1934 decree to turn the former Byzantine cathedral and Ottoman mosque into a museum needs to be seen in the context of the ontological insecurity shared by the architects of the Turkish Republic in the aftermath of WWI. This insecurity can be broken down to the ambient anxiety regarding the effectiveness, reliability, and survival of the new state in a rapidly changing world and the dread (in the sense used by Giddens) felt by the republican elite of lagging behind the Western world who they had come to see as the locus of progress, development, and growth. This is by no means an exclusively Turkish predicament—Halil Nalçaoğlu points out that the self-identity of societies where modernization is attempted in a non-Western context is overdetermined by a sense of ‘‘being late”. The conversion of Hagia Sophia reflected thus the determination of the republican elite to “dissociate” the new state that emerged after the Ottoman collapse from its predecessor, its links with Islam and “oriental” backwardness, and steer Turkey into the “club of modern nations”.
According to the republican regime, secularism (laiklik) constituted a key aspect of this process. In desacralizing the Hagia Sophia mosque (as well as several other Ottoman mosques that were formerly Byzantine churches in İznik, Trabzon, and İstanbul) and turning them into secular spaces, the Republic projected the decisiveness and power of its secularism and the centrality of the latter in the republican project. As such, the status of Hagia Sophia remained the subject of contention among conservative Islamist circles ever since it was designated a museum. For some Muslims, the 1934 cabinet decree proclaiming the conversion to a museum represented a denial of the “rootedness” and superiority of Islam, as İnanç Özekmekçi suggests. For nationalists, the conversation was experienced as a humiliating symbol of the attainment of an incomplete and circumscribed sovereignty. For conservative activists and intellectuals this sense of “lack” for which Hagia Sophia stood as a powerful reminder, was complemented by their relative marginalization and suppression under the Republic. It constituted a source of bitterness and resentment that fed into the framing of their experience of politics through the prism of injustice.
Perhaps no one has expressed more eloquently this sense of humiliation, injustice, and the resentment shared among conservative Islamists and nationalists than Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, one of the most prominent and outspoken conservative intellectuals who has shaped the political outlook of several leading figures and cadres of the AKP, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as the broader conservative political class of today. Kısakürek articulated his opposition and contempt for Kemalist secularism in the mid-1930s. The journal Büyük Doğu (Great East) which he established in 1943 gave him the opportunity to systematize and share more widely his critique of the republic and promote his blueprint of an “Islamic revolution” that would bring about “the full reversal of Kemalism” and a political system uncompromisingly in the service of Islam. Kısakürek’s resentment at the marginalization of religious conservatism colored his narrative of the early Republic—his accounts of the abuses of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) which ruled Turkey through a single-party system until 1946 reduce the ethnoreligious complexity of Turkey’s society into a reified irreconcilable binary divide between an “anti-Islamic” regime and “a people” composed of pious Muslims who are subjected to untold sufferings and humiliation.
In this Manichaean understanding of the situation, Hagia Sophia acquired a highly symbolic place in Kısakürek’s narrative as it represented the imposed alienation of the Turkish “people” from their spiritual heritage. In 1965, in an emotional televised address he gave to the National Turkish Student Association he articulated the function of Hagia Sophia as a repository of aversive affectivity:
Ayasofya is being torn from its spirit by the hands of so-called Turks. From its walls the name of Allah and his prophets’ sacred names are being scraped; the interior plasters are removed to expose the heathen images [referring to the orthodox mosaics that were covered the reign of Ahmed I in the early seventeenth century]; and it is being turned into a museum to expose the greatness of the cross rather than the crescent, in other words. It is being turned into a sarcophagus where Islam is buried.
And later on in the same speech, Kısakürek put his finger on the intangible, yet very “real,” meaning of Hagia Sophia in his nationalist-Islamic ideology: “Hagia Sophia is neither stone, nor line, nor color, nor volume, nor the synthesis of these components. It is just meaning, only meaning . . .” Hagia Sophia for Kısakürek was the symbol of conquest denied, the reminder that the victors are the repressed.
This highly emotional rhetoric of loss, not of the building, but of the whole array of emotions and meanings it represents, of adversity and resentment developed by Kısakürek and other conservative ideologues, has been central in the political socialization of conservative activists and politicians. This context has shaped the debate on Hagia Sophia and, more broadly, informed their view of the need to radically redefine the Turkish Republic, seen as a state in the hands of “so-called Turks” serving heathens and displacing the true pious Turks. The passion that the erstwhile Byzantine basilica and Ottoman mosque has inspired has meant that the demand to open Hagia Sophia to worship has been a constant element of the agenda of the religious and nationalist right, albeit not necessarily one that was able to become a concrete goal and resonate beyond the relatively small constituency of the organizations that kept campaigning to this end. It was only after the emergence of the AKP, and more specifically, after the party abandoned its “politics of patience” and embraced a polarizing and antagonistic discourse, that a favorable opportunity structure emerged for Hagia Sofia to decisively enter public debate and become the focal point of demonstrations, campaigns and, eventually, court action. The lawsuit was brought by the Sürekli Vakıflar Tarihi Eserlere ve Çevreye Hizmet Derneği, a civic organization allegedly working for the protection of buildings of historical value that had also previously successfully petitioned the courts for the conversion of the Kariye/Chora museum into a mosque.
“Feeling” Politics: Hagia Sophia as a Ritual Locus
Back to 10 July 2020, the Danıştay decision turned Hagia Sophia into a theatrical stage where these emotions were rehearsed, shared, and televised. The anxious anticipation of the crowds that had converged in the open spaces surrounding the building effectively constructed and made tangible a Turkey pervaded by the irreconcilable divide between the “anti-Islamic” elite and “the pious people” who were denied their rights and demanded vindication and restitution. Finance Minister and Erdoğan's son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, tweeted a 55-year-old tv clip featuring Necip Fazil Kisakurek’s emotional address to the Turkish youth of the time, foretelling the moment when Hagia Sophia was to become a mosque once more and reinforcing the sense of loss, longing, and vindication. Pro-government journalists followed suit reproducing the same mix of emotions, as did cultural personalities, including a host of actresses and actors known for their roles in Ottoman period drama tv series Diriliş: Ertuğrul, who, linking the “cinematic” with the “drama” unfolding outside Hagia Sophia celebrated the decision as an act of the nation gaining the sovereignty it had been denied. In these framings, the Hagia Sophia mosque reconversion was likened to a prelude for unfettered Muslim control of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, a cause resonating with religious and nationalist constituencies in Turkey and the broader Muslim world.
In the few days that followed the decision, a politics replete with emotion unfolded. Government supporters relished this victory asserting that it was a revolution that went deeper than that of Mustafa Kemal, the secularist founder of modern Turkey, as it allowed the “repressed” Muslim nation to regain the sovereignty it had been denied. Critics of the conversion decision like the novelist Orhan Pamuk depicted the presidential decree as a move to wound Turkey’s secularist heritage and referring to “millions of secularist Turks crying” due to this affront. This argument was echoed in novelist Aslı Erdoğan’s statement in le Monde that the decision is “a slap in the face of those who still believe that Turkey is a secular country.” Interestingly, with the exception of the pro-minority HDP, the opposition has chosen not to render the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque into a point of contention, recognizing the danger of alienating potential swing voters who find the AKP’s emotional discourse resonant. Such is the power of the politics of emotion deployed by Erdoğan's party that İstanbul’s mayor, opposition political “rising star,” and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's potential challenger in the forthcoming presidential elections, Ekrem İmamoğlu, after his initial silence, stated that, in his mind and conscience, Hagia Sophia “has, since 1453, been a mosque." Other senior opposition politicians followed suit, choosing not to contest the development.
On the anniversary of the Lausanne treaty on 24 July, Hagia Sophia became the stage for a final ritual where the conservative ideologues’ identification of the location with the conquest, its denial, and the final vindication of the pious people and its will (Milli İrade) were rehearsed. Diyanet director, Ali Erbaş gave the Friday sermon from the minbar while holding a sword, an Ottoman symbol of conquest. President Erdoğan, after the solemn prayer, made a short statement encapsulating the meaning of the moment:
After the judiciary saw the truth, this place has returned to what it originally was. Now, it will serve all the believers as a mosque again. Also, it is a place that people from all religions can come and visit as a cultural heritage of humanity. Now, let's visit the grave of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, the real owner of this achievement.
One does not need to be a cynic to discern clear political calculations behind president Erdoğan’s handling of the Hagia Sophia case. The Turkish president is an astute political player who has accentuated and manipulated divides within Turkey’s body politic. He has a good grasp of the emotional aspects of the lived experience of politics in Turkey and has been able to accentuate and mobilize the sense of ontological insecurity of many of his compatriots together with an array of attendant emotions. Erdoğan and his party thrive in a polarized political system where they represent themselves as the voice of the downtrodden and the repressed, categories that include the religious conservative constituency of the AKP but have proven malleable and sufficiently elastic to incorporate Turkish nationalists and others alienated from the aggressive secularism and illiberalism of the main opposition party, the CHP. The Hagia Sophia affair plays directly into the AKP’s well-worn political playbook.
Authoritarian Populism and the Displacement of Sovereignty
Throughout the years, Erdoğan used every opportunity to mobilize emotions to create and maintain the faultlines that kept Turkey polarized. He never misses an opportunity to remind his constituency of the purported contempt of Kemalist secularism for their values, the exclusion of women wearing the headscarf from education and employment, their relegation to second rate citizens as military coups and court interventions annulled their political choices. His populist discourse mobilizes morality as a political weapon to discredit his challengers (such as the protesters during the Gezi events in 2013) and to justify divisive policies such as alcohol consumption restrictions or mainstreaming religious education. Beyond the borders of Turkey, he castigates his European partners for their mistreatment of their Muslim citizens, has accused the US of plotting to undermine him, and has mobilized Muslims worldwide around his championing of the Palestinian cause. He projects an image of a Turkey having to fight against predators both within and outside to preserve its sovereignty and honor. And finally, he has sought to deflect attention from the country’s recent financial woes through a controversial hard power projection exercise.
Turkey’s involvement in Syria, where it is responsible for the administration of territories it has occupied; its military presence in Libya, and Iraqi Kurdistan; and its Blue Homeland maritime doctrine that pits it against Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel are all presented within the country as evidence of Turkey’s regional strength but also as reasons for a more disciplined, and united society under a strong leadership. Erdoğan’s message effectively promises a strong and effective leadership that will make the Turkish people feel sovereign and restore their pride in a past that almost a century of Kemalism has “denied” them. Yet, in his authoritarian populist vision, the sovereignty promised to “his people” is to be experienced solely in the realm of affect, in solitary instances where a sense of loss, displacement, and marginalization is theatrically reversed, and vindication is momentarily enjoyed without challenging the very authoritarian structures he has been blaming all along. The sovereignty of the people is reduced to one-man rule obscured only marginally by the ritual performance of affective sovereignty as with the Hagia Sophia reconversion. What remains to be seen is the degree to which this displacement of sovereignty through the divorce of emotion from “real politics” can be sustained.
 It is important to note that the notion of secularism in the theory and practice of the Turkish Republic, as well as the secular v religious divide, need to be understood in highly nuanced ways that would require much more space than the one available here. Suffice it to say that, as I have stated elsewhere, underlying Republican secularism is an understanding of Islam as a key element of Turkishness, that has rendered the boundaries of the secular and the religious unclear. More importantly, the notion of secularism as this has developed under the leadership of Kemal Atatürk and after, has been scrutinized in recent scholarly debate. In this article, secularism is used to denote a continually mutating element of the Turkish political landscape that has been instrumental in dividing/categorizing the body politic.