Almost a month after the Turkish government overturned the 1934 ruling that converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum, the response from the international community to it becoming a mosque again was telling. Condemnation from the likes of Greece and the Vatican was expected, as was the praise by some Muslim-majority countries and the Muslims of Europe.
What continues to be a mystery to many, however, is the primary reason for the move. Was it a ploy by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to rebuild his voter base? Was it a power move to signal dominance over Turkey’s rivals in the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe? Or did Erdogan truly do it out of religious fervour and an aim to right the wrongs of the Republic’s past? Whatever the reason was, it is indisputable that it was a huge blow to the secular foundation that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had imposed on Turkey for this building – deemed by the modern state’s founder to be neither a church nor a mosque – to be turned back into a house of worship.
Predictably, most Western-based and Gulf- and Israeli-backed analysts and commentators have lamented what they believe is the downfall of Turkish secularism and the Islamisation of its politics. All of this, of course, despite the fact that after almost two decades of Erdogan-led governments there is still no alcohol ban, no overturning of secular legislation nor an implementation of specifically religious law.
Nevertheless, the Hagia Sophia move was certainly a huge blow for the secular legacy upon which the Republic was built in Ataturk’s quest to create a modern and Western-leaning state. Indeed, it could be seen as the latest attempt to undo the web of secular reforms that he implemented.
Under Erdogan Turkey has seen the return of the call to prayer in Arabic, the freedom to wear the hijab and other religious symbolism, and the freedom for non-Turkic ethnic groups to express their cultures and languages; all of this and more has been decriminalised over the past two decades. It is worth remembering, though, that one of the most contested of these liberties within Turkey – the freedom to wear a headscarf within state institutions – was only legalised 10 years ago, in a country with a population which is more than 90 per cent Muslim.
It would have been impossible to imagine during the mid-1900s, or even a mere 25 years ago, that these reforms would soon take place and that the Hagia Sophia would once again be a mosque under a pro-religion leadership. Even so, although Turkey is not the Islamist dystopia that many “Turkey experts” and Western analysts claim it to be, it cannot be denied that Ataturk’s legacy is being contested and state-imposed secularism has taken a significant blow.
This is not simply a victory for the conservative and religiously-minded population within Turkey and abroad, but also illustrates the fact that secularism is fragile in the region compared with the staying power that religion has amongst the general population. Paradoxically, though, a recent study showed that religiosity within Turkey has reportedly declined significantly, with 25 per cent of Turks describing themselves as religiously conservative whereas in 2008 the figure was 32 per cent. Only 65 per cent claim to fast during the holy month of Ramadan, a fall of 12 per cent.
That suggests a bleak future for Erdogan’s “pious generation” of Turks who will support his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), but it did not stop roughly 73 per cent of the Turkish population supporting the Hagia Sophia becoming a mosque again.
If Turkey’s declining population self-defining as religious is significant, it is even more so in the Arab world. Data released by the Arab Barometer research network last year reportedly showed that religiosity had declined sharply since 2013, with a 13 per cent drop overall by 2018-2019. Around 18 per cent of the Middle East’s Arab population now identifies as non-religious, especially amongst those under the age of 30. Yemen is the only exception.
Even so, the majority of the people generally profess religious values. In all of the countries surveyed, apart from Tunisia, the non-religious percentage barely reached even 30 per cent. This was seen most clearly in the Arab Spring protests in 2011, in which Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia came to prominence following the ousting of dictators Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali respectively.
Although both long-serving dictators – like most Middle Eastern despots – were opposed to any outward form of political Islam and actively suppressed it, Islamist parties retained significant grassroots support which helped in elections following the revolutions. Even in the most secularised Middle Eastern states such as Tunisia, where religion was formerly suppressed by the colonial French and their Arab nationalist successors, religion has proven to be a potent and formidable force which the majority of the people support.
The ability of this grassroots support to be expressed through political Islam has been recognised by some of the region’s authoritarian rulers who view religion in the public domain to be a threat to their rule, and has forced them to adapt. Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi’s efforts to bring the renowned Al-Azhar University and its scholars under his control is one example of this, resulting in the institution using its influence to counter Egypt’s rival Turkey by issuing a religious ruling to ban Turkish television programmes.
Al-Sisi’s ally in Libya, Khalifa Haftar, has also sought to give legitimacy to his dominance in eastern Libya by ensuring that favourable sermons are given in mosques run by his Salafi-Madkhali militias and broadcast by state-run news channels.
As state-imposed secularism has been slowed and possibly countered in Turkey with the Hagia Sophia and Erdogan’s other reforms, the reverse is happening in the Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Their staunch opposition to religious parties across the region; the Saudis’ repression of dissident scholars; the removal of authority from their religious police; and social reforms in recent years all mark the beginning of a forced secular order and the decline of religion within the political sphere.
Given that their people still largely holding religion very dear and describe themselves as religious, these secularising states should know that their reforms are unlikely to be accepted without a struggle. State-imposed secularism will never work in the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.