Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, embarked on one of the most ambitious and noteworthy revolutions of the last century in which he introduced laicism, a hard-core French version of secularism, to a predominantly Sunni Muslim and multi-ethnic society from the Ottoman Empire. Atatürk and his successors managed to remove Islam from the public space for decades, but now a different kind of radicalism is underway as Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s counter-revolution leaves no space for secularists and non-Muslims in Turkey’s current social and public life. The opening of a landmark mosque on Friday in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, an area which has for decades been regarded as a symbol of a secular Turkey, is indicative of Erdoğan’s determination to produce an Islamist revolution in the country.
Turkey’s secular bureaucratic elites had for decades rejected the idea of a mosque in Taksim Square, Turkish courts have also always objected to the notion of a mosque in the area. Despite all this Erdoğan succeeded in building a large mosque in the area. Erdoğan’s speech inaugurating the mosque, heavy with hostility, can be seen as a challenge to the country’s secular and non-Muslim societies. The date for the opening of the mosque was an interesting choice and coincided with the anniversary of massive anti-Erdoğan protests that began at nearby Gezi Park in 2013, in a message to his opponents. Erdoğan, known to go to great lengths to suppress those who oppose him, labeled the protestors “terrorists” at the opening of the mosque.
“The idea of a mosque in Taksim Square goes back to the Ottoman-Russian War of 1877-1878. Instead of constructing mosques in İstanbul, the single party in power [Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party] converted the Hagia Sophia and other big Ottoman mosques into museums and by doing so, reopened big scars in the hearts of the [Muslim] Turkish nation. We succeeded in making a 150-year-old dream a reality by building a mosque in this square,” Erdoğan said in his speech last Friday.
It is important to bear in mind that Erdoğan is not simply building mosques with the intent of meeting the Turkish population’s demand for prayer spaces as the country already has an excess of houses of worship. Erdoğan initially responded to the group who requested that the Hagia Sophia be turned into a mosque by saying that they should first try to fill the other Ottoman mosques nearby. He later changed his mind, converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque last June despite an outcry from the international community as the 6th-century Byzantine cathedral had stood as the world’s largest Christian church for a millennium. Atatürk converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934, and the architectural masterpiece is inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. A month later Erdoğan similarly ordered the reconversion of another Byzantine monument to a mosque, the Kariye (Chora) Museum, originally built in the early fourth century as a chapel outside the city walls of Constantinople. The Chora Church was converted into a mosque in the early 16th century by Ottoman Grand Vizier Atik Ali Pasha, and the second president of the Turkish Republic, Ismet Inonu, reconverted Chora into a museum in 1945.
The US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2020 highlights that the Turkish government continues to restrict the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities. The report stated that the Turkish government continued to curtail efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy, with the result that the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remains closed. They are also facing legal challenges concerning opening or operating houses of worship and resolving land and property disputes. The Turkish state not only restricts the activities of the country’s religious minority groups, including Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews and Greek Orthodox Christians, but Turkish Alevi groups have also filed a complaint against Turkey’s religious authority, the Diyanet, as allowance is only made for one particular branch of Islam (Hanafi Sunni), while there are others that exist as well.
While minority groups experience challenges related to institutionalizing their religious activities as Turkish citizens, the Diyanet, through which the state coordinates Islamic matters, is allocated a billion-dollar budget from the Turkish treasury. According to statistics institute TurkStat, the Diyanet’s 2020 budget exceeded $2 billion, larger than that of the foreign ministry. The religious directorate owns 1,700 properties employing some 200,000 people. Contrary to the practice of previous Turkish leaders, Erdoğan is regularly accompanied by Diyanet President Ali Erbaş on foreign trips as the religious authority is active in more than 140 countries worldwide.
It is not only religious minorities that have been left defenseless. Even the leader of the opposition İYİ (Good) Party, Meral Akşener, who is known as the “iron lady,” was openly threatened by Erdoğan. Following remarks by Akşener in which she likened Erdoğan to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the Israeli-Hamas conflict, dozens of Erdoğan supporters attempted to attack Akşener and party members when she visited Erdoğan’s hometown of Rize on May 21. In a statement that followed the incident, Erdoğan’s use of vile and disturbing language shocked the nation. “Pray that they haven’t gone too far while teaching her a lesson,” he said, adding: “This is a first. There is more to come. These are your good days.” Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition CHP, also narrowly escaped a lynching attempt by Erdoğan supporters during the funeral of a soldier near Ankara in 2019.
Turkey’s secular constitution is intended to protect the rights of minorities, but the Erdoğan government’s unlawful practices are beginning to worry the country’s religious minorities. Turkish media have reported an increase in incidents of vandalism of churches and Christian cemeteries. An individual was caught on camera attempting to vandalize an Armenian church in İstanbul, while 20 gravestones in the Ortaköy Christian Cemetery in Ankara were defaced last February. While Erdoğan does not directly target religious minorities, the Islamic-nationalist rhetoric meant to replace Atatürk’s secular republic with an Islamist regime threatens the basic rights of all minorities. By opening a grand mosque in Taksim Square, the symbol of secularism, Erdoğan has already made Turkey more exclusionary.