Hazem Saghieh

On Erdogan Who Dislikes Museums

There is no reason to worry about Islam in Turkey: there are 82693 mosques in the country, 3113 of which are in Istanbul. The scarcity of museums, on the other hand, may be a cause for concern. According to the numbers released in 2017, there are only 438 museums there, 91 of them in Istanbul (35 are privately owned). The shortage of museums indicates an indifference to history and superficial and partial knowledge of it, understanding it purely as a series of battles and victories. Of course, in this poor reading of history, there is always an oppressed and vanquished faction that eventually becomes a victorious invader itself.

Turkey is among the nations most in need of a more just rereading of their history: What was done to the Armenians especially, but also to the Kurds, Greeks, Syriacs, Arabs, and Jews? With that, it refrains from doing so, satisfying itself with negation, denial, making allegations of treachery, and retreating with evasion and creating confusion. Is there a better evasion tactic than the concept of national sovereignty that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan clung to concerning Hagia Sofia's transformation from a museum into a mosque?

On the surface, Erdogan is right when he says that national sovereignty entitles him to do what he is doing. However, we have heard and continue to hear many rulers saying that national sovereignty gives them the absolute right to do whatever they want concerning “internal issues”. Imprisonment, killing, clawing back freedoms, crippling the press, and preventing dissent are all issues that outsiders are not entitled to interfere with. This has become a pillar of contemporary populist ideology across the planet.

Erdogan is not fond of the museum, as a symbol and as a preserver of history, especially since it displays the largesse of time and humanity’s collective shaping of history, even during periods of contention and conflict. The museum also displays the fleeting nature of things and demonstrates that everything disappears and disintegrates into lessons and morals. What the Turkish president is fond of, in contrast, is that the past which can be employed to further his day-to-day policies does not pass. Many commentators have already noted the developments that created his need to take such a step: deterioration of the economy which has been aggravated further by the coronavirus pandemic. The establishment of two opposition parties that came out from the cloak of Erdogan and his 'Justice and Development Party.' The omen cast by the municipal elections in Istanbul more than a year ago, in which the candidate he formally backed lost by a large margin. The failure to force back to Turkey his opponent, Fathallah Gulen, or to cover up his family’s corruption and the major transgressions that followed the coup attempt in the summer of 2016. His increased need for a popular mandate and the hardening of his Islamic base and that of his nationalist allies as his regional role expands. All of this calls for a major victory of history, one which can be employed in day-to-day politics to provoke "the people" against "the enemy."

With the Hagia Sophia move, Erdogan succeeded in playing on the famed Turkish tradition of merging religion and nationalism. He managed to obliterate his divergence with Ataturk concerning museums and demonstrate their alignment on the issue of sovereignty, and he also managed to make others' objections to his decision akin to national betrayal. Nevertheless, the Turkish president would be better off refraining from directing accusations of flaring the "clash of civilizations" at everyone but himself and making the past, a distorted interpretation of it, the standard for judging the present and the future. It is enough that, since his recent decision regarding Hagia Sophia's status, converting mosques into churches, churches into mosques and following the reactions of the world's religious authorities to the decision have become leading global issues!

This goes beyond investing in hatred; it is a manifestation of hatred controlling reason entirely.

Indeed, Erdogan’s fantasy of empire once had him working on the transfer of the tomb of Osman bin Ertugrul in Syria and, another time, dressing his guards in the old Ottoman uniform. His choice for the date of the opening of the old-new mosque, July 24, is the day the Treaty of Lausanne was signed in 1923, as though changing the Hagia Sohpia’s status is a response to it. In fact, this treaty was considered a victory for the new Turkish nation-state, with much more favorable terms than that which preceded it, the Treaty of Severe, but the move was also considered to be a dedication of the Ottoman Empire's end. Something similar could be said about the militaristic adventurism in Libya, where the Italian 1911 invasion was among the events that put the Empire on its path toward collapse.

Today, imperial wars are fought with symbols more than they are in reality, but they are also fought with the lies that we know very well: claiming that "liberating Al-Aqsa Mosque" is the next step or exploiting the refugee issue as blackmail to the Europeans whose Union joining is desired. This and that demonstrate that a purely imperial mindset, in the post-imperial era, does not require more than a thug from the Kasimpaşa district in Istanbul, where Erdogan was born and raised and played football.