02/27/2014, 00.00
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Erdogan's mad idea for president: turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque

by NAT da Polis
Made many times but never kept, the promise to reopen the Halki Theological School is another of the prime minister's mad ideas. So far, his ambitions have been hampered by his own authoritarian streak, allegations of corruption made against him, and the Gezi Park protest movement. Now Erdogan's aim is to get at least 40 per cent of the vote in next month's elections.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) - In order to get enough votes to win the race for the Turkish presidency, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has two major cards up his sleeve, namely reopening the Greek Orthodox Halki Theological School and turning the Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque.

What for Omer Sahin, a journalist with the Radikal daily, is a dual crazy idea comes in the wake of two huge projects: the construction of the third port on the Bosphorus and of Europe's largest airport.

Yet, nothing seems to have dampened the prime minister's ambitions: Not the bribery scandal that broke out on 17 December 2013 when three ministers in the AKP-led government were forced to resign because of actions blamed on their sons, forcing the prime minister to reshuffle his cabinet; not the clash with Fethullah Gulen, accused by AKP leaders of instigating the Gezi Park protest against the AKP's hold on power; not the recordings recently posted on YouTube in which Erdogan and his son Bilal are heard talking about the use of millions of dollars.

All this has not undermined Erdogan's unlimited desire to move into Çankaya Köşkü, Turkey's presidential palace. This could be done in the elections next August when, for the first time, a Turkish president will be elected by universal suffrage following a referendum Erdogan won by a landslide.

For Erdogan the 'generalissimo' [1], all this might not pay off because he might still be humiliated in next month's local elections. In this poll he will need at least 40 per cent of the vote since he is not likely to get again the 50 per cent support he got in the 2011 elections.

For Turkish journalists, neither a weak opposition nor his penchant for authoritarian rule (as evinced by his outrageous law to censor the Internet that was recently signed by President Abdullah Gul) can guarantee him a 40 per cent threshold.

Hence, in order to become Turkish president, Tayyip Erdogan has come up with his dual crazy idea, that of reopening the Halki Theological School and converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque in May 2014. The latter had been a museum since 1934 on Ataturk's orders.

The first mad idea, that of reopening the Halki Theological School, has been a never-ending saga. Shut down in 1971 after 150 years, the seminary was supposed to reopen on several occasions.

Putting pressure on the European Union and the United States, Turkish leaders said on several occasions that they might reopen it in the name of some vague notion of reciprocity and mutual favours. Yet, when a senior bureaucrat took a position against Turkish leaders, everything was in doubt.

As some Turkish journalists noted, the stakes are too high that even loyal bureaucrats hold their peace.

Erdogan's second mad idea is much more complicated. According to some rumours, he wants to turn Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. Indeed, for some people, "the time has come" for that but no one is able to assess domestic and international reactions if that were to pass.

Under a "middle-of-the road solution" being discussed, the authorities would allow Friday prayers in Hagia Sophia, starting from 30 May, the day after the Turks took Constantinople in 1453. For that occasion, Prime Minister Erdogan would invite leaders from Islamic countries to Istanbul.

The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a dream that right-wing nationalist Turks have entertained for the past 70 years. All right-wing Turkish leaders, from Menderes and Ozal to Erbakan have had to deal with the issue at some point.

A year ago, when members of his party asked when Sophia would reopen as a mosque, Erdogan said, "The Sultanahmet (the Blue Mosque across from Hagia Sophia), is almost empty for Friday prayers. We should think first to fill it before thinking about Sophia."

According to several local journalists, right-wing nationalist voters, the prime minister and AKP officials are just waiting for the right moment to implement this idea.

However, if converting a building into a mosque is not that difficult in itself, Western and world reactions can be. 

[1] This is how Haiko Bagdat, a columnist at the Taraf daily, described Erdogan, when he began a campaign worthy of a second Turkish War of Independence against "powerful forces" and the "international conspiracy" seeking to stop his policy of neo-Ottoman revival.

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