Hagia Sophia’s change from a museum into a mosque raises critical questions about the implications for the secular-Islamist conflict in Turkey. At its core, the decision reflects an Islamist obsession with power and prevailing over the Christian “other” and is full of symbolism about Turkey and Erdogan’s bid for leadership of the Sunni Muslim World. The re-designation of Hagia Sophia aims to mobilize support for Turkish President Erdogan’s regional ambitions by signaling his commitment to Islamic causes and by providing a symbolic triumph in that regard.

Hagia Sophia is no ordinary temple. It stood as the epitome of Byzantine grandeur—the imperial church in the most powerful seat of Christianity. According to tradition, Justinian I declared upon the completion of Hagia Sophia’s construction, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” Hagia Sophia’s magnificence was meant to communicate this confidence beyond the borders of the Eastern Roman Empire.

When Mehmet II conquered Istanbul in 1453—the long-awaited dream for Muslims as the Prophet Muhammad foretold the conquest in the 7th century—his first act was the visit of Hagia Sophia. The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque in 1453 was the final symbolic nail in the Byzantine Empire’s coffin. Hagia Sophia stood as a constant reminder of Islam’s triumph over the West and Christianity—Islam was victorious. The construction of the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque) in the 17th century right across the street attempted to eclipse Hagia Sophia’s architectural magnificence, but its efforts were in vain. Hagia Sophia’s significance was irreplaceable.

For today’s Islamists, Hagia Sophia’s symbolism lies in its representation of the Christian West and Islam’s constant battle with Christianity, which the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Hassan al-Banna viewed as the diabolical antagonist of the Muslim. Closer to home, Turkey’s Islamists reminisced about the days of glory with the Ottoman Empire—the Muslim world’s champion that brought the Christian West to its knees. The founding charter of the first Islamist party in Turkey gloated over the conquest of Istanbul, pushing back against the “barbarian offensives” of the Crusaders, and how the Ottomans faced Western nations en masse and “defeated them in every way.”

Islamists, therefore, attached a high symbolic value to the status of Hagia Sophia. Bediüzzaman Said Nursi—a theologian credited with creating one of the earliest Islamist mass movements in Turkey—personally lobbied the Democrat Party government in Ankara for Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a mosque multiple times in the 1950s, asking for the temple to be returned to its “sacred mission.” The National Turkish Student Association—one of the earliest Islamist associations in Turkey—delivered a petition to the Prime Minister’s office in the 1950s that read “Open Hagia Sofia – Our Prophet’s gesture, the Conqueror’s trust [Sultan Mehmed II], Great Turkey’s sign.” National Outlook Movement’s founder and longtime leader Necmettin Erbakan claimed that Hagia Sophia was “a symbol of the triumph of godly over heathen” and embodied the effort “to establish the dominion of God.”

Turning Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1935, in this regard, hurt Islamists. The reason lies in Islamists’ longstanding obsession with power and triumphalism. The inability to shake the Christian West’s material and cultural dominance bothers Islamists; until Islam is triumphant over Christianity—whatever form that might take—Islamists will not rest. This “triumphalist religiosity,” as Richard Landes—a historian whose work focuses on religion’s public role—refers to it, mandates Islamists to establish Muslims’ material domination over non-Muslims “as a visible sign of their superiority, as a proof of God(s) ‘favor’ on them.” If Muslims do not rule and cannot exert their dominance over non-Muslims and their symbols, then Islamists do not have a way to prove that their religion is the right one and that their god is the true god. For Islamists, Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum is a constant reminder that Islam and Muslims are defeated in a Westernized and modernized world and face subjugation and ridicule.

The symbolism in Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a mosque lies less in Turkey’s domestic politics and more in the message it sends to other Muslims and non-Muslims beyond Turkey’s borders. It is intended as a harbinger of the coming Muslim dominance in the international arena. This is why Erdogan publicized Hagia Sophia’s re-opening as a mosque with a video that features verses in Arabic, Turkish, Bengali, Swahili, Bosnian, and many other languages to frame it as an issue that concerns the Muslim world rather than just Turkey. Even more, Turkey’s top religious authority wielded a sword accompanied by two green flags on the Hagia Sophia’s opening day sermon on July 24—a move that denotes conquest. The Friday sermons on opening day claimed that Hagia Sophia infused “grieved and oppressed mosques all over the world with hope,” including, most importantly, Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.

This decision’s timing aligns well with the way Erdogan flexes Turkey’s military muscles and reach across the Middle East, especially in zones of conflict. In Syria, Turkey not only achieved its objective of preventing the creation of an autonomous Kurdish zone in the north of the country but also carved a substantial piece of territory that functions, for all practical purposes, as part of Turkey. In Libya, Turkey has emerged as one of the main actors in the country’s protracted civil war, facing opposition from Western European countries, Russia, and the Saudi-Egyptian-Emirati bloc. Nonetheless, Erdogan is inching toward resolving the conflict by pushing out Haftar and his forces. These developments coincide with Turkey’s oil and gas exploration efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean since 2018 despite pushback from regional actors.  

Prior to this, Erdogan has been advocating for the Sunni Muslim world’s leadership, pitching himself as a “global Muslim leader.” Erdogan and his AKP take up major Islamist causes globally and have become their most vocal advocates. He has been a long-time advocate of the Palestinian cause and a public supporter of Hamas in Gaza, as Soner Cagaptay fastidiously detailed. Similarly, Erdogan was the principal supporter of the Morsi government and the Brotherhood in Egypt in the post-2011 period. Erdogan offered a safe haven and financial assistance for Brotherhood officials and members in Istanbul after their purge in Egypt. He keeps major Islamic organizations and Islamist actors close to him and leverages his prominent position to forge the idea that Muslims should unite and stand up to the West. For example, Erdogan used the 2016 Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Istanbul to boast of his “qualifications to lead the Islamic world.” In April 2016, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, in his keynote address at a conference, painted an illustrious portrait of Erdogan as “an invincible ‘sultan’ who has become the sentinel of the Ummah who dared to defy tyrants.”

Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque offers Erdogan and Islamists an easy symbolic victory with which they can bask in the glory of “defeating” the Christian West and show support for Erdogan’s claim to regional leadership. This victory, however, imperils one of the most important heritage sites around the world.

A. Kadir Yildirim is a Fellow at the Center for the Middle East, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. You can follow him on Twitter @akyildirim.