Pray Turks for Erdogan

Erdogan gives the West a "double slap" : Hundreds of thousands at Friday prayers in Hagia Sophia

Turkey celebrated the reopening of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on Friday as a nationalist victory celebration. As if to mark a conquest, Turkish flags have been hoisted in front of the 1500 year old building in the past few days.

"You have been ours for ages and we are yours," said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a video message about Hagia Sophia, simply ignoring the thousand-year history of the building as a church. The transformation of Hagia Sophia is deliberately stylized as a symbol for Turkey's turning away from the West.

Nationalism underlaid with Ottoman nostalgia is increasingly becoming a fundamental principle of politics. The nationalist axis shift is also reflected in the new tensions with Greece in the Aegean Sea and in the Libya conflict. Turkey no longer has any western allies - and is proud of it.

With the conversion of Hagia Sophia and the dispatch of a militarily escorted seismic research vessel into the waters around the Greek island of Kastellorizo, Turkey is giving its neighbor Greece a “double slap in the face”, headline the Erdogan-friendly newspaper “Türkiye” on Thursday.

The Turkish research vessel “Oruc Reis” is accompanied by warships, fighter planes and drones in the Aegean Sea. In response, Greece has put its own naval units on alert and is calling for EU sanctions against Ankara, which are currently being worked out. The punitive measures could be put into effect in just a few weeks if tensions persist.

Everything is currently pointing to this. The Turkish authorities declare the transformation of Hagia Sophia to the triumph of Islam and a victory over the West. The Istanbul governor Ali Yerlikaya recalled the occupation of the city by the Ottomans in the 15th century and declared that he was grateful to the then Sultan Mehmet II, who "conquered Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia for our civilization". All Muslims are excited with anticipation.

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Hagia Sophia church was declared a mosque in 1453

Mehmet II declared the Hagia Sophia, which was built in the sixth century as the imperial church of the Byzantines, to be a mosque during the conquest of what was then Constantinople in 1453. It was converted into a museum in the 1930s, but Erdogan ordered it to be converted back into a mosque following a court ruling two weeks ago. Christian mosaics are said to be covered with curtains during Islamic prayer times.

[More on the topic: Erdogan celebrates the inauguration - hundreds of thousands attend the first Friday prayer in Hagia Sophia]

In the first Friday prayer in Hagia Sophia for more than 80 years, only Erdogan and a few hundred invited guests took part in the building itself. However, tens of thousands of believers were present in places in the vicinity of the former church. Main roads in Istanbul's old town were closed and thousands of police officers were called up. Due to the mass rush, Hagia Sophia remains open for prayers on Friday afternoons, in the evening and on Saturday night.

Hagia Sophia as a symbol: Erdogan sees Turkey as a leading regional power

The fact that the reopening of the “Hagia Sophia Mosque” was staged as a state act and nationalist high mass is an expression of a fundamentally changed understanding of politics in Ankara. Under Erdogan, Turkey sees itself in the tradition of the Ottoman Empire as a regional leading power that pursues its own interests and negotiates with the great powers on an equal footing.

The country no longer sees itself as an integral part of the West, but as an actor who, depending on the situation, works together with Europe, the USA, Russia or China. The Turkish involvement in Syria and Libya as well as the aggressive policy in the dispute over gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean are consequences of this axis shift.

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When it comes to chronic foreign policy problems, Turkey is less willing to compromise today than it was a few years ago. In the dispute with Greece over territorial claims in the Aegean Sea, Ankara has long relied on a policy of de-escalation and confidence-building measures.

Turkey wants to enforce its interests with a crowbar. The change of course has largely isolated Turkey internationally; apart from little Qatar and Azerbaijan, there are no more allies left. But that doesn't seem to bother Ankara.

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