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  • Writer's pictureThe Society For Constitutional Law Discussion

Hagia Sophia- Blow on secularism

Updated: Dec 17, 2021

Authored by Ananya Garg, a student of Chanakya National Law University, Patna.


On 24th July 2020, nearly nine decades later, once again prayers were offered at the Hagia Sophia, and the world witnessed a monumental shift in Turkey’s policy from secular nationalism to religious nationalism. The Muslim population of Turkey worshipped at the Hagia Sophia, whereas, all over Greece, church bells were tolled in mourning by the Orthodox Christians. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey, formally converted Istanbul’s sixth-century religious landmark, Hagia Sophia, back into a mosque and opened it for Muslim worship.

Hagia Sophia was originally an orthodox church but was turned into a mosque after Constantinople’s conquest by the Ottoman Empire. In 1935, it was converted into a museum by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern and secular Turkey.

Various countries mourned its conversion and considered it a blow on secularism. UNESCO has also condemned the step, as it was taken without any prior consultation [1].There are multiple facets to be considered before commenting upon this decision. Various parties condemn or praise it as per their agendas. This article will mainly focus on the facet of secularism and in what ways it is affected by this decision.

Secularism in Turkey

In 1935, the decision of converting Hagia Sophia into a museum came as a symbol of the establishment of modern and secular Turkey. When Turkey was looking for a path to the future after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the population was divided into the Islamists, who stoutly defended the Islamic teachings and code of living, and the Westernists, who supported the adoption of western institutions and culture.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became the leader of the newly established Republic after the War of Independence and led the Kemalist movement across Turkey. Kemalists based their vision of secularism on the French principle of laicism, they termed it laiklik in Turkish. Laicism is the principle of separation between state and religion, it established nationalisation and modernisation as the main goals. Thus, secularism in Turkey is heavily influenced by the French definition of secularism which is represented by anti-clericalism, rationalism, nationalism, and intellectual elitism.[2]

In 1928, the article that deemed Islam the official state religion was annulled, and various reforms were introduced to secularize social and cultural life in Turkey. The basis of all the secularism reforms was to limit the influence and visibility of religion within the public sphere and render religion a personal affair. When the Republic was established, Kemalists tried to form a new Turkish national identity that was devoid of any religious content. A series of legal reforms were undertaken by the republic and the Shariat (Islamic law) was abolished for new civil and criminal codes. The institution of Caliphate, which signified the unity of all Muslims in the world, was abolished and orthodox Islam was put under state control. Articles, which banned the use of religion for politics or personal gain, were incorporated in all the legislation on parties, labour union and associations, criminal code, and republican constitutions. Even today, it is illegal for any association, individual, or political party to advocate the establishment of an Islamic state.

Council of state's decision

A Turkish NGO brought a case that sought annulment of the 1934 decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a museum. The arguments extended by the group seeking the conversion of the iconic edifice back into a mosque mainly emphasised that the structure was the personal property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II who had converted Hagia Sophia, an orthodox Christian church, into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople. The Council of State, Turkey’s top administrative court, ruled that since the Hagia Sophia is under the ownership of Fatih Sultan Mehmet Han Foundation, its status on the deed is listed as a mosque and cannot be changed. Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II deemed the property to be used by the public as a mosque, thus it was concluded that according to the settlement deed, the structure was allocated as a mosque and the use of it outside this character is not possible legally.[3]

Hours after the ruling of the court, President Erdogan decided to hand over the management of Ayasofya Mosque to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship. After this decision, the monument is now open to everyone, worshippers as well as foreign and local tourists, and the entrance fee that was instituted thereafter its conversion into a museum was removed.

Threat to secularism

Secularity in Turkey was established by the Kemalists and their idea of secularism was based on limiting the role and visibility of religion in the public domain. Conversion of Hagia Sophia is directly in contravention to Turkey’s founding ideology of secular nationalism which advocates the feeling of a nation together, surpassing the religious borders.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party’s influence over the political sphere of Turkey has slowly pushed it from a constitutionally secular country to a more religious and conservative nation. It can be seen that the vast majority of the Muslim population of Turkey is appreciating this move of the government which aims at emphasising the creation of religious-nationalist sentiment. But even during the time of the Ottoman Empire, the state was known as multi-ethnic, and various religious minorities were given recognition and support. Turkey has been trying to be a part of the European Union and bridge the distance between its Muslim population and the western culture and principles since the establishment of the modern and secular republic. It is the only secular Muslim country [4]. The decision, to undo the work of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk by reconverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque, is a big setback for the country.

President Erdogan’s move is seen as an attempt to galvanise the conservative and nationalist voter base amid the economic uncertainty exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak. It is being seen as a move by the leader to employ religious feelings of the majority to mitigate criticism of his political and economic failures. On facing the pleas of many international entities to withdraw the decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque, the President has justified the move as a sovereign right of Turkey.

What does it mean for Hagia Sophia?

Hagia Sophia is one of the most important sites in world history. It holds a special significance for Christians across the world as it has served both as a Roman Catholic and a Greek Orthodox Cathedral. It is seen as a very important holy monument and a legacy of Christian tradition dating back to the Eastern Roman Empire. The religious significance of this building is invaluable as it has served three different faiths over time and has been a shrine dedicated to the rich cultural and ethnic history of both Roman and Ottoman empires. The site’s status as a museum was a symbol of interfaith and intercultural dialogue. It can be seen how the decision to dedicate this site solely to one religious belief may be perceived as intolerant and hurtful to other religious beliefs.

The historical landmark will be open to everyone as a place of worship and this will open access to a magnificent structure and the building’s invaluable mosaic decorations. The Christian symbols and figural mosaics are centuries old and might be in danger of getting damaged.

The global take on this decision has not been very tolerant itself. Greece, United States, Russia, UNESCO, European Union, and many other entities and individuals have openly condemned the move and expressed their misgivings about the growing religious nationalism in Turkey. The World Council of Churches based in Geneva has expressed its regret over the decision of conversion of Hagia Sophia and has done so in the form of a letter to the President of Turkey [5]. This decision has challenged Turkey’s openness and has given signs of exclusion and division.


Turkey has always tried to follow that form of secularism where religion is just a personal belief of the people and is not a part of the public domain. Conversion of the most popular monument of the country into a place of worship for one religion is a huge setback for the country which is seen as the only secular Muslim country. Until now, Turkey has been a bridge between the Muslims and the western principles, but after this decision, the world is unsure of Turkey’s position as a secular country itself.

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