Turkish heritage sites are weapons in Erdoğan’s widening culture war

Turkish heritage sites have become increasingly weaponised in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s widening culture war, an analyst said in an article published by Foreign Affairs on Friday.

The Turkish government has drawn international condemnation recently for its handling of Turkey’s unique cultural heritage, Nick Danforth, George F. Kennan Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, said. 

In early July, the ancient archaeological site of Hasankeyf was fully submerged by rising waters from a new dam. On July 10, Erdoğan announced that Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia - the Byzantine church turned mosque turned museum - would be re-converted into a mosque

Danforth said that Erdoğan draws strength from international condemnation over such moves as they fuel his postures of indignation and grievance. 

“Erdoğan presented the reconversion of Hagia Sophia not simply as an act of piety or the rectification of a historic injustice but as a defence of Turkey’s sovereignty,” Danforth said.

“In the case of Hasankeyf, Erdoğan has suggested that critics oppose dam building not out of concern for cultural heritage or the environment but because they do not want Turkey to prosper.”

Danforth said that Erdoğan’s culture war casts religion, nationalism, and infrastructure development as part of a zero-sum struggle with his adversaries abroad and at home, and this resonates with many voters. However, it has done little to improve Turkey’s flagging economy and has soured relations with its neighbours. 

“The president’s combativeness produces a self-fulfilling prophecy: he blames external forces and foreign powers for the problems created by his insistent conjuring of enemies of the nation,” he said. 

Danforth argued that Erdoğan’s combative moves have proven effective in part because of his success in picking the right battles, then seeing them through. But he questioned whether such perceived victories would be enough to placate Turkey’s voters as its economy continues to falter, along with rising inflation and a weakening Turkish lira. 

“Erdoğan has so far managed to maintain his narrow majority by censoring and arresting his opponents, while rewriting the electoral rules in his favour. But if his actual base of support is eroding as quickly as some polls suggest, even these undemocratic measures may no longer be enough,” Danforth said.

The next presidential and parliamentary elections are currently scheduled for 2023. 

“In the coming years, voters will undoubtedly get more mosques and megaprojects and no end of friction in the eastern Mediterranean. Then they will have to decide whether these fights are the source of or the solution to their problems,” Danforth said. 

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2020-07-31/mosque-dam-and-erdogans-widening-culture-war