The venue for this year's Turkish celebrations of the 1453 conquest of Constantinople was not chosen randomly: it was the stunning edifice of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral (pictured), built in the sixth century Byzantine Empire as the centerpiece of its capital. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan personally commemorated the conquest with Islamic prayers at the Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO world heritage site. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
In Turkey, every May 29 brings up the country's "conquest fetish." Turks are proud that their Ottoman ancestors, in 1453, "conquered" (not "invaded") then-Constantinople, today's Istanbul. It is bizarre enough that a proud nation is commemorating, every year, the capture from another nation of its biggest city by the "force of sword." This year's 567th anniversary was no exception: The celebrations euphemistically referred to the fall of Constantinople as "conquest" -- not "invasion."
In Turkish jargon the difference is simple: it is "conquest" when we do it and "invasion" when others do it. In this year's celebrations, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan raised the stakes when he spoke of the conquest prospectively not just retrospectively. "I am wishing that God grant this nation many more happy conquests," he said at a celebration where he recited from the Quran.
The venue for this year's celebrations was not chosen randomly: it was the stunning edifice of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral, built in the sixth century Byzantine Empire as the centerpiece of its capital, Constantinople. Erdoğan personally commemorated the conquest with Islamic prayers at the Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO world heritage site. The church was converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople. But Atatürk, the secular founder of modern Turkey, converted it into a museum.
The Hagia Sophia has been emblematic in the Turkish Islamist politics from whose ranks Erdoğan emerged. It reflects Islam's "spread by force," the capture of another Christian monument by Muslims, therefore a Muslim victory over "infidels." The Hagia Sophia has been a source of political tension between secular Turks who want it to remain a museum out of respect for Christians and Islamists who want it to become a mosque for the sake of the spirit of "conquest".
In 2016 the Erdoğan government issued a directive to allow the recitation of Islamic call for prayers inside the Hagia Sophia. It then assigned an imam into a small chamber (masjid) within the church compound where Muslims had been allowed to pray since 1991. More recently Erdoğan said he would convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque in retaliation to U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of Israel's "claims to East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights."
The childish Turkish hypocrisy over "conquest vs. invasion" came most clearly from a fiercely pro-Erdoğan columnist. A Hürriyet newspaper columnist and former member of parliament, Fuat Bol , wrote on June 1: "[Ottoman Sultan] Mehmet the Conqueror converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque as required by the right of sword." ["Right of sword" refers to the Ottoman narrative that it supposedly has the right of a successful invader to rule an invaded land in line with its rules and wishes. Ed.] In the same article, Bol then mentioned "those shameless Greeks who converted [Ottoman] mosques into churches."
The "spirit of conquest" keeps poisoning the ordinary minds, too, and slowly winning over respect from the people who have remained secular.
On May 23, just a few days before the anniversary of the "conquest" of Constantinople, an attacker dismantled a cross outside an Armenian church in Istanbul's historical Kuzguncuk neighborhood. Two weeks earlier, on May 9, another Armenian church in Istanbul's Bakırköy district, had also been also attacked. Garo Paylan, a Turkish-Armenian lawmaker for the opposition Peoples' Democratic Party, called it a hate crime. "Attacks continue on our churches. The cross of our Surp Krikor Lusaroviç Armenian Church was removed and thrown away. Hate speech made by the ruling power normalizes hate crimes," he said in a tweet.
On the day the Turks celebrated the "conquest" of Constantinople, an Istanbul-based Armenian foundation received death threats by email. The threat to the Hrant Dink Foundation, named after the Turkish-Armenian journalist who was assassinated in 2007, included the phrase "We may turn up one night, when you least expect it." This is a slogan used frequently by Turkish ultra-nationalist groups -- "and the very same slogan we were well used to hearing before Hrant Dink was assassinated, and within the knowledge of officials," the foundation said.
After all that gloom, the good news was that the Turkish police quickly found and detained the suspects responsible for the threats to the Hrant Dink Foundation and church attacks. The not-so-good news is that the suspects will probably get a red-carpet treatment under detention, be brought to a prosecutor for a brief testimony and released immediately, and then receive several official and unofficial pats on the shoulder for their "heroic" acts.
In all this typically Turkish "conquest" fanfare a serious question remains to be asked: When Erdoğan wished God to grant Turks "many more happy conquests" which non-Turkish lands is he hoping to "conquer"?
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey's leading journalists, was recently fired from the country's most noted newspaper after 29 years, for writing in Gatestone what is taking place in Turkey. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.