ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan attended the first prayers at Turkey’s Hagia Sophia on Friday since declaring the ancient monument a mosque, crowning his long campaign to place Islam at the heart of public life in the once fiercely secular republic. [nL5N2EV23T]
In 17 years in power, Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party have changed the face of modern Turkey, lifting a ban on wearing Muslim headscarves in public, championing religious education and building thousands of mosques across the country.
While retaining Turkey’s secular constitution, forged by the republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Erdogan has transformed the country which Ataturk led nearly a century ago.
Turkey lifted a ban on women wearing the Islamic headscarf in state institutions in 2013, a generations-old restriction which supporters saw as an important symbol of the separation of state and religion.
“A regulation that has hurt many young people and has caused great suffering to their parents, a dark period, is coming to an end,” then-prime minister Erdogan said.
Erdogan, who said one of his goals was to forge a “pious generation” of Turks, has revived Imam Hatip schools, where religious education lessons account for around a quarter to a third of the curriculum.
Funding for the Imam Hatips has been expanded, with scores of new schools built and hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to them, a Reuters investigation found here.
The curriculum in regular schools has also changed. Three years ago the government announced that high schools would stop teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution, deeming it controversial and difficult to understand.
Turkey has built 13,000 mosques since Erdogan took power, according data from the Directorate of Religious Affairs, bringing the total to 89,259 last year.
Those include the Camlica Mosque, the largest in Turkey. Formally opened last year and modelled on the classic designs of the celebrated Ottoman architect Sinan, it overlooks the Bosphorus from a hilltop on the Asian side of Istanbul.
Another major mosque is nearing completion in central Istanbul’s Taksim Square, stamping a more religious identity on a neighbourhood that also includes a monument to Ataturk.
Once the bastion and defender of Ataturk’s secular values, the army intervened four times in four decades from 1960 to topple Turkish governments. In a 1997 intervention, known as the “Post-Modern Coup” it helped force Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan to step down.
Under Erdogan, hundreds of senior military officers were tried on charges of trying to overthrow his government. After he survived an attempted military coup in 2016, thousands were purged from the military and other state institutions.
Erdogan, a pious Muslim, has made no secret of his distain for alcohol – in marked contrast to Ataturk who was often pictured with a glass of raki to hand.
Erdogan’s government has imposed high consumption taxes on alcohol, and there have been restrictions imposed in some regions on drinking in public, as well as curbs on advertising.
Erdogan has sought to position his country, a member of the NATO Western military alliance, as a regional power and champion of Sunni Muslim causes, frequently denouncing Israel for its treatment of Palestinians and occupation of the West Bank.
Turkey’s current military interventions in Syria, Iraq and Libya have led to accusations from his opponents that Erdogan has pursued a ‘neo-Ottoman’ policy to revive the Muslim empire’s influence in its former Middle Eastern territories.
He portrayed the change of Hagia Sophia’s status as a sign of a “return of freedom” for the al-Aqsa mosque in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.
Erdogan has said that gender equality is contrary to nature, with women’s “delicate” nature meaning they could not be placed on an equal footing with men. He said women should be treated equally in the eyes of the law, but their different role in society had to be recognised.
Erdogan’s critics have regularly accused him of puritanical intrusiveness into private life, from his advice to women on the number of children they should have, to attacks on abortion and caesarean births as secret plots to stall Turkey’s growth.
Authorities have increasingly cracked down on LGBT events in Turkey, where homosexuality is not a crime but hostility towards it is widespread. A top Erdogan aide said what he called LGBT propaganda posed a grave threat to freedom of speech.