A sacred site in Jerusalem

The new Saladin

Now that he has converted Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is setting his sights on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Joseph Croitoru explains why the call to "liberate Al-Aqsa" is being elevated to a state ideology in Turkey

The conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque was a spectacular move. Some saw this change in the status of this publicly accessible site with its magnificent art, frescoes and architecture as sacrilege, but for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it constituted a "resurrection", indeed, a "harbinger" for the liberation of the next holy site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

When proclaiming this mission, Erdoğan used the Turkish term "Mescid-i Aksa", which, similar to the Arabic term "Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa", has long meant not only the mosque but the entire Temple Mount. Another reason why the term is preferred to "Al-Haram Al-Sharif" (venerable sanctuary), which was once in common use, is because it is mentioned in the Koran in connection with Muhammad's Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem.

This rhetoric is intended not only to make Muslims more aware that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the third holiest place in Islam; its consistent use is in fact part of a global Muslim campaign to guard the site against Israeli control.

Campaign to "liberate Al-Aqsa"

Turkish Islamists joined the campaign years ago and can be assured the support of the Turkish state and foundations close to it. The fact that the call to "liberate Al-Aqsa" – which was long heard in such circles – is also being voiced by the Turkish head of state himself, has elevated the mission to official Turkish state ideology.

Erdoğan’s rallying cry regarding Al-Aqsa is being spread via all possible channels. On the day of the re-consecration of Hagia Sophia, the words were already emblazoned on posters put up in various cities by the "Turkish Youth Foundation", which has close links to the state. Activists from the foundation, on whose board of directors Erdoğan's son Bilal sits, distributed sweets to mosque visitors and passers-by, who congratulated them on the "resurrection" of Hagia Sophia – and the imminent "liberation of Al-Aqsa".

This slogan is now also being propagated by Ali Erbaş, who has been president of the Turkish religious authority Diyanet since September 2017. Immediately after taking office, Erbaş ostentatiously posted on his Twitter and Facebook pages a photo of the Temple Mount – taken from the east, the occupied part of the city. He thus avoided including the Wailing Wall, frequented by Jews, in his picture. This perspective is consistent with the Islamist denial of the Jewish claim to the Temple Mount.

Erbaş's predecessor Mehmet Görmez is likewise agitating for Al-Aqsa and put in a spectacular appearance in Jerusalem to pronounce this claim. In May 2015, Görmez delivered an incendiary sermon in Arabic at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was broadcast by the Turkish state-run television station Diyanet-TV and celebrated as "historic". He praised his Palestinian hosts for their "holy war in defence of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque" and appealed to Muslims around the world to support the Palestinians.

Turkish flags outside the Dome of the Rock

The Turkish Al-Aqsa campaign gained considerable traction when, following the Trump administration's official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017, Erdoğan called on all Muslims to convene on the Temple Mount. Since then, more and more groups of Turkish pilgrims have travelled there, demonstratively holding up Turkish flags and posters with Erdoğan's portrait outside the Dome of the Rock. Turks from Germany also joined in.

More on this topic