NGOs and organizations in Africa that are supported by the Turkish government are using the conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque to portray President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the leader of the continent and the Islamic world.
While Turkish-backed NGOs organize events to promote Erdoğan’s unique brand of Islamic leadership and the Turkish government’s political agenda, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) benefits from their work for propaganda campaigns in Turkey.
Turkey’s Yeni Şafak daily, a mouthpiece for the Erdoğan regime owned by the Albayrak group, which has investments in Africa, aired a video of a ceremony organized by a Turkish NGO in Togo. Local Togolese are seen in the video sacrificing animals in honor of Erdoğan’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque and praising him as the “leader of Africa and the Islamic world.”
“Thank God for again giving us the Hagia Sophia mosque, which was left to us as an inheritance by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. Amen. We are sacrificing these animals for that. Amen. God bless Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is the leader of Africa and the Islamic world. Amen. May God grant him a long life. Amen. He [Erdoğan] pleased us very much and we pray that God will make him happy, too. Amen,” said a Togolese man in Turkish at the ceremony.
President Erdoğan has ordered the conversion of the country’s historic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque after a top administrative court annulled a 1934 presidential decree that made it a museum. Shortly after the court released its long-anticipated decision, Erdoğan issued a presidential decree transferring management of the site from the Ministry of Culture to the Religious Affairs Directorate, paving the way for its conversion.
The Hagia Sophia will open for Friday prayers on July 24, the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, signed between the Allied powers and Turkey, which drew the boundaries of modern Turkey.
In 1934 the founder of the modern Turkish state Kemal Atatürk turned the iconic building into a museum as part of his secularization drive, but Erdoğan proclaimed the Hagia Sophia to be a mosque. The UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally built as an Orthodox Christian cathedral before being converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453.
In addition to his strategy to divide the opposition at home, President Erdoğan, through his Hagia Sophia decision, is trying to spread his Islamist ideology around the world. Addressing the nation regarding Hagia Sophia, President Erdoğan said: “[T]oday, Hagia Sophia is having another resurrection, many of which it has witnessed since its construction. The resurrection of Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of the al-Aqsa Mosque. The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is a [sign] of the will of Muslims across the world to emerge from the interregnum.”
President Erdoğan regularly capitalizes on religion and political sensitivities in Africa to expand his radical Islamist message and extend his government’s influence on the continent. To this end, the Turkish government has financed like-minded NGOs’ projects and encouraged Turkish companies to invest in African countries. President Erdoğan has also urged African leaders to back those NGOs and Turkish companies in accordance with his priorities.
The Albayrak group, the owner of the Yeni Şafak daily, which aired the video, is among Turkish conglomerates conducting important projects in Africa under the auspices of the President Erdoğan. The group is known to have close ties to Erdoğan and his ruling AKP.
The group has been constructing housing units financed by Turkish agencies in Somalia since 2011. Moreover, it took over the port of Mogadishu in 2014 and has operated it in line with Erdoğan’s priorities. Furthermore, it was announced in 2018 by the Guinean government that the Albayrak group would operate the conventional section of the Autonomous Port of Conakry (PAC), which handles cargo excluding containers, for a period of 25 years.