Flat White

Turkey continues its backward march

14 July 2020

11:00 AM

14 July 2020

11:00 AM

Being born in Australia to Greek and Cypriot born parents, I was raised to forget the nationalistic differences of past generations. Even though the land where my mother was born continues to be the only occupied territory in Europe, my parents taught me to leave the past in the past.

In recent years the land where my great grandparents were born, modern-day Turkey, has unfortunately continued to spiral from one of Europe’s most promising new entrants to a chaotic despotic failure on the brink.

Friday’s decision and announcement to convert the famed Hagia Sophia museum to a mosque is the latest development in the Turkish government’s path back toward the dark ages.

The current Turkish government is making it increasingly hard not to speak out. Sorry, mum and dad.

As Australia shares a common bond forged in battle, it now faces a difficult conversation ahead with this new theistic version of Turkey.

It is now ever more delicately aligned to Russia, buying arms from it within the last twelve months as well as cosying up to China and Iran.

It should now regrettably be a matter of time until Australia shifts its position on how we interact with Turkey over the course of this century.

The move to convert the museum has been condemned by the United States state department, UNESCO, the World Council of Churches and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister.

However, the recent decision has far wider implications than just Turkey’s future. Its geographically strategic position makes the Turkish government one of the most unpredictable in the middle-east.

Nobody today seriously denies Turkey’s sovereignty in Istanbul but being a member of the international community, NATO, UNESCO and even MIKTA has responsibilities. Just because a country enjoys sovereignty doesn’t mean it can contravene international agreements and law.

Hagia Sophia was made into a museum in 1935 as a gesture of peace and harmony. It became a World Heritage site in 1985. Changing its use now may contravene that status.

The Turkish president knows how big a decision this is. He made a nationally televised live address to make the announcement that he had signed a decree in his name initiating the conversion.

What’s more, he knows he can and will get away with it, especially using the cloak of a worldwide health crisis. Where in the past, the United States could strongly condemn such action, it now has serious domestic matters to attend to and so is rightly distracted.

Two of Turkey’s greatest ever leaders, Mehmet II and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, respected the Christian community within its lands during their time. Under current Turkish law, the Christian churches today can’t even formally appoint their own priests and bishops. Their theological colleges in Istanbul remain shut by Turkish authorities.

As we’ve seen with China and Russia, once you turn a blind eye to human rights abuses within its borders, the government thinks it can get away with more and ventures out into surrounding areas like the South China Sea or Crimea.

China’s security law in Hong Kong is another live example.

What’s worse than this Turkish development, the decree doesn’t reflect Turkish society and sentiment. The decision to convert Hagia Sophia appeases a minority of hardline Turks. The truth is Turks, Muslims, Christians, Greeks and many other cultures have lived side by side for hundreds of years.

Hagia Sophia should be a beacon of this history, a place where the Islamic community and the Christian one should be coming together. The city where east meets west would make this a perfect example.

If the international community allows this change to go unchecked, we will be making the world a less safe, peaceful and ultimately more unstable place.

The main reason the region isn’t on the brink is because of the European and western community pulling Turkey away from it. However, with this decision, we are now closer to the brink then farther from it. Where will this really end?

Imagine if the shoe was on the other foot or if this had happened in another city or prominent international religious place of worship.

It’s important to draft Australia’s strategic future relationship with Turkey under its present leadership today in 2020 rather than create policy on the run in the future. We must rethink our interaction with the Turkish Government and the terms of those interactions.

With only about 0.14% of Australian trade being reliant on Turkey, the immediate impacts are minimal compared to the strategic change that may be required over the coming years with our largest trading partner in China.

Australia must raise these concerns in our upcoming diplomatic deliberations, particularly at the G20 in November.

The integrity of Australia’s foreign policy relies on it.

Theo Zographos is a Victorian local councillor and former Liberal Party candidate with Greek Cypriot heritage.

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