Two steps back

15 Jul 2020


Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

HUMAN history is replete with instances of places of worship being repurposed by rival faiths in the wake of conquests or other cataclysms. It’s no longer a common phenomenon, yet it’s hard not to see last week’s reversion of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque as a throwback to that trend.

The young Turkish republic under Kemal Pasha Ataturk turned the mosque into a museum back in 1934-35 as part of its commitment to secularism, given the eloquent structure has been constructed as a church in what was then known as Constantinople 537AD, and remained so for more than 900 years, serving for centuries as the Orthodox equivalent of the Vatican.

It was turned into a mosque in 1453, following the Ottoman conquest of the city, with the minarets added to consolidate its changed status. And thus it remained until the Ottoman Empire crumbled and a different Turkey emerged from the ashes of World War I. Its post-Kemal trajectory was decidedly uneven, with frequent military coups inevitably stunting the growth of democratic institutions — a scenario with which Pakistanis are painfully familiar.

In stark contrast with Pakistan, though, Turkey’s secular aspirations suffered relatively little damage. However, the army’s self-ordained status as the upholder of the secularist ideal was inevitably tarnished by its repeated political interventions. And then Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged on the scene, winning elections first as the mayor of Istanbul and subsequently as prime minister and president, and all the while pushing back against secularism, rather subtly at first, and then with increasing vehemence as he grew more confident of his success in neutralising the military threat.

Turkey’s move to alter the status of Hagia Sophia was unnecessary.

The first prayers in Hagia Sophia were supposed to take place today, marking the fourth anniversary of a murky coup attempt, but have been postponed until July 24. Last week, Erdogan lost little time in formalising the city’s biggest tourist attraction’s new status, extolling it as evidence of Turkey asserting its sovereign rights.

The nation’s sovereignty was never in doubt, however, nor is there any shortage in Istanbul of venues where Muslim can worship. But the (mostly international) outcry over Hagia Sophia provides a useful distraction from the inadequacies of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic consequences.

The Unesco World Heritage site will, of course, remain open to tourists, and its altered status quite possibly isn’t quite as big a deal as the various Orthodox churches, the Vatican and rights organisations make it out to be. Still, it was unnecessary, and provides yet another cause for concern in a world where the mix of religion and nationalism is already a source of uncertainty and strife.

Arguably, however, the Pakistan government’s apparent second thoughts about the Krishna Mandir in Islamabad raise even more questions. Who in their right mind could possibly object to its construction? In what way could it conceivably pose a threat to the dominant faith? Why should the Council of Islamic Ideology have the last word?

Perhaps such questions are superfluous in a country where its founding father would probably be criticised for saying: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” Ataturk would probably empathise.

It wasn’t long after Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s demise that it became precisely the business of the state, and once it was reinforced with a bludgeon 30 years after the state was founded, it seemingly was here to stay.

Today it continues to seep into seats of learning, high and low, in ways that would have thrilled Ziaul Haq and appalled Jinnah. Which helps to explain why Naya Pakistan is at risk of turning into a testament to regression.

Sudan, a nation that was Islamised pretty much in tandem with Pakistan in the 1980s, this week announced it would scrap its law against apostasy, abolish public flogging, and implement previously announced measures against female genital mutilation.

A move to repeal the blasphemy laws could be seen as an equivalent in Pakistan. What are the chances of that happening under the present government or its conceivable future variants?

Sudan has many issues to deal with a year after the overthrow of the 30-year Omar al-Bashir regime, not least the overweening power of the successor administration’s military component, and its troubling ties with the ill-intentioned Middle Eastern trio of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE. Besides, a proper reckoning with the past remains a distant prospect.

Despite everything, though, it has taken at least a small step forward in recent days. Unlike Turkey and Pakistan, which to all intents and purposes remain determined to keep marching in the opposite direction.

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2020