THE reversion of the celebrated Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque is perhaps the most telling sign of the rolling back of Turkey’s secular character and a reflection of the rise of religious nationalism in the country. As a museum, this architectural wonder symbolised the idea of a common cultural heritage that transcended faith. The change of its status has removed that symbolism.
While the decision by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have pleased his Islamist followers and his populist base, millions of Turks, as the country’s Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk noted, “are crying against this but their voices are not heard”. The move has not only shaken the world, it has also divided the nation.
Built some 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453. It was turned into a museum on the orders of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of secular Turkey in 1934. The majestic complex has been declared by Unicef as a World Heritage Site and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
Some sections of conservative Muslims had long campaigned for reopening the complex for prayers but they were in a minority. Turkey’s strong secular culture would not permit restoration of the heritage as a place of worship. However, the rise of the Islamists led by Erdogan is changing the country’s political landscape.
The rise of the Islamists led by Erdogan is changing the country’s political landscape.
Although the secular character of the state is still protected by the Turkish constitution, the resurgence of faith and the confluence of faith and politics has weakened the Kemalist order. Erdogan’s latest action, coming after a court ruling, has raised questions about Turkey’s image as a moderate Muslim country.
By changing its status, the universal nature of Hagia Sophia’s heritage is affected. The complex reflects centuries of interaction between Europe and Asia, and to treat it as the heritage of a particular faith will be seen as a negation of its overall historical value. Such an approach can also fuel religious fanaticism and widen religious divides, besides causing a shift in the perception of Turkey as an open society. Many may see it as shift towards exclusion.
During the mediaeval ages, it was a common practice of conquerors everywhere to convert places of worship of the vanquished to premises for the practice of their own religion. There have been a number of examples where churches were turned into mosques and mosques into churches. Hagia Sophia was also such an example. By turning it into a museum, Mustafa Kemal had restored history. It also reinforced Istanbul’s position as the city where different cultures and faiths could coexist.
Erdogan’s action of reversing this aspect of the Kemalist legacy has intensified the clash between those who want Turkey to remain secular and the conservative support base of the Turkish president. The issue has highlighted the battle for the soul of Turkey. “To convert it back to a mosque is to say to the rest of the world unfortunately we are not secular anymore,” Orhan Pamuk was quoted as saying.
Predictably, the decision has provoked intense international outrage. In a statement, Unesco, the UN’s cultural agency, has warned Turkish authorities against “taking any decision that might impact the universal value of the site”. Several Western countries have also protested.
But the Turkish president does not seem bothered over the outcry. He has defended his action by stressing that the country had exercised its sovereign right in converting the museum into a mosque. This argument does not sound very convincing.
Many Turks also question the timing of the move at a time when the country is badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy is in a slump and tourism is non-existent. Some see it as a political move in that it is meant to assert a strident nationalism as part of the battle against the president’s secular rivals.
Erdogan’s move cannot be seen in isolation. It reflects the increasing instrumentalisation of religion in order to solidify his populist support base. In fact, at a more general level, it symbolises the rise of right-wing nationalism and religious chauvinism around the world today.
In recent years, religiously inspired nationalist movements have gained prominence in several countries around the world. The confluence of politics and religion has also generated exclusiveness and majoritianism. The tendency to drive political legitimacy through religion has serious implications for the democratic process and political development in society.
Turkey under President Erdogan is such an example. He has used religious nationalism to undermine democratic rights and freedom of expression and faith. According to media reports in the past decade, less famous former churches in other parts of Turkey have resumed services as mosques.
Yet Turkey is not the only country that is witnessing the rise of a strident religious nationalism and chauvinism. There are many democracies worldwide that are also experiencing the emergence of such political movements holding a strong religious appeal, including countries as diverse as India and some countries of Latin America and Western Europe.
In fact, Hagia Sophia is not the only historical site that has seen a religious reversion. Similar moves have been part of state policy elsewhere too. For instance, the Indian supreme court last year endorsed the 1992 demolition of the 16th-century Babri Masjid by Hindu fundamentalists aligned with the current ruling BJP, who believed it was built atop the birthplace of Ram. The issue may have helped the party galvanise the religious vote bank, but at the expense of India’s secular character.
Religious conflicts are being increasingly weaponised by virulent nationalist forces to assert their political brand. It is a highly dangerous proposition as appeals to religion invariably create an opening for a more strident nationalism. Conversions of such sites reflect an aggressive nationalism that presents one of the most serious challenges for the civilised world. What is happening in Turkey, India and some other parts of the world must be a serious cause of international concern.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2020