Hagia Sophia move shows nothing is off-limits for Erdogan’s Islamist project

As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rushes to consolidate his political Islam project, he is increasingly abandoning the project of the modern Turkish Republic (and the ideals of its founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) – making Turkey an increasingly troubled nation. Erdogan’s project concentrates on a Turkish-led religious-nationalist pan-Islamist global movement that racializes “Muslims” as a group hostile and antithetical to the West. In doing so, he is enflaming passions, and further widening the gap between East and West. His latest gimmick is to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, ostensibly to enhance shared human heritage. Doing so, however, desecrates its legacy and damages Muslim-Christian relations.

The original Church of Holy Wisdom (or ‘Hagia Sophia’) was completed in 537 A.D. after the Roman emperor Justinian decided to build an architectural wonder and introduce the pendentive dome to honor Constantine the Great (306-337 A.D.) and the imperial capital of Constantinople. The church is said to have changed the history of architecture and is considered a masterpiece as its dome gives the impression that it is suspended from heaven. According to the Ottoman historian Tursun Beg, the dome “vies in rank with the nine spheres of heaven,” though the 40 windows beneath the dome are equally impressive inventions since they illuminate the gold mosaics and capture the imagination of all who admire them.

A shot of the majestic Hagia Sophia. (File photo: Reuters)A shot of the majestic Hagia Sophia.

Although the current museum is the third restored basilica structure to stand on the Golden Horn in what is now Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia served as the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople until 1204 A.D., when it was converted by Crusaders to a Roman Catholic cathedral, even though that conquest ended in 1261 A.D. After the city was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453 A.D., it was converted into a mosque so that the empire’s rulers might continue to be crowned there. In fact, Ottoman sultans claimed the title of “Roman emperor” – or Qayser-i Rûm – due to their possession, in part, of the Hagia Sophia. Most of the Byzantine mosaics were covered with plaster, to protect the historic art. However in 1935, Atatürk – who did not wear his faith on his sleeve – secularized it into a museum, determined to improve ties with leading Western powers. On 10 July 2020, the Turkish Council of State annulled Atatürk’s decision and revoked the monument’s status. This permitted President Erdogan to sign a decree reclassifying Hagia Sophia, once again, as a mosque.

This latest decree is little more than an attempt by Erdogan to rewrite history via an official English language statement declaring, “like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims.” Hypocritically, the Arabic version of that same declaration underscored that the “Revival of Hagia Sophia is a sign towards return of freedom to Al-Aqsa mosque [in Jerusalem],” adding fuel to the extremist fire, and highlighting what truly motivates Erdogan.

This is not the first time that the Turkish head-of-state has delivered conflicting messages in different languages.

In March 2019, Erdogan sparked a diplomatic row when he responded to the manifesto of Brenton Tarrant, the 28-year-old Australian charged with terrorist attacks that left 50 people dead in a New Zealand mosque. Seldom a diplomat, Erdogan warned that any anti-Islamic extremists from Australia or New Zealand who attempted to attack Turkey would return home “in coffins,” referring to the First World War Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. “Your grandfathers came and saw that we’re here,” he added. What Erdogan misses are the sharp differences between late Ottoman geopolitics and the situation of moderate Muslims in the 21st century across the world.

It is worth recalling that the caliph Umar bin al-Khattab declined to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem because he did not want Muslims to inconvenience Christian worshippers in their church, or to convert it into a mosque. For his part, ‘Ubaidullah Sindhi (1872-1944), a Sikh who converted to Islam and became a leading religious scholar and political activist fighting for Indian independence, explained that Muslims should respect all houses of worship and refrain from changing them into mosques. Sindhi asserted that transforming houses of worship into mosques constituted political not religious acts, driven by ignorance and bigotry. Because Indian Muslims did not respect Hindu temples, he emphasized, the latter took revenge by destroying mosques or changing them into temples when Muslims lost power in India. Interestingly, Sindhi also posited that Turks were affected by the same ignorance and bigotry when they transformed the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

Muslims pray outside the Hagia Sophia. (AFP)Muslims pray outside the Hagia Sophia.

A part from its importance to the global culture, the Hagia Sophia has a symbolic religious importance to the Eastern Church. Christians in the region has been suffering for a long time from terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. When Erdogan ignores any Christian consideration in the region at this time, he does a great disservice to members of that minority religion, who in the past decade have faced enslavement and slaughter not far from the Turkish border.

Certainly, bigotry and ignorance advanced Erdogan’s political ambitions, but both were superseded by hypocrisy. Although the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced that it “deeply regretted” the conversion of the Hagia Sophia, UNESCO failed to understand that Erdogan was no Atatürk, and that Turkey in 2020 was anchorless, slowly but surely drifting towards zealotry.

By Saud Al-Sarhan

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