The recent reconversion of Hagia Sophia, the UNESCO world Heritage Site in Turkey’s Istanbul into a mosque is the shocking reminder of the vicious cycle of bigoted nationalist politics, now sweeping through the postcolonial world. The grand cathedral-turned mosque of medieval Byzantine –Ottoman times was turned into a museum after WWI by modern Turkey’s Kamal Pasha government in 1934-5. It was thought to be one of history’s spectacular meeting grounds for Christian- Islamic religious sects in a historically cosmopolitan city as the war-ravaged world was longing for a soulful but matured mankind. But its reopening as a mosque on 10 July by Recep Tiyyip Erdogan, the populist-Islamist Turkish president after 86 years has turned the wheels of history backward. It has made a huge room for fanatics of all faiths to further justify their mutual misdeeds in the name of Moses, Christ and Muhammad, Rama and Buddha across the world including Indian subcontinent.
Erdogan must be on cloud nine now as a huge public support for his move was apparent at home when he had joined the first Friday prayer in Ayasofya under the dome of Christ on 24 July. At least for a time being, even most discerning Turks would not think of his shrewd politics in name of Allah and his messenger, the ‘Fatih’ Ottoman sultan Mohamet II and Islamic Ummah whom he has been invoking in his post-reconversion speeches. The arrival of the New Sultan who wishes to be the new de facto Caliph of Islamic world in military helicopter on the day was carefully arrayed by Muslim dignitaries from other countries while the rooftops and walls of the entire zone was plastered with national red flag embossed with crescent moon and star.
The New Ottoman Sultan
An Islamist since his student days, Erdogan cautiously upped his ante against secular nationalist legacies of Mustafa Kamal Pasha, known as Ataturk or father of modern Turks who wanted to unify Turks across faith line. The WWI military hero stressed on complete separation of state and religions bordering on French republican principle of Laicite and wanted to westernize his country. But the top-down modernism created deep fissures in Turkish society and polity with its controversial effects till today. In contrast, Erdogan is the epitome of anti-Ataturk religious right wing which believes in social-political dominance of Islam in Muslim-majority Turkey as well as the key determinant for its national identity.
In recent years, Erdogan has been called neo-Ottoman as he has increasingly unfolded his ambition to replace the Ataturk as the hero of modern Turkey. He has been invoking the Ottoman glory and promoting an imperial aura around him as a new Sultan. His cronies in Turkish mainstream cinema (not of Yilmaz Guney era of the seventies that focused on the lives of poor and broader social-political introspection) are active in reviving the religio-national pride in the Ottoman military glory sans all critical appreciation of the nation’s past. The Hollywood-style big-budget spectacular war movies lionizing the conqueror of Constantinople and other Ottoman heroes have been dubbed into Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Hindi as well as English to make them popular across the Muslim world.
Further, their promotions have been shrewdly synchronized in promoting Erdogan as the inheritor and custodian of the imperial pride during Turkish elections since last two decades. His campaign for the reopening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque has become more virulent after his party lost prestigious mayoral elections in Istanbul and Ankara as well as other few major cities last year. With the economy further downsized during the Covid pandemic and his popular approval rating plummeting after 18 years of his rule, this master manipulator of public mood has chosen the time for the conversion of Hagia Sophia to harvest its political dividend at home and the region. He carefully waited for the country’s top court to legally sanctify his political masterstroke.
Why he chose 24 July to resume prayer
He deliberately chose July 24 for formal resumption of Friday prayer at Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya. The symbolism of the day is unmistakable as the post-WWI Treaty of Lausanne on July 24, 1923, led to the international recognition of the sovereignty of the newly formed Republic of Turkey as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire. Kamal Pasha became the republic’s first president after it came into being in October that year. Anybody who has listened to Erdogan’s televised address to the nation defending his decree on Hagia Sophia will notice his repeated reference to the Pasha’s rule as a ‘one-party government’ while not naming him for even once, apparently in a concession to his coalition partner, still officially Kamalist.
Nevertheless, Erdogan criticized the Pasha for turning Hagia Sophia into a museum for tourists in the ‘name of modernity’ that he claimed had only ‘satisfied Europeans and Christians’ but ‘saddened Muslims in Turkey and larger Islamic world’. In contrast, he lionized the legacy of Mehmet II, the ‘Fatih’ or the conqueror of Constantinople in 1453 who had first turned Hagia into a mosque from a church but protected the heritage complex and allowed Christians to visit it. As Christian Europe including Russia and Greece as well as America criticized his move, Erdogan defended Turkish sovereign right to decide internal matters while reminding the West of the demolition and desecration of Islamic places of worship and veneration in former Ottoman Europe. Further, he claimed that his decision would get the approval of Allah, his prophet Muhammad as well the Fatih. His neo-Ottoman tenor was more certain as he claimed that his decision would herald a ‘resurrection’ of ancient Islamic values to navigate through the whirlpool of modern politics.
Clearly, he wanted to promote himself as the force behind the neo-Ottoman resurrection. His further ambition to be a protector of Islamic world beyond Turkey was clear as he referred to the Kaba in Mecca and Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Justifying his decision to ‘undo the historical wrongs’ done to practicing Muslims for last 86 years of Kamalist polity, he said his move would discourage modernist-secularists to ask for conversion of these first and third holiest Islamic shrines into museums.
Politics over Mount Temple
Evidently, these allusions were meant not only to provoke a mass hysteria of Muslim masses over an imaginary horrific attack on their faith. The prophet’s mosque in Jerusalem, adjacent to more ancient Islamic Dome of Rock is situated on the top of the Temple Mount, a holy hill in old Jerusalem. Erdogan has joined in whipping up the emotions over the most contested site of historic religious shrines of Islam, Judaism and to lesser extent, Christianity. The hill is also known as Mount Zion to the Jews since they believe it housed First and Second Temple of King Solomon, holiest shrine in Judaism, ruined by Babylonian and Roman Empires respectively in obscure antiquity. Christians too consider the hill holy as Jesus, born a Jew, believed to have a strong presence on and around the place till his Crucifixion.
Whatever had happened in the antiquity, the holy place was ought to be a common heritage for all the children of Baba Abraham—Jews, Christian and Muslims— for that matter, for the entire humanity. But unfortunately, it has been turned into a veritable battlefield in modern days. Today, Israeli army controls the area and clashes with Arab Palestinians over the free access to the Islamic shrines. After seizing Jerusalem from Arabs during the war in 1967, Israel has declared the city its capital recently dismissing Palestinian claims to the city’s eastern part as their promised homeland, a perpetual chimera for Arabs since the WW II. Like many an Arab politicians, Turkish Erdogan has also donned the clock of an anti-Israel strongman in last two decades. He now wants to bolster that image by promising Muslims a free passage to Al-Aqsa mosque as Ottoman Empire included Jerusalem before it was turned into a part of British protectorate of Palestine after the WWI.
The geo-politics of Erdogan
Apart from claims to imperial and religious legacy, let us have a cursory look into geo-political dynamics of Erdogan’s move on Hagia Sophia. Geographically and historically close to Europe, Turkish ruling elites have been pursuing their goal to be part of European Union (EU) after being a part of US-led military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since its inception during the West’s Cold War with the Soviet Bloc. However, pro-West forces among Turkish ruling classes are gradually losing ground as the Christian-dominated European countries are still bitter on Islamic Ottoman subjugation of south-West Europe till WWI. The entry of Muslim-dominated Turkey in the EU has remained postponed to this day.
Tsarist Russia and Ottoman Turkey had long fought on sea and land from Dardanelles to Caucasus while their economic and cultural exchanges continued even in the Soviet time. Post-Soviet Russia under Vladimir Putin has rekindled its religious connectivity to Turkey through the Istanbul-based Eastern Orthodox Church which is dominant in Russia, Ukraine, Greece and some Eurasian countries. Russia still maintains powerful military presence in adjoining Shia-dominated Syria. Putin has helped its beleaguered Asad regime to regain areas lost to NATO-backed militias as well as the Jihadist army of the ISIS. Unlike other parts of Asia, Turkey and its neighborhood is still the hot theatre of military rivalry of US-led West and Russia.
Muslim powers joined Europeans in Resource Wars
Super rich Saudi monarchy which lords over an oil-empire is the all-weather US ally and wants to be the top dog of Islamic world as the custodians of Mecca and Media, at least among the Sunnis. On the other hand, Cairo under general-turned president Al-Sisi, the military usurper of power is also a favorite to the US-led West. The courtship with Cairo that sits on the Suez Canal, the lifeline of Arabian fossil fuel supply to the West has become more vicious with the entry of new superpower China. Beijing has not only joined the ranks of Sisi’s suitors but also pumped in mindboggling amounts of money into new extension of canal system while playing balls with Ankara to promote its colossal new Silk Road project.
So, the geo-strategic conflicts among major Muslim powers have not always followed the Shia-Sunni fault lines as Turkey has not allied with Riyadh and Cairo in ongoing civil wars in oil-rich Libya and vast but most poor Yemen, strategic for oceanic lanes around it. The rival mixed packs of wolves which are now fighting over liquid gold and gas beneath eastern Mediterranean land and sea from Cyprus to Libya include both so-called Christian and Islamic nations. The increasingly hot resource wars have been extended to clashes between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbyzan at Caspian Sea region close to Turkey and Russia.
Meanwhile, the tug-of-war on the control of Tigris- Euphrates rivers system, the lifelines of ancient Fertile Crescent region, which originates in Turkey but flows through Syria-Iraq-Iran as well as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to Persian Gulf, is another key bone of contention among major Muslim countries. All these contests in the name of national energy security are almost a replica of the times of Byzantines and Ottomans when neither all Christians supported Emperor Constantine XI nor all Muslims sided with Mehmet II. The invocation of Christ and Muhammad has been the cloak for the plunder of natural and manmade wealth and a more pressing drive for all the packs of pretenders down the history.
The emergence of New ‘Fatih’
Erdogan has been the master manipulator of these complex external and internal factors in last two decades which helped him to amass power and emerge as an authoritarian ruler. His frictions with the Kamalist army, judiciary and other pillars of secular republican system have generally helped him to consolidate his power base among rural and urban Muslim poor as well as middle class who are facing national identity crisis as well as economic uncertainties.
A former footballer from Istanbul, Erdogan has proved himself adept in political ballgame since he became the mayor of the city in late nineties. He used various Islamist parties as his stepping stones to national power in Ankara before founding the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001. After becoming the prime minister in 2003, he gradually consolidated his power. He changed the country’s constitution towards an executive presidential form of government before assuming the role of both head of the state and government since 2014. Initially, he faced bans and imprisonment for openly opposing Kamalist ideology. He choose to be moderate as Turkish army top brass, high priests of Judiciary as well as corporate captains were still fond of the Kamalist legacy as it suited their economic- political interests as well as self-image. After amassing almost absolute power in last two decades, now Erdogan has struck back and revealed his true color.
The retreat of Seculars
Erdogan supported youthful Arab Spring movement for democracy in Egypt and Tunisia in 2010-11 but crushed it in Turkey. He has preferred to use the Saudi-supported ISIS that came to fore amid the religio-ethnic civil wars in Iraq and Syria triggered by NATO-Russia rivalry to checkmate both Russia-Iran-backed Shia Syria and US-allied Kurds in the NATO’s confused fight against the Jihadists. To steal the thunder from both ISIS and rival Muslim powers, he has gradually staked his claim as the supreme defender of the Islamic faith. He further consolidated his populist appeal and sided with Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and denounced Al-Sisi’s military coup against the country’s elected Islamist president and MB leader, Md. Mursi and his arrest. The MB-led Islamists and secular democrats who had temporarily joined against Egypt’s longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak at Tahrir Square, later ruptured violently making room for Sisi-led army to seize power.
Turkish army, the arbitrator of power and protector of Kamalist polity too earlier staged repeated coups to topple the governments. But in 2016, it was at the receiving end of popular wrath on streets after a failed coup against Erdogan, allegedly sponsored by his exiled Islamist ideologue friend-turned challenger, Fettullah Gullen with the US connivance. In the aftermath, he has ruthlessly used his emergency powers to purge both secularist and Gullenist challengers in army, judiciary, bureaucracy, education system and media to a large extent. Hundreds of dissenters were killed or jailed.
The fractured secular-nationalist opposition has been a boon for him as they have willy-nilly rallied around him for a post-coup ‘national consensus’. He is now ruling the roost in coalition with MKP, a party of mellowed Kamalists. Seculars of Turkey have been outwitted by Erdogan as the parliament witnessed rapturous applauses across the floor over Hagia conversion.
The country’s Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk has criticized the president’s move Hagia Sophia. “To convert it back to a mosque is to say to the rest of the world unfortunately we are not secular anymore. There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this but their voices are not heard,” he told the BBC. But Pamuk, a keen watcher and chronicler of Islamist-Secular tension in his home country as well as his native city of Istanbul, also knows how Ataturk’s world has changed drastically over the decades.