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Hagia Sophia: Erdogan's dream is Turkey's nightmare

Hagia Sophia is back to being a mosque effective July 11. It is no longer a museum as Kemal Ataturk, the father of Modern Turkey, wished it.

 |  BREAKING NEWS INTO PIECES  |  8-minute read |   12-07-2020
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Layovers take you to places you don’t see. During Havalimani layovers, I could only kiss the place where two continents kiss. Did not go all the way because I wanted to experience Istanbul not just see its sights. That joy of delayed gratification never stays in the delay phase. I wanted at least 10 days for my Turkey trip, 5 only for Istanbul. The Istanbul I wanted to see may not remain when I eventually land on the Bosphorus's shores.

My fascination with Istanbul began early in the Urdu class. Maulvi Sahab wanted us to practice writing long words in the Arabic script. Two of the words remain etched in my memory and muscle. Jhanjhapatjhanjhalpur ( جھنجھپٹجھنجھالپر) and Qustuntunia ( قسطنطنیا). The first was a made-up place name though maulvi sahab insisted it existed. Qustuntunia was Arabic for Constantinople, the Roman Empire’s pride. Turks called it Istanbul.

main1_hagia-sophia_1_071220102619.jpegTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree declaring Hagia Sophia as a mosque effective July 11. (Photo: Reuters)

Hagia Sophia or Aya Sophia is to Istanbul what Taj Mahal is to Agra. The architectural splendour is back to being a mosque effective July 11 after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree that makes this UNESCO heritage site a place of worship for Muslims. It is no longer a museum as Kemal Ataturk, the father of Modern Turkey, wished it. Ataturk who enforced hard secularism in Turkey after the end of the Ottoman Empire did not want this symbol of a religion’s conquest over another to continue. So he declared it a museum in 1935. Before that, Aya Sophia had been functioning as a mosque since 1453, when Sultan Mehmet conquered the capital of the Roman Empire. Built between 532 and 537 by the Romans, Hagia Sophia was then a symbol of Christendom and its riches. The insides of what will be a mosque again continue to have splendid Christian art and heritage. It’s not clear whether the depictions, un-Islamic as they are, will remain or be effaced.

Medieval wounds

The world is dismayed by the regression of a modern European state that is a Muslim majority nation and uniquely positioned as the bridge between the East and the West, not only geographically. Reopening civilisational wounds damages the future of not just Turkey but every other land where Muslim-phobia is pervading, especially in Europe and India that have had civilisational clashes in the early days of Islam’s spread. History is suddenly everyone’s favourite subject and excesses of medieval Islamic warriors are used as a whip against Muslims of today. 

History is not to undo or revert, but to acknowledge and move on. That’s not what is happening though. It has to be acknowledged that the new Arab religion spread through the world under the shade of the sword. As Muslims conquered new land under the flag of the Caliph, Islam spread to newer parts of the world. What is not acknowledged is that the era was marked by cruelty of the conquerors because that was how the world was then. When Muslim invaders pillaged and overpowered a land, they did it for the riches and Islam was the bond that kept their flock in fervour and gave a religious raison d'etre to their forces. This resulted in the mass desecration of the existing places of worship, demolition of heritage buildings, and their conversion into mosques. In the raids for riches, people were not converted even though a lot of them were killed. But when new Islamic states were formed, religious conversion was either imposed or people voluntarily converted to Islam for a better life.

Islam’s sword reached Europe’s heart and captured North Africa and a number of existing places of worship were converted into mosques and people into Muslims. A large part however was won back by Christian nations and they promptly restored the churches. People were once again back to their older faith. In places like North Africa, the reversal did not happen and most people remained Muslim and those who hadn’t converted accepted their new status as non-Muslims in what became Muslim countries. In the modern era, they are doing fine and in most places, non-Muslims have the same rights and have their own places of worship. The clamour for restoration died out as people moved on.

main_hagia-sophia_re_071220102729.jpegThe insides of what will be a mosque again continue to have splendid Christian art and heritage. It’s not clear whether the depictions, un-Islamic as they are, will remain or be effaced. (Photo: Reuters)

In India, too, constructing a new temple was an impossibility for centuries and most of the magnificence of early kingdoms was lost. Three of them proved to be destructive disputes that have been a thorn in our lives. In Mathura and Kashi, Hindus constructed temples just next to the sites where temples were converted into mosques. In Ayodhya, they did not build a temple offsite. A mosque had come up at the place believed to be Ram's birthplace. The devotees continued praying around the site. The wound was kept open and the festering spawned a movement for a temple that led to the demolition of Babri Masjid. A parallel legal battle ended recently after the Supreme Court verdict that ruled in favour of the construction of the Ram temple. To stop the perpetual vexation, India has also enacted a law that caps any future calls for restoration of places of worship. That has not deterred people from demanding restoration of other sites.

India’s history textbooks refrained from detailing medieval monstrosities and favoured a more harmonious retelling of historical events and rightly so because a nascent nation fresh from a bloody partition could not afford to remind its children of the gores of the past. Books have always been available for those who can handle history without exploding emotionally. 

Since the advent of social media, India has seen how the retelling of historical horrors and medieval massacres has hardened the hearts of the average, unguided-in-history Indian. It has caused a lot of damage already and political provocateurs use the past to further polarise Indian society in the name of historical injustices. The phrase, historical injustices, is loaded and unfairly so. Historical events are not injustices as such. The measures of justice vary in different eras. While it’s true that Hindus, being second-class citizens, suffered during the Sultanate and later Mughal periods, the average Muslim was treated no better when it came to medieval ways. When being skinned alive, both were subject to the same tools and rules. Now skinning alive is no more a civilised way to punish someone. We are discussing ending the death sentence today. That’s how we move forward. We can’t go back; however golden the past might have been. Revivalism is regression.

Sultan Erdogan’s dreams

Erdogan’s revivalism has a certain medievalism about it. Turkey is still a secular society but Erdogan’s Ottoman dreams have sown the seeds of soft Islamism that is hardening by the day. In a country where hijab for women was criminal at a time and scoffed at all times, purdah is back with a vengeance. Erdogan used democracy to usurp supreme powers and tends to behave like a Sultan/Emperor as he crushes opposition, jails academic thinkers and writers, and silences the news media. Modelled on Putin’s RT, Turkey’s TRTWorld beams Erdogan’s narrow vision across the world. It produces dramas like the ideologically-loaded Drilis: Ertugrul, a rage in Pakistan and banned in Saudi Arabia for similar reasons. The cultural revival of an Islamic empire only fuels the ideas of religious supremacy in the minds of an already radicalised society. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is said to have congratulated Turkey “for ruling over us for 800” years. He clearly has no inkling of the Mughal rulers of India and their allegiance or the lack of it to the Ottoman Empire. But then Imran Khan is a playboy cricketer who has little idea about history and his politics dallies with dangerous radicals, including the Taliban. He got Pakistani state TV to dub Ertugrul in Urdu and recommenced its viewing to the people. The drama centres around Ertugrul, a medieval warrior about whom very little is preserved in history. It gives a mythology-grade spin to the story that glorifies the Muslim vanquishing of Christians. Ertugrul’s progeny go on to found the Ottoman Empire of which Istanbul was the seat of power, what Erdogan dreams to revive. 

Reviving the past is a project many nations have undertaken as they find that shaping the future is a tough ask. Putin wants to recreate the influence Soviet Russia had in the world. The BJP wants to re-establish the glories lost since Muslim conquerors pillaged and plundered India through the medieval period. Xi Jinping claims every inch of land that a Chinese dynasty ever ruled. The trouble with going back to the medieval era is that it gives birth to medievalism totally anachronistic to the present. That’s why converting Aya Sophia to a mosque would reduce the status of Istanbul as the place where the East and West mix and become one. I wish to visit the exalted Istanbul and Erdogan is bent on puncturing my enthusiasm. I wanted to see the Blue Mosque as much as I wanted to see the Hagia Sophia museum. The Blue Mosque is equally magnificent and stands just across the road from Hagia Sophia. People didn't need a mosque to pray, Erdogan needed the mosque to prey on people's emotions. I hope to see Turkey before it changes forever. And when I do I am sure its fabled cats will remain the same. For cats are too smart to change like humans do.

Also read: Astaghfirullah Halima Baji: Behave like a Muslim woman

Writer

Kamlesh Singh Kamlesh Singh @kamleshksingh

Journalism student. Ed honcho at the India Today Group Mediaplex. God's Loyal Opposition. Useful Warning: Tweets may hurt religious sentiments.

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