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Erdogan’s reclamation of Turkey’s Islamic past is legitimate

Thousands flock to perform Eid prayers at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey on July 31 2020

Situated on the shores of the Bosphorus connecting the Marmara Sea to the Black Sea, and regarded as the border between Europe and Asia, Istanbul is one of the most important cities of Eurasia. Founded around 660 BC as “Byzantine”, it was renamed in 330 AD as Constantinople when the Roman Emperor Constantin made it the capital of the Roman Empire, promoting the Christianization of the city and his Empire.

Constantinople served as the capital of the Roman Empire till 1453, when it was conquered by Sultan Mehmed II, who renamed it Istanbul and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire. This remained Turkey’s capital for almost five centuries till 1922. 

The rich historical heritage of over a thousand years has left many traces in modern Istanbul. Built-in 537 as the patriarchal cathedral of the imperial capital, Hagia Sophia was one of the largest churches of the eastern Roman Empire. In 1935 the secular Turkish Republic turned it into a museum to serve as a symbol of secularism of the modern Turkish state founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. 

Shortly after a Turkish court announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum annulling Atatürk’s decision, President Recep Erdogan ordered the restoration of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque.

Being a UNESCO heritage site, Erdogan's decision has evoked negative comments and even protests from several sides. Voicing dismay, the Russian Orthodox Church called it ‘a threat to the whole of Christian civilization’. That must be a joke! The resumption of prayers in a mosque even if it was not used for prayers for several decades, cannot be a threat to the survival of the Christian civilization! The European Union (EU) called it ‘regrettable’ but made no further comments. Some US channels have started an anti-Turkish tirade. An overwhelming majority of the Turkish people have reacted very positively to the act, a sign that times have changed and the secularism that the ‘father of modern Turkey’ Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had prescribed for his people has not held its promise.

Europe missed the boat by not allowing Turkey to become a part of Europe by keeping it out of the European Union on one pretext or the other. Christian Europe cannot easily forget centuries of Turkish rule in parts of Europe. After nearly a century of disappointment and serving as the bulwark of NATO during the Cold War, Turkey under Erdogan is returning to its original Islamic roots

But anti-Islam feelings were fanned by works such as Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of civilizations’. Global ‘Islamic’ terrorism that came about with the help of Western intelligence agencies, created an anti-Islam hype that was joined by populist vilification of Islam by people like Salman Rushdie, the Charly Hebdo case and the like. 

While Ataturk had single-handedly introduced a crude and simplistic version of secularism by the stroke of the pen, symbols of Islam were deeply rooted in the soul of the Turks, especially in the countryside. Traditional attire and head covering of women were forbidden and scorned. The Arabic script was replaced by a Latin alphabet that made it impossible for the next generation not only to read Qur’an but to read anything written and printed before the fall of the Ottoman Empire. 

The deprivation of cultural heritage had to have a backlash and that came in the form of Islamic revivalism. Islamist parties like Recep Erdogan’s came up. The revival of Islam after a period of discouragement if not suppression had to be expected. 

There is hype directed against Erdogan because of his problems with the US, NATO, EU and – last but not the least- with Greece. These cannot be attributed to Erdogan’s policies alone. The will of the Turkish people for centuries has been that Hagia Sophia as a place of worship belongs to the Turkish people first and is a world heritage monument second. A Turkish court of law has decided that it should be reopened. So no further comments are required. 

Millions of tourists who visit Turkey every year admire the Hagia Sophia. Using Hagia Sophia as a mosque and opening it for tourists to learn about its history and admire its impressive architecture could be easily allowed. It is done in many places of the world. In Germany all churches are open for visitors and tourists. In France, the famous Notre Dame is open to tourists. That could be done in Istanbul as well when the decorum for visiting a mosque is observed.

Look at the Cordoba in Spain. When visiting the Great Mosque of Cordoba Charles V found that it had been used as a church after the Reconquista and a chapel that he had ordered built had been inserted into the mosque. He was displeased by the result that blights the sublime architecture and famously commented: "You have destroyed something unique to build something commonplace." 

When naively I asked to pray there, I was told I would be arrested. Recently Muslims across Spain lobbied the Catholic Church to allow them to pray in the complex, with the Islamic Council of Spain lodging a formal request with the Vatican. Spanish church authorities and the Vatican opposed this move. Such battles over the cathedral reflect the contested view on what constitutes Spanish history and Spanish identity. 

For several years before he died(last year), I visited one of my best friends, Frank Neuman, many times each year in his lovely villa on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean in Moreira (place of the Moors) Spain. While enjoying Frank’s outstanding hospitality and keeping Moreira as our base, we visited many cities of Spain together to explore not only Muslim and Jewish heritage sites but Christian religious sites as well. In each city, he would point out the many mosques and Jewish synagogues that been turned into churches. 

His knowledge of the history of all the religions was really commendable. Standing on the walls of Granada, he pointed out the close proximity of the dwellings which were almost all Jewish next to the walls of the fortress as with all the other former Muslim fortresses in Spain. It was a security measure. The mutual trust inherent in this was apparent. 

Can you believe what is now going on in Israel and Palestine? There is no going back to change the past. We cannot undo what has been created by the right of conquest. However, we should not also try to change our future but learn to live in peace in the present as we once did in Spain. Kemal Atatürk was a great man but by turning Hagia Sophia that had been a mosque for several hundred years into a museum in 1935, he committed an incongruity which Erdogan has now corrected.

Pakistan is today fascinated with the saga of Ertuğrul, the father of Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Dynasty. Sultan Mehmed II, who converted Hagai Sophia into a mosque was their descendant. By reclaiming Hagia Sophia as a mosque, President Erdogan and the Turkish people have only exercised their right to reclaim a piece of Ottoman history and their Islamic identity 


(The writer is a defence and security analyst)