Mosques, Temples, Churches and Politicians
The decision of the Turkish government, supported by the country’s highest court, to turn the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia from a museum back to a mosque has provoked an international outcry – an outcry that much more violent acts have never met. It has been recognised as a highly symbolic move away from the avowed secularism of the nearly century-old Turkish republic, but if the protestors ignore Turkey’s wider politics, their protests will only booster Erdoğan’s attempts to portray himself as leading the defence of Islam against a hostile world.
The decision over the future of this ‘World Heritage’ site raises two important and related questions. There is the general question of what it means to attempt to rewind history, with its risk of re-igniting old conflicts; and there is the more specific question of what role the decision plays in Turkey’s current politics.
Many religious buildings outlast their original religious use and find a new one. This may be an uncontested response to change of demand, as populations and religious practice move with time – as with London’s Brick Lane mosque, which was built as a church and has also served as a synagogue, or the many deconsecrated churches. But sometimes it is the result of conquest, and even a deliberate imposition of a new order. Hagia Sophia became a mosque when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman’s in the fifteenth century, though the actual change of ownership was the result of a legally agreed sale from church authorities to Islamic ones. In the 1930s the Turkish republic converted the historic structure into a museum as a public statement of secularism. Not that this stopped the Turkish government from appropriating Church property or pursuing an ethnic nationalism that doesn’t tolerate the expression of other cultural identities.
Turkey now claims to be righting a historic wrong, and that the museum conversion was illegal, but why stop the historical backtracking there? Would the legally recognised fifteenth-century sale have happened without the non-legal Ottoman invasion? (We could, of course argue that most land ownership originates in appropriation, but that is for a different article.)
Perhaps the most dangerous attempt to reverse history has been the establishment of the modern state of Israel in the land of the biblical Jewish kingdom. By running rough-shod over centuries of intervening history, this has destroyed millions of lives and brought decades of conflict. Many mosques have been demolished or converted to new uses, and the Temple Mount has often been a scene of tension, however, calls to demolish the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Jewish temple have, so far, remained confined to the fringes of the far right.
Many people have drawn parallels between converting Hagia Sophia back to a mosque, and the replacement of India’s Babri Masjid by a Hindu temple – an action supported by another right-wing authoritarian government that promotes itself though religious chauvinism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is virulently anti-Islam, but his aggressive Hinduism has many parallels with Erdoan’s Islamism. The 16th Century Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992 by right-wing Hindu nationalists, including leaders of the now-ruling BJP, who asserted that it was built on the birth-place of the god Rama. The site had been closed since 1949 in an attempt to defuse conflicting claims, but the demolition forced the issue into the courts at a time of growing Hindu power, and, with the aid of a contradictory report by the Archaeological Survey of India, the legal system eventually ruled in favour of building a new Hindu temple on the site. India has plenty of examples of historic mosques clearly built from destroyed temples, so, despite legal protections, these events have the potential to inspire further damage to inter-religious relations – as well as to India’s historic monuments. The Babri Masjid demolition incited riots in which over 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, lost their lives. In a letter to an Indian newspaper, defending Turkey’s decision on Hagia Sophia, the Turkish ambassador to India claimed that decisions in both countries were simply ‘a legal ruling’ that had nothing ‘to do with the secular character of our democracies’. While his argument is a blatant misrepresentation, his use of the parallel is interesting.
In both Turkey and India, these historical unwindings are an integral piece of a wider right-wing authoritarian agenda that seeks to build popular support through scapegoating minority groups and depicting them as a threat to the majority. In India, prejudice is incited against Muslims, in Turkey, against non-Muslims, as well as against those who don’t accept assimilation to a single Turkish identity. Many Kurds are especially targeted – for their defence of Kurdishness, for a tendency towards more secular (or simply non-Islamist) views, and also for their support for the progressive leftist programme of the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP). Islamist politics can exclude both non-Muslims and those not deemed to be Muslim enough, or not Muslim in the correct way. It can target people who regard religion as a personal and private choice, or who argue for equality for women.
Erdoğan’s use of a divisive religious politics has been encouraged by his reliance on the ultra-nationalist MHP, whose support he needs for a parliamentary majority. His purposeful incitement of religious intolerance even prompted his repeated use, for election propaganda, of the video made by the right-wing terrorist who filmed himself attacking two mosques in Christchurch New Zealand, where 51 people were killed and a further 49 were injured.
But, Erdoğan’s support of hard-line Islamism does not stop at Turkey’s borders. His twin battles to extinguish the Kurds and to rebuild Ottoman power are being carried out through Islamist proxies who espouse the most brutal and uncompromising ideologies. There are many testimonies to Turkish support for ISIS in Syria – allowing the passage of recruits, aiding the rest and recuperation of the wounded, helping with oil sales, and more. Turkey has supported groups with similar ideology to Al Qaeda in Idlib; and in Turkey’s invasions of Afrin and of Serêkaniyê and the central strip of Northern Rojava, they have brought together gangs of jihadi mercenaries who have fought for ISIS and other extreme groups and who show no mercy to the local population. Now they are recruiting mercenaries in Syria to support the Muslim Brotherhood government in Libya, as well as to use in their invasion into the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Ongoing atrocities and constant war are deliberately forcing a movement of populations that is creating the potential for ethnic conflict for decades to come.
Erdoğan’s aggression is driven by a combination of desperation and ambition. His power was built on the back of a thriving economy, but rising inflation and unemployment was already being reflected in election results well before the impact of the coronavirus epidemic. The attempt to unite a people in an attack against an external enemy is a classic resort of a ruler in trouble at home. And Erdoğan also dreams of expanding Turkey’s borders. His roll-back of history would include tearing up the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which established the Turkish republic but conceded territories in Northern Syria, the Aegean, and Iraq – including Mosul – to which Turkey claimed a right on the basis of the 1918 armistice agreement. The Turkish claim to these lands was stated in the Misak-i-Milli, or National Pact of 1920, which has been translated into some new Turkish maps. Erdoğan’s ambition for 2023 sees him presiding over the celebration of the centenary of the Turkish republic, but with Misak-i-Milli borders, as an acknowledged leader of the Islamic world. Hagia Sophia is just one elegant piece of this plan.