14 August 2020 02:09 AM



The Reconversion of Hagia Sofia is the Diminishment of Ataturk’s Turkey


Napoleon Bonaparte had once said, ‘If the world were one country, Istanbul would be its capital’ – the literal crossroad or bridge to the East and the West is the proverbial ‘melting-pot’ of global diversities. It reveled in the progressive modernity of the West and nuanced the same with the genteel sophistication and wisdom of the East to evolve into an idyll for both sides of the ‘divide’.

Amidst such civilisational profundity and cusp of sensibilities is its most exquisite metaphor, Hagia Sophia, once an Greek Orthodox Cathedral, then a Mosque, later a museum, and now poised to be a Mosque, yet again – mirroring the dominant politico-cultural metamorphoses of what was once known as Constantinople, and now Istanbul.

The Lonely Planet befittingly describes it as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, ‘it is the great architectural landmark at the heart of Istanbul, with its four minarets poised like moon-bound rockets’.

It remained the most visited site in the tourist haven of Turkey, as much for its sublime exquisiteness, as for its symbolic secularity that defied and triumphed so many stereotypes – despite the vicissitudes of time and tide, it stood for ‘hope’, as possible only in the notional ‘capital of the world’!

Much water has flown through the straits of Bosphorus since the times of the secular-nationalist, Kemal Ataturk, who shaped and steered the Turkish identity beyond the narrow realms of religion and ethnicities.

The benevolent dictator had founded the modern republic with political, social and cultural reforms that delinked religion from the state – he assiduously fought ignorance, gender discrimination and insisted on education and enlightenment as the only tools of progress.

It was under Kemal Ataturk’s watch that Istanbul’s architectural treasure, Hagia Sophia, was converted into a museum, and today it is the turn of religio-nationalist, President Recep Erdogan, to erase that instinct in favour of his revisionist religio-majoritarian strain, as is the wont of most toxic uber-nationalists.

The sacralization of the Hagia Sophia is part of the sad transformation of Turkey from a reformist project to one that is hopelessly mired in socio-economic regressions, and therefore seeks the distractive and polarising power of religion in politics.

The essential identity of a secular Turkey that was encapsulated in this hauntingly beautiful monument, has been sacrificed at the altar of short termism, provocation and political gratification which panders to the basest of all human instincts.

This U-turn in national conscience and politics is exactly what Kemal Ataturk had prophetically warned against, ‘He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap’!

‘Undoing’ the past has huge emotive currency in a participative democracy and Recep Erdogan has mastered the art of playing to lateral emotions, when everything else fails.

Above all, Erdogan had predicated the ‘avenging’ of historical wounds on the reconversion of Hagia Sophia and without mentioning Kemal Ataturk by name, Erdogan quoted the poet Mehmet the Conqueror’s will that states that anyone who changes the status of Hagia Sophia ‘had committed the most grave sin of all’ and that ‘the curse of God, the Prophet, the angels and all rulers and all Muslims shall forever be upon him’.

It is believed that most people in Turkey do indeed support the move, and therefore pandering to the dangerous impulses of Majoritarism is par for course, politically. And the showman Erdogan will leave no stone unturned to ensure that it unabashed specter of revenge, militates in the eyes of its minorities, neighbouring countries and the world at large – as that reaction will further strengthen the misplaced credentials of the regional ‘strongman’ who ostensibly ‘stood up to the West’?

In a ‘masterstroke’ Erdogan outdoes the emerging and competing extremist parties, as indeed, spiting the enfeebled secularists who watch the nation slide into an abyss of reckless religio-politics.

Like all countries reeling under such politico-regression, the progressives and intellectuals are routinely mocked and unabated political passions that compensate for daily bread-and-butter destroy what Turkey’s celebrated Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk, calls a blow to ‘secular pride’.

Ancient civilizations across the world harbour complicated history and wounded perceptions – attempting to ‘correct’ history will always be one-sided, inconclusive and more polarising that retaining the edifice of history, with varied interpretations.

This move will willy-nilly strengthen the lamentable cause of Islamophobia, as leaders like Recep Erdogan feed the very same stereotype that they claim to fight against. Such right-wing moves not only do incalculable harm to the image of Turkey itself, but they embolden other right-wing leaderships across the world to undertake their own denominational ‘correction of history’, thereby further fracturing the societies.

Erdogan selectively revives the worst memories of intolerance by the Ottoman government that was responsible for the systematic genocide of 1.5 million minority Armenians, and not to the more tolerant and secular strains of early Ottomans who were much more accommodative in contrast to Arab puritanism, even historically.

Turkey is staring at an unprecedented second recession in two years and with Erdogan’s mismanagement of the economy, it had led to waning of fortunes for his Justice and Development Party. So this public distraction is god-sent and easily contextual to his favourite domain, religio-nationalism.

Covid has dealt a further blow with Turkey emerging as one of the worst managed countries and with the collective angst of the world following Hagia Sofia’s reconversion, Erdogan will spin the narrative to his advantage, irrespective of the long-term consequences.

Ironically Kemal Ataturk had said, ‘Those who use religion in such a manner have fooled our people; it is against just such people that we have fought and will continue to fight’ – but Ataturk is a sadly fading memory, and Erdogan defines the future, hereinafter.

Not only does Turkey lose the essential spirit that defined its exalted identity, the Islamic world is poorer for the loss of a nation that could truly personify a progressive ‘alternative’.

Kemal Ataturk was famous for his call to ‘Peace at home, peace in the world’, and in a singular move, Recep Erdogan has done the exact opposite, as neither will Turkey, nor Islam, or even the world at large be at more peace, progress or heal with the move to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.

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