New Status of Hagia Sophia Signals The Death Of Secularism
THE reversion of the celebrated Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque
is perhaps the most telling sign of the rolling back of Turkey's secular
character and a reflection of the rise of religious nationalism in the country.
As a museum, this architectural wonder symbolised the idea of a common cultural
heritage that transcended faith. The change of its status has removed that symbolism.
the decision by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have pleased his Islamist
followers and his populist base, millions of Turks, as the country's Nobel
laureate Orhan Pamuk noted, "are crying against this but their voices are not
heard". The move has not only shaken the world, it has also divided the nation.
some 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, the Hagia Sophia was
converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul)
in 1453. It was turned into a museum on the orders of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk,
the founding father of secular Turkey in 1934. The majestic complex has been
declared by Unicef as a World Heritage Site and is one of the most popular
tourist destinations in the world.
sections of conservative Muslims had long campaigned for reopening the complex
for prayers but they were in a minority. Turkey's strong secular culture would
not permit restoration of the heritage as a place of worship. However, the rise
of the Islamists led by Erdogan is changing the country's political landscape.
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the secular character of the state is still protected by the Turkish
constitution, the resurgence of faith and the confluence of faith and politics
has weakened the Kemalist order. Erdogan's latest action, coming after a court
ruling, has raised questions about Turkey's image as a moderate Muslim country.
changing its status, the universal nature of Hagia Sophia's heritage is
affected. The complex reflects centuries of interaction between Europe and
Asia, and to treat it as the heritage of a particular faith will be seen as a
negation of its overall historical value. Such an approach can also fuel
religious fanaticism and widen religious divides, besides causing a shift in
the perception of Turkey as an open society. Many may see it as shift towards
the mediaeval ages, it was a common practice of conquerors everywhere to
convert places of worship of the vanquished to premises for the practice of
their own religion. There have been a number of examples where churches were
turned into mosques and mosques into churches. Hagia Sophia was also such an
example. By turning it into a museum, Mustafa Kemal had restored history. It
also reinforced Istanbul's position as the city where different cultures and
faiths could coexist.
action of reversing this aspect of the Kemalist legacy has intensified the
clash between those who want Turkey to remain secular and the conservative
support base of the Turkish president. The issue has highlighted the battle for
the soul of Turkey. "To convert it back to a mosque is to say to the rest of
the world unfortunately we are not secular anymore," Orhan Pamuk was quoted as
the decision has provoked intense international outrage. In a statement,
Unesco, the UN's cultural agency, has warned Turkish authorities against "taking any decision that might impact the universal value of the site".
Several Western countries have also protested.
the Turkish president does not seem bothered over the outcry. He has defended
his action by stressing that the country had exercised its sovereign right in
converting the museum into a mosque. This argument does not sound very
Turks also question the timing of the move at a time when the country is badly
affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy is in a slump and tourism is
non-existent. Some see it as a political move in that it is meant to assert a
strident nationalism as part of the battle against the president's secular
move cannot be seen in isolation. It reflects the increasing
instrumentalisation of religion in order to solidify his populist support base.
In fact, at a more general level, it symbolises the rise of right-wing
nationalism and religious chauvinism around the world today.
recent years, religiously inspired nationalist movements have gained prominence
in several countries around the world. The confluence of politics and religion
has also generated exclusiveness and majoritianism. The tendency to drive
political legitimacy through religion has serious implications for the
democratic process and political development in society.
under President Erdogan is such an example. He has used religious nationalism
to undermine democratic rights and freedom of expression and faith. According
to media reports in the past decade, less famous former churches in other parts
of Turkey have resumed services as mosques.
Turkey is not the only country that is witnessing the rise of a strident
religious nationalism and chauvinism. There are many democracies worldwide that
are also experiencing the emergence of such political movements holding a
strong religious appeal, including countries as diverse as India and some
countries of Latin America and Western Europe.
fact, Hagia Sophia is not the only historical site that has seen a religious
reversion. Similar moves have been part of state policy elsewhere too. For
instance, the Indian supreme court last year endorsed the 1992 demolition of
the 16th-century Babri Masjid by Hindu fundamentalists aligned with the current
ruling BJP, who believed it was built atop the birthplace of Ram. The issue may
have helped the party galvanise the religious vote bank, but at the expense of
India's secular character.
conflicts are being increasingly weaponised by virulent nationalist forces to
assert their political brand. It is a highly dangerous proposition as appeals
to religion invariably create an opening for a more strident nationalism.
Conversions of such sites reflect an aggressive nationalism that presents one
of the most serious challenges for the civilised world. What is happening in
Turkey, India and some other parts of the world must be a serious cause of
The writer is an author and journalist.