Neo-Ottoman Empire : A Caliph in the making

img1 A. J. Philip
02 Nov 2020

I have a sparingly-used T-shirt with a large picture of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). I bought it as a souvenir after visiting the church-turned-mosque-turned-museum-turned-mosque at Istanbul about 14 years ago. An uniqueness of Istanbul is that it nestles between Europe and Asia.

I stopped wearing the shirt when Hagia Sophia was converted into a functioning mosque. As a policy, I would not like to wear a dress which has the picture of any religious place.

This is because I do not like to cause disrespect to a church or a mosque or a temple by allowing it to absorb my sweat and dirt. For instance, I would never use the national flag to wipe the sweat off my forehead as one great leader did while doing yoga. 
That is precisely why I did not buy a T-shirt that has the picture of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known popularly as the Blue Mosque, built right in front of Hagia Sophia. 

Tourists were allowed to walk inside the mosque provided they used a polythene cover over their shoes. Women wearing hot pants were allowed to go inside if they wore a piece of cloth to cover their legs. Both the polythene cover and the wrap-around cloth were available free of cost.

In size and architecture, the mosque is reminiscent of its neighbour and combines many of its Byzantine elements with traditional Islamic architecture. The blue mosque was in the news when Pope Francis visited it a few years ago.

For starters, Hagia Sophia was built in AD 537 during the reign of Roman/ Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It was the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture and probably the world’s largest building. Until 1453, it served as the seat of the Eastern Orthodox ecumenical patriarch. 

After the Ottomans’ sack of Constantinople that year, it was converted into a mosque. Then, under the very secular Kemal Ataturk, it was converted into a museum. In 1985, UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage Site.

Hagia Sophia’s conversion is the culmination of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s long campaign to transform Turkey into a neo-Ottoman state. This was part of his wider campaign to recapture the Ottoman Empire’s lost glory. 

One of the questionable decisions of Mahatma Gandhi was to support the campaign for the restoration of the Ottoman Caliphate little knowing that the Turkish people themselves did not want such a restoration. Of course, his aim was to bring the Muslims into the national struggle for independence. Gandhi had to pay a price for it, as it encouraged some bigots like the ones in Malabar to hijack the struggle to subserve their own sectarian agenda.

“Apart from increased repression at home, Turkey has established military bases in Qatar and Somalia, deployed armed drones in northern Cyprus, made repeated military incursions into Syria and Iraq, and has likely made covert weapon shipments to terrorists in Nigeria”. 

Many countries, including the US and the Vatican, warned Turkey against converting Hagia Sophia as it was considered a symbol of reconciliation, of peace and of understanding between Islam and Christianity. Turkey was certainly not in urgent need of covered space for prayers. It also converted a few smaller churches into mosques, though it did not get much media attention.

One country which kept silent, as Erdogan led a crowd of nearly 3.5 lakh worshippers who converged in the vicinity of Hagia Sophia on July 24, was India. He read out the first line from the Quran to the ecstatic crowd. In any case, how could the BJP government have taken a stand, when the ruling party had taken the lead to demolish the 500-year-old Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992?

What was disconcerting was that a party like the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which opposed the demolition at Ayodhya, welcomed the conversion of Hagia Sophia. 

The party forgets that the BJP has a ruler who is believed to have expressed his desire to have two more mosques at Varanasi and Mathura demolished to pave the way for the construction of larger temples dedicated to Siva and Krishna respectively before his term ends and elections are ordered. 

One of its frontal organisations has announced a plan of action under which its volunteers will visit nine crore Hindu households to educate them about the need to have these temples.

Erdogan is in many ways like Modi, as the two are never tired of recalling the past glories of their nations, mostly imaginary than real. Yet, on Wednesday last, India issued a strong statement condemning Erdogan’s stand on the events in France. Few other countries have defended French leader Emmanuel Macron as India.

Erdogan had questioned the mental condition of Macron and called for a boycott of all French products in protest against the French action in the wake of the beheading of  school teacher Samuel Paty on October 16, in a suburb of Paris in broad daylight. His only crime was that he showed the controversial cartoons that depicted the Prophet to his students, while discussing the subject of freedom. 

Many in India recalled the horrible experience Prof TJ Joseph of Newman College, Thodupuzha, had when he set a question paper in which a reference to Mohammed was construed as a reference to the Prophet Mohammed. It is a different matter that some Muslim boys came forward to donate blood and money to Prof Joseph, who had no intention of hurting the sentiments of Muslims.

The terrorist who decapitated Paty was soon gunned down by the security forces. Macron made a strong statement indicating that his country was not ready to sacrifice its secular credentials, come what might. He also described that Islam was in crisis, a statement that Erdogan took umbrage at. 

The Turkish leader took the opportunity to emerge as the greatest defender of Islam on earth. In fact, he found the beheading of Paty as a Godsend to consolidate his position. True, the situation in France has been taking a turn for the worse with another terrorist decapitating a woman and two church employees at Nice in France on Thursday.

These killings are not at all spontaneous. In fact, they are all orchestrated. Dr Paul Marshall is a well-known scholar on religious affairs, associated with several institutions in the world, including the Hudson Institute’s Centre for Religious Freedom. I had occasions to hear him and speak to him a couple of times.

On Wednesday last, I heard him again speaking on blasphemy at a webinar, organised by The Media Project and Religion Unplugged, on the Zoom platform. The burden of his song was that protest against “blasphemy” was invariably orchestrated and was never spontaneous.

In the present case too, a campaign was organised against Paty who showed the cartoons that the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published during a class discussion about freedom of speech in early October. He is reported to have asked the Muslim students to leave if they did not want to see the cartoons.

A parent of a girl student, who was not present in the school that day, went to court against the teacher for showing “pornographic” pictures to the students. The teacher also filed a defamation case against him. The parent also issued a Fatwa against Paty.

The teacher was finally beheaded by a Chechen immigrant who had to ask many students who Samuel Paty was before attacking him. He had only hearsay to guide him. The police have arrested a group of people associated with the killing. They, in fact, created the condition for the Chechen to act in the belief that killing an infidel would be heavenly rewarded.

The reason why India intervened is because of political and strategic reasons. India is opposed to Islamic terrorism, while the BJP condones terrorism of a different kind as proved by the nomination and election of a woman accused of organising a terrorist attack at a mosque in Maharashtra.

Also, the Modi government has not taken kindly to the stand Erdogan had been taking on India’s new stance on Kashmir. When Article 370 of the Constitution was abrogated and the state converted into Union Territories, the two Capitals from where the strongest protest came were Islamabad and Ankara.

While the reaction from Islamabad was expected, New Delhi was not prepared for the reaction from Ankara. Turkey has no right to speak about Kashmir in view of what it has been doing to its own people known as Kurds. Erdogan saw a golden opportunity to fish in troubled water and gain a place in the Muslim psyche as the greatest defender of the faith.

Also, India under Modi has been coming closer to France. Modi personally took the initiative to cut the Gordian Knot and enter into a deal to buy the fighter aircraft Rafale. People still remember the scene in which Defence Minister Rajnath Singh climbed a few stairs to tie the consecrated lemon and chilly to a fighter aircraft before it was flown straight to Ambala for induction in the Indian Air Force.

Today, India pins its hopes on the Rafale, as it seeks to take on the Chinese in the Ladakh sector. All this should explain why India, uncharacteristically, rose to the defence of Macron. It may be of some interest to the students of Islamic history that it was from the soil of Paris that Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini waged a war against the Shah of Iran and captured power.

It was also Khomeini who issued a fatwa against writer Salman Rushdie, who wrote the book The Satanic Verses. I remember the huge gatherings of Muslims in various Indian cities and towns to protest against the book. None of them had read the book. I wonder whether the Ayatollah had himself read it.

I have the book which I attempted to read. It is one of the most unreadable books ever written. The point is that the protest was orchestrated. It was Ayatollah’s fatwa that made the book famous or infamous.

Pakistan leader Imran Khan was another leader who was vociferous in condemning France. Let me add, as a policy, I can never support any act of blasphemy. However, what is Pakistan’s track record in this regard? 

Ahmadiyya is an Islamic revival or messianic movement that originated in the Punjab in British India in the late 19th century. It was an Ahmadiyya who won the first Nobel Prize in science from the Muslim community. Instead of rejoicing over the achievement, the Pakistani establishment accused the Nobel Committee of insulting Muslims by giving the Nobel to an Ahmadiyya.

The poor scientist was forced to renounce his citizenship of Pakistan and he gifted the Nobel medal to Aligarh Muslim University in India of which he was an alumnus. Recently, an old man in Pakistan forcibly married a 13-year-old Christian girl but the law and order and religious authorities did not find anything amiss in that wretched man’s conduct.

The easiest way to target the Christian community is to accuse it of blasphemy. When an illiterate Christian girl was accused of blasphemy and jailed, the then Punjab Governor made the mistake of visiting her in the jail and promising justice. He was promptly killed by his own security guard.

What’s worse, when the security guard was produced before the court, the lawyers received him with showering of rose petals on him. A study showed that the blasphemy law was used mainly to grab the property of the Christians, who are socially and economically the poorest in Pakistan. 

Blasphemy is unacceptable. However, what is blasphemy to one is freedom to another. Secularism in France is different from the secularism in India. 

The secularism practised in India today is different from the secularism in vogue in the country when it had a Muslim President, a Muslim Home Minister and a series of Muslim education ministers. Today, if anyone thinks that his God needs to be defended by killing anyone who says or does something against Him, he certainly does not believe in the omnipotence of his own God.

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