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Hagia Sophia’s Reversion

Hagia Sophia’s Reversion

An Oxthodox Christian patriacrchal cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral, a mosque, a museum and now a mosque again! Hagia Sophia meaning ‘Holy Wisdom’, Istanbul’s antique site, Turkey’s most iconic landmark and UNESCO’s heritage site has once again fallen victim to religious fanaticism. Hours after the Turkey’s highest administrative court high court annulled the 1934 decision that turned the sixth-century Byzantine basilica into a museum, the right wing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree reconverting it into a mosque. The decision dismayed the world. Religious and political leaders condemned the move with sharp reactions.

The controversial development is a pattern of emergence of political movements or rather religious nationalism that has been developing in countries in Latin America, Western Europe and Asia. The Turkey situation has quite striking parallels with our country, India.

Erdoğan government’s decision to alter the UNESCO World Heritage site is a blatant display of rising religious nationalism and fanaticism. It is incomprehensible that a 21st century democratic leader has to go back to the Ottoman era "The nationalism displayed by President Erdogan... takes his country back six centuries," said Greece Culture Minister Lina Mendoni.

Changing the status of the world heritage is a move to assert his strident religious/political brand and to appease to his radical followers. The populist decision, dismayed by the world, is a desperate ploy to change the narrative of a crumbling economy, further ravaged by coronavirus, to the sentimental issue of religious nationalism. It is to keep his party the Justice and Development Party (in Turkish Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi and abbreviated as AKP) afloat after it suffered reverses in municipal elections last year losing in six largest cities including Ankara and capital Istanbul since 2004.

The reversion of majestic museum is a telling blow to Turkey’s secular character . Secularism envisaged by the founding father of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is being completely overturned. Turkey’s tradition of accommodation of other cultures and faiths has suffered a huge set back. “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 rise of the Islamists led by Erdogan is changing the country’s political landscape”, writes a columnist.

Erdoğan is not alone in this brand of extremist politics. United States’ Donald Trump is resorting to disgusting tactics as his chance of being re-elected seems to be diminishing.  He even had a stretch of the street occupied by protesters cleared by the police in order to reach in a church while brandishing the Bible. With the economy in bad shape, the failure to contain COVID-19 epidemic and opinions showing him trailing in the 2020 presidential election polls against his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, the president has opted to racist tweets, rhetoric and derogatory and divisive comments to bolster his chances. After six hears of taking American values backward, his white supremacist and racist instinct and religious exhibitionism might enable Trump to remain in the White House.

India is almost a carbon copy of Turkey. As in the case with Erdogan and his party’s pursuance of an aggressive Islamic brand represented, among other religious driven moves, by the push for the conversion of the former cathedral-turned museum into a mosque to gain political power, BJP’s rise can be attributed to its fanatical Hindu nationalism. Erdogan’s known target was to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque again and it helped him remain in power for most of the last 20 years. The BJP’s political ambition was also best fulfilled by its hostile position on Babri Masjid. The 1528 Mughal emperor Babur built masjid was demolished by Karsevak s in 1992 aided by communal organisations, the RSS and VHP. Pre and post demolition, to galvanise religious vote bank, construction of Ram temple on the ‘Mosque of Babur’ was always a part of the BJP’s electoral manifestos. As in Turkey’s case, finally in November 2019 , the country’s Supreme Court gave a favourable judgement to the ruling party paving the way for construction of Ram Mandir.

Just as the AKP, led by the present president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been winning elections since 2002 by confluence of faith and politics, the BJP’s march has been on the same trick. The unholy mix of religion and politics is all the more apparent under the current Prime Minister, Minister Narenda Modi who won two successive parliamentary elections by polarising the electorate. The Landslide victory in 2019 was particularly won by consolidating the Hindu vote bank through anti-Muslim (anti-Pakistan) and anti-minority rhetoric and a deliberate display of Hindu Nationalism. In spite taking the economy on a downslide, loss of lakhs of jobs, promises of the first term in office undelivered and, therefore, little to show in term of performance and governance, Modi was again victorious with more than two third majority.  

Turkey is officially a secular country and has no state religion since the constitutional amendment in 1928 and later strengthened by reforms initiated by is founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk that removed "Religion of the State is Islam" from the constitution in 1937. However ever since, influential religious factions have been challenging the secularization of the constitution and the very concept of a secular state. One of them is none other than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Islamist-rooted AKP.

The parallels here in India are indeed evident. Numerous groups like the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and of course the BJP have been voicing their aversion for secularism. Now they are openly advocating for elimination  of the word ‘secular’ from the constitution. Erdogan and his party have damaged the secular image of the country by their Islamic actions. The president has punctured the very soul of his country. In the same way hardliners in India has dented the secular fabric of the country and ‘secular India’ has to keep the struggle to save its very priceless soul. 

Though Turkey is a Muslim majority state (up to 90% or higher Sunni Muslims), nobly it chose to be democratic and secular clearly stating in the second article of the constitution that it recognizes and promotes no official religion. Though the country came out of Ottoman rule as late as 1920 the founding founders chose the country to be a modern and progressive nation politically, socially and culturally leaving religious dogma and doctrines behind.  However, under the ruling AKP the country is perceived to be re- Islamised embracing exclusiveness and majoritarianism . The country, which has been eying for membership in the European Union, is blowing away the opportunity to be a model Muslim majority state that respects and protects minorities. With his latest action, Erdogan has invited the world to doubt his country’s moderate Muslim status.

India too though being a Hindu majority state chose to be non-religious state after Independence. The secular fabric was strengthened with  the 42nd Amendment in 1976 in which the term ‘secular’ was incorporated in the Preamble to the Constitution firmly asserting that the state favours no religion. However, there are right wing forces in the country who want to erode the pluralistic nature of the country. Religious minorities have been feeling the heat of hostility, intolerance, persecution and even violence against them by Hindutva outfits which are patronised by the ruling dispensation. In the last six years the image of India as a vibrant multi religious and diverse nation has taken a beating internationally.  Sadly we are going the dangerous Turkey path of exclusiveness and majoritarianism.

Turkey’s top administrative court decision to reassign mosque status to an ancient Church has raised serious doubt about the independence, neutrality and secular nature of the country’s judiciary. How could the court rule that the government’s order to convert the church into a museum is illegal while converting the very structure into a mosque is legal? Needless to say the Supreme Court of India similarly ruled a temple should be built on an illegally demolished mosque without establishing that the structure beneath was a temple. This has made commentators to say that Supreme Court would have pronounced a similar verdict as that of the Turkey’s counterpart if Hagia Sophia were in India.

The rise of religious fanaticism globally is easy to observe. Fanatical groups, be it Buddhist in Sri Lanka and Myanma, Christian in the United States and Brazil, in Poland and Ireland, in Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation, Jewish in Israel, Hindu in India and Nepal, Islamic in the Middle East and South Asia, Palestine and of course Turkey, each seems to claim, “Our religion is the best”. No one admits that no religion possesses the truth. It is important to acknowledge that a religion may possess only a shade of truth. It is only in combination that we could have the whole truth.  The modern civilised world should be generously accommodative and tolerant, more and more secular and less and less religiously fanatical. Unfortunately we are rapidly reversing.

Right-nationalist governments around the world who miserably fail in their duties to deal with citizens’ common problems resort to divisive acts abusing culture and history and religious sentiments to further their own agenda. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is only one among many emerging aggressive nationalist leaders in the Americas, Europe and Asia, India very much in the list.

(Published on 20th July 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 30)