The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque by Erdogan’s Turkey is a historic event. It marks the rebirth of an Islamic Turkey, and the further retrenchment of universalist values of liberalism and secularism in a world increasingly composed of majoritarian nation-states.
“Unfortunately we are not secular any more,” Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist, told BBC on Friday. It all looks so familiar from India. A year ago, in a mirror to the judgment in Turkey, India’s Supreme Court essentially sanctified the majoritarian desire to have a Ram temple built at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid. Like the Hagia Sophia, the issue was not about religious structures, but competing visions of the Indian Republic. The Supreme Court order confirmed to both chauvinistic Hindus and gloomy Muslims what they already suspected: the secular republic had given way to a Hindu India.
Bartholomew I, the usually reticent Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church at Istanbul, issued a stern condemnation of the “absurd and harmful” reconversion of Hagia Sophia. “A place that now allows the two peoples to meet and admire its greatness can again become a reason for contrast and confrontation,” Bartholomew said, warning that it “will push millions of Christians around the world against Islam.” The angry reactions from Greece and Russia, countries with historical ties to the Cathedral, seemed to confirm his fears. Right-wing parties across Europe, which often use Turkey as a bugbear for their nativist politics, would be licking their chops. The Indian right wing, which anyway does not need any excuse to hate Muslims, has also chimed onto the Hagia Sophia issue. “What international precedent does Hagia Sophia set for Kashi and Mathura? Shouldn’t Parliament pass a law for reclamation of sacred Hindu sites and rebuild temples demolished by Muslim rulers?” tweeted Delhi University Professor Abhinav Prakash.
Not that any of this much concerns Erdogan, who has long fashioned himself as a latter-day Ottoman Sultan, systematically dismantling the secularist republic of Mustafa Kemal. The global condemnation only plays into his image as a doughty defender of national causes in the face of external pressure. “We will never resort to seeking your permission or your consent,” said Erdogan, responding to warnings from other countries on Hagia Sophia. “Do you rule Turkey, or do we?”
Erdogan has also tried to sell himself as a global protector of Muslims, much like the Ottoman Caliphs, reorienting his foreign policy since 2011 towards what experts have termed ‘pan-Islamism’. Sure enough, his Arabic statement glided smoothly beyond Turkey: “The revival of Hagia Sophia is a sign towards the return of freedom to Al Aqsa mosque.”
There are obvious similarities between Modi and Erdogan (and BJP and AKP). Both espouse religious nationalism, are implacably opposed to democratic institutions such as a free judiciary and a free press, and use repression of minorities as a way to consolidate political support. Arguably, Erdogan has been even more ruthless than Modi in curbing civil liberties (although the gap is fast narrowing)—helped by the fact that Turkey only has a brief experience of democracy. Erdogan has jailed more journalists than any other country in the world, used the coup to pack courts with loyalists, and changed the constitution through a referendum granting himself sweeping executive powers.
There are differences though between the two countries. First, Turkey is more evenly divided between secularists and Islamists, an enduring legacy of the long Kemalist rule. Even in the recent moves at Hagia Sophia, while 47 per cent of the public supported turning the monument into a mosque, 38 per cent wanted it to stay as a museum. The urban educated middle classes, who form a large part of Turkey, generally dislike the influence of religion in politics and dislike Erdogan. In a Pew survey, 68 per cent of Turks with a post-secondary education disapproved of Erdogan, compared with only 44 per cent of Turks without secondary education. In India, the educated middle classes are the biggest ideological supporters of Modi and Hindutva. The secular, liberal elite here is tiny, hardly found outside isolated spheres of media, academia and social media.
Second, Erdogan’s politics of majoritarianism, while imbued with religion, uses repression of ethnic minorities (the Kurds) to buoy his political support. This is mainly because there is no significant religious minority (the Christians now make up only 0.2 per cent of Turkey). And to be sure, Turkish political parties across the spectrum are hostile to Kurds, and persecution of the Kurds has long been a central feature of the Turkish republic. When Turkey launched a gruesome bombing campaign last year on Kurds in northeast Syria, the political opposition swarmed around the military, and the largest anti-government newspaper ran the image of burning Syrian houses with the headline “Traitors burnt to smoke”. In fact, ironically enough, it was Erdogan who at first went further than anyone to initiate peace with the Kurds in 2010-15.
Yet, when he sensed that his political position was weakening (reflected in the 2013 Gezi protests) and his outreach to Kurds costing him votes, he dramatically reversed himself. When he lost his parliamentary majority in June 2015, he launched a war on the PKK, which helped him regain his majority five months later. Since then, he has been bombing Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, northeast Syria, and carrying out military operations in the Kurdish stronghold of southeast Turkey, where thousands have died. He has also jailed the leaders of the main Kurdish opposition (HDP) party, as well as thousands of its activists. The spike in conflict with the Kurds has helped him shore up his political support at key moments, such as before the 2017 referendum. Of course, this is similar to how Modi uses hostilities with Pakistan, or in Kashmir, or Hindu-Muslim tensions, to rally Hindus behind him at critical moments.
The Hagia Sophia move also comes at the moment when Erdogan is flagging in polls owing to a bad economy and the coronavirus pandemic. When populist strongmen have little else to offer, they offer pride.
It was unsurprising though that all the symbolism of an ‘occasion of pride for the Muslim ummah’ also sparked celebration among some sections of Indian Muslims. It was partly a desperate latching on to some sense of vindication and ‘Muslim pride’ at a time Muslims worldwide are subject to cruel forms of oppression. Across the border in China, at least a million Muslims find themselves in detention camps. But it was also partly a reminder that liberal and secular values, in principle (as opposed to pragmatism), are lacking in large sections of every community in India. At another level, it was a muted echo of how Turkish politics of religion had shaped Indian history.
Exactly 100 years ago, the Mahatma Gandhi-led Congress joined the Khilafat movement demanding the restoration of the Ottoman Caliphate. It was a fateful decision with profound historical consequences: it helped birth the non-cooperation movement, encouraged Hindu-Muslim unity, and brought Muslim masses into the anti-colonial struggle. But it also had less beneficial consequences.
First, it cast a long shadow on how Indian secularism would deal with minorities. Secularism often became a byword for accommodating the religious sensibilities of Muslims (often innocuously symbolic but sometimes regressive like in the Shah Bano case), which took precedence over their material rights. Second, the pan-Islamist discourse of the Khilafat movement also arguably contributed to the growth of Muslim nationalism which found its culmination in Pakistan. Naseem Qureshi’s deeply researched book Pan-Islam in British India: The Politics of the Khilafat Movement, 1918–1924 argues that “pan-Islam (embodied in the Khilafat movement), even though it proved chimerical in the end, played a central role in mobilising Indian Muslims for mass politics and in so doing contributed decisively to the development of Muslim nationalism in the long run.”
The Hagia Sophia reconversion ultimately points to the failure of the Kemalist project of top-down secularism. Much like the state secularism of nationalist authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Iran, Iraq etc had failed to lead to the secularisation of the wider society, it seems Turkey is no longer the exception it was long hoped to be. More fundamentally, the failing secularism of Turkey and India begs the question: is secularism even possible in non-Christian/non-Western societies? Without the Western experiences of Reformation and the Enlightenment, hard-fought victories as they were, can non-Western societies value the principles of freedom and secularism? Why is it that, unlike in the West where democratisation and secularism went hand in hand, greater democratisation has seemed to only bring religious chauvinism in India and Turkey?
The answers to these questions are perhaps disturbing, and cannot be obscured by the charge of ‘Eurocentrism’, which has long been used to justify reactionary leaders. But what is clear is that the modern ‘reconquests’ of religious structures are not being effected by sultans and generals, but by the democratic “will of the majority”. Historical wounds are being opened afresh, and nations being made anew. Both the processes are linked, of course, and values of liberal humanism are offering little resistance.
(Asim Ali is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research. Views expressed are personal)