By Syed Tahseen Raza
Embedded mostly in the world imagination as a site in the custody of Byzantine Christianity for more than a thousand years and Ottoman Islamic protection for around five hundred years, the Hagia Sophia issue needs to be understood independent of the secular-religious binary or, more specifically of the Byzantine Christian and Ottoman Muslim and nationalist-cosmopolitan dichotomies. These frameworks have been amply highlighted.
This magnificent monument becomes a fiercely competitive site each time a claimant asserts their legacy. In this perennial tussle for control, the hegemon at present is the Turkish nation-state, which hosts the structure.
The recent move of the Recep Erdogan government to change the nature of the site from being a museum to a mosque has not happened in isolation. It has as much to do with the collapse of the post-enlightenment rationality as with the unfinished project of “decoloniality”. Also at play is the collapse of the liberal-secular promise to be the dominant idea of the time.
Of the many international and strategic factors that led Turkey to follow a more assertive path on the status of the site, two sets of issues demand close scrutiny. These may be categorised as “long-festering ones” and “immediate triggers”. While the former includes issues such as Turkey’s frustration over its attempts to be a part of the European Union and having had to always deliver more than what it thinks it has been responsible for its neighbourhood. The collective response of Europe on issues like Srebrenica massacre to the more recent migrant crisis has further added to the growing disillusionment in Turkey. From acting as more European than Europe itself in the Kemalist era to calibrating its response to the Middle East in tandem with the Euro-Atlantic alliance — even entering into a military alliance with Israel — Turkey seems to have had enough of its western quest. It realised the painful reality that it can never be European enough.
This East-West tussle goes much deeper in history. When we are discussing Hagia Sophia and Sultan Mehmet’s annexation of Constantinople, it will be fitting to recall an incident which highlights the East-West dimension of this historical conflict. The East has always been a symbol of barbarism for the West. This goes back to the myth of “civilised” Greeks conquering Troy. Mehmet’s biographer recounts an incident that took place in the year 1463, almost 10 years after Constantinople’s conquest. Mehmet, while on an expedition to Mitylene, went to Ilium, the site of the legendary battle of Troy and remarked: “God has reserved for me through so long a period of years the right to avenge this city and its inhabitants …now through my efforts paid the just penalty after a long period of years, for their injustices to us Asiatics at that time and so often in subsequent times.”
Erdogan’s current decision regarding Hagia Sophia, in the final analysis, could have been more statesmanlike. He could have either maintained the status quo or in the tradition of Islam, shown respect as Caliph Hazrat Umar did when he invited Sophroniys to the Church of the Sepulchre to offer prayers to respect Christian sentiments. But Erdogan chose Ottomanism over Islamism.
Raza is Assistant Professor in the Department of Strategic and Security Studies, faculty of International Studies, Aligarh Muslim University, India and is a part of the AMU Teachers and Seniors Collective
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