The world is going through extremely difficult and different times due to the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19. Almost the entire world is currently under lockdown, while all of us are getting used to the streaming platforms and binge watching. As our favourite pastime. On the other day, I was having a conversation with my mother and got to know about a show she is glued to these days, called Resurrection Ertugrul (Dirilis: Ertugrul). Primarily, based on the Turkish mythology, the show panoramically portrays the glorious days of Ottoman empire and how glorious their past was. This show has the same impact in Turkey as Mahabharata and Ramayana had on Indian socio-political context. In the recent times however, there is an ideological shift in Turkey from being secular to more orthodox. Justice and Development Party (AKP) has now embarked upon a motive of Islamisation of the entire nation. The party, while coming to the power, had promised a prosperous future. Largely failing on these promises, they are using a fascist formula of ‘I might not give you the promised future, so let me restore to you the glorious past’. Erdogan primarily is reversing 100 years of reforms in Turkey, restoring it back to the Ottoman Islamic past. Their latest move towards this transformation can be seen by converting the UNESCO designated heritage site Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Let me try to briefly explain the history, foundation and future impact of the decision on the present and future of Turkey.
Context of the problem
On 10th of July 2020, the highest court of Turkey allowed conversion of the 1500 year old Hagia-Sophia from museum into a mosque. This directly contradicts vision of the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This UNESCO world heritage site has a long history dating back to the 6th century. The monument was built at Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in the 6th century CE (532-537) under the guidance of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. Post Turkish conquest of Constantinople in the year 1453, Mehmed II had it turned into a mosque. As mentioned earlier, by the late 19th Century, largely the educated Turks started to get influenced by Europe. This resulted in a popular demand of modernization throughout the country by the end of 1880s. In 1920, the Treaty of Sevres finally ended the conservative Ottoman rule from the Turkey.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became the president of Turkey in the year 1923 thereafter he modernized the country’s legal and education system. In 1924 he abolished the rule of Caliphate. In a book named ‘The J Curve by Ian Bremmer’ quotes Ataturk saying “Think of two men facing you, one is rich and has every means at his disposal and the second is poor and has nothing apart from the absence of means, the spirit of the second man is in no way different or inferior to the first one, that is precisely position of Turkey as it faces Europe”.
History behind the controversy
Ataturk always wanted Turkey to be a part of the Europe and break from the religious past that was holding the country for long. In that sense, Ataturk was rather a benevolent dictate rather than being an authoritarian dictate. Thereafter, Turkey became a secular country by diktat rather than being a voluntary secular through constitution. In the year 1934, he secularized the Hagia Sophia and turned it into a museum. Ataturk always thought that this was unnecessary symbol of past and religiosity. Therefore, though that the site is best suited as a symbol of cultural heritage.
Ataturk left behind an ideology called Kemalist which basically a mix of modernity, secularity and westernism. The protector of this ideology is the Turkish army. It has been taking various measures to protect this ideology from time to time. However, it is interesting to note that Turkey witnessed 4 coups since 1998 , every time army has tried to uplift the idea of Kemalist.
The Hagia Sophia controversy
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who originally belonged to Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power in the year 2003. He continued for some term and eventually got elected as President in the year 2014. In 2015 he lost his parliamentary majority, but still manoeuvred the system in such a way that another election took place within that year. In 2016, the army tried to coup again but they failed. Erdogan had a referendum done which abolished Prime Ministership in the country and assumed all the powers himself as the President.
The elected President turned Dictator of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently decreed Hagia Sophia site to be reverted into a mosque. Erdogn’s move naturally attracted huge international criticism from different countries such as United States, Greece and UNESO. This move can have a lasting impact on the relationship with Greece.
After the verdict, Greece’s Minster for Culture, Lina Mendoni remarked thatthe ruling “absolutely confirms that there is no independent justice” in Turkey and said the move was an “open provocation to the civilised world”. “The nationalism displayed by President Erdogan…. Takes his country back six centuries,” Mendoni added.
The US State Department has bludgeoned this move as “disappointing”. They indicated that it would observe Turkey’s plans for the Hagia Sophia “to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all.”
Pope Francis has said that he is “pained” by the decision of the Turkey court to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. While speaking at a service in Vatican he said “My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained”. This would lead to a bigger rift with western and European countries having majority of Christian population.
How ‘the West’ reacted?
Overall, the decision to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque has not gone well with the Western allies of Turkey. Erdogan has advanced his ties with Russia and to solidify the new friendship both nations have signed a defence deal. This move has additionally irked USA and NATO. Interestingly the decision to convert Hagia Sophia sparked anger in Russia and this would lead to greater problems between the two nations given that they already have differences over Syria and Libya. Russian officials have remarked that the conversion of the monument is “an unacceptable violation of religious freedom”.
Erdogan made this property of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affair . In his speech, while addressing the Muslim population, he said “the resurrection of the Hagia Sophia takes the chain of its doors and shackles of the hearts and the feet of those who stand alongside it”. This was rather done to please the orthodox Muslims, who are the major vote bank of Erdogan.
A poll conducted in June by Istanbul Economy Research showed 46.9% of respondents favoured Hagia Sophia being opened to Muslim worship while 38.8% said it should remain a museum. 13% said it should be open to worship for all religions. Turkey having 99.8% population being Muslim and out of that 51% of the population having rather different view from on the governments’ move, clearly shows the values of secularism are largely still embeddedwithin the Turkish societal values.
Most researchers believe that Erdogan has systematically eroded the secular ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on which the modern Turkish Republic was founded. President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s dominance over Turkey’s political sphere for close to two decades has slowly pushed it from a constitutionally secular country to a more conservative nation on religious lines. On the surface, AKP has claimed to be secular but as witnessed in the case of Hagia Sophia, it appears that the party will not hesitate to alter Ataturk’s secular legacy to achieve its own political goals.
What can unfold in future?
The conversion of the Hagia Sophia is going to be a significant milestone in the international political rhetoric for Turkey. It seems that Turkey has already ruined its alliance with US and most European nations. The only ally which Turkey was relying on is Russia, which is also showing displeasure at this decision.
Finally, in my opinion, what worked for the Ottomans cannot work for modern Turkey today. There is an interlinkage of different aspect such as history, heritage, culture, which explains symbols of each nation- and nations must uplift them rather than supressing them. Turkey, by choosing to let go of its ties with secularism and Kemalist approach by portraying the glorified past will make it difficult for them to sustain and develop. It is time for Erdogan to retrospect and revert back to the Kemalist approach as an effort to regain support from the international community. These are difficult times ahead, and the last thing one can do is to loose ‘true’ friends now!
About the author …
Shahzeb is a practicing lawyer in the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court of India. He is also a renowned arbitrator who has successfully represented several high profile corporate houses in different matters. Alongside being a Partner and Head of the Legal Department at The Dialogue Box, Shahzeb is also the Head of Ace Law Chambers, New Delhi. In his illustrious career so far he has worked with several renowned law firms and lawyers across the country which include Additional Solicitor General of India, Shri Aman Lekhi, Shradul Amarchand Mangaldas and Advani & Co to name a few.