Hagia Sophia and the culture of selective amnesia in the West

Photo: britannica.com

By Nafis Haider

Hagia Sophia, a structure built in 537AD by Byzantine emperor Justinian, has become a monument of contradiction. The debate around the 6th century structure has been marked by a political contestation between Turkey and the western world in general.

The Turkish court has pronounced the verdict that Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who captured Istanbul in 1453, gave Hagia Sophia to the Waqf, which is a non-transferrable religious donation. Under Turkish law, the conversion of the mosque into museum is illegal since “the state is merely a custodian of endowed properties.” Even though the moral legitimacy of the transfer of the monument by Sultan Mehmed II is still objectionable, it is justified if seen from a purely legal perspective.

No one can deny that the move can be studied in singularity. It is a well-recognized fact that the move is politically driven by Erdogan to appeal to the Islamist population that forms the lower class of Turkey, the support base of Erdogan’s Justice and Development party. In times of an ongoing economic crisis, this move will help him distract the attention of the people and garner votes and mobilize his support strongly, a common populist trick. But the question I want to address is the representation of the issue in the global media and its condemnation from the western world.

There are two basic arguments which are at play here in the criticism of Erdogan’s move: Christianity and Secularism. In my view, both of the arguments have the same roots, which is cultural absolutism.

Condemning the move by Turkey, Greece stated that it is “an open provocation to the civilized world.” The vocabulary of civilized world implies that there must be an uncivilized world, and in this case it is the return of Turkey to Islamic culture. There has always been in the western world the idea that modern notions of liberty and equality are a Christian product since the birth of modern principles are grounded in Europe which is predominantly Christian. It is only Christianity which is compatible with the ideas of Enlightenment and Islam is particularly alien to it, as is reflected in Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture in 2006 and in the writings of other liberal authors like Fukuyama. Islam is seen as a religion which encourages violent conversion because it has no faith in reason. There was little uproar when the French government banned the use of religious symbols, particularly hijab and Burkini. The trend was followed by Sweden which also banned Islamic headscarf in primary school. These policies, explicitly discriminatory, were all passed in the name of secularism, a European idea that has now become an imposition on others.

The western world suffers from selective amnesia. Nobody talks about the Muslim mosques which have been converted into churches in violation of principles of secularism. It has been reported that Israel converted a historical mosque in Safad into a bar and event hall, “where it is used in several ways except as a prayer place for Muslims.” The point is not about whataboutery, but to reflect the selectivity of condemnation and the power politics at play in deciding what is to be highlighted and what is to be kept hidden.

The liberal argument of forgetting the past, about keeping the status quo of Hagia Sophia intact is all the more problematic as this does not take into consideration the culture of the land so concerned. As Zizek has said in an interview with Barbara Bleisch, there is a fundamental clash between individual liberty and cultural heritage. Secularism tends to create a culture of homogeneity and has its roots in cultural absolutism. The western notion of secularism seeks mutual exclusion of religion and state which calls for a disregard of religious symbols and sighs in the public domain. In cultures where religion is a dominant factor, imposing this understanding will disrupt the balance of the culture and artificially induce change from the perspective of the other. Can we argue against one culture through the lens of different culture? It would be a case of cultural absolutism, a colonial idea.

The only ground where the argument against this transfer of power can be based is on the condition of the minorities that are present in Turkey and what it means to them. Turkey holds a Christian population of around 0.3–0.4% of its total population. This transition is a covert threat to their identity and nature of citizenship that they are guaranteed under the Turkish constitution, a pattern similar to India under Narendra Modi. The rights of condemnation is valid solely on this argument of the suppression of identities through legal measures which Modi government is also seen doing through the blatant abuse of bureaucratic powers and populist leadership.

Nafis Haider studies Political Science and Sociology at Aligarh Muslim University. His areas of interest include International relations, and the critical analysis of contemporary political realities.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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