Hagia Sophia and the Predicaments of the ‘Secular’ Public Sphere

Photo: Wikipedia

By Niharika Tripathi 

Earlier this month, Turkey’s highest court revoked the status of Hagia Sophia as a museum and converted it back to a mosque. A decree of 1934 that had transformed it into a museum was rendered illegal in order to uphold the site as the will and waqf (non-transferable property) of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. The “unconscious” aspect of law manifested in the legal decision on Hagia Sophia is that it treats its communities like it treats its individuals – as entities functioning within a predetermined sphere of behaviours and aspirations.[1] The “presumption of law’s rationality” as justification for the decision must definitely be a subject of scrutiny. However, the play of this “unconscious” with Erdogan’s efforts at self-fashioning is what I concern myself here with.

The image of Sultan Mehmed II acquiring Hagia Sophia rightfully ‘under law’ appeals to the sensibilities of those in Turkey as well as in the Arab world who have an interestingly steadfast and glorified view of the Ottomans as rulers who were dedicated to the cause of Islam among disparate groups. The Daily Sabah, a pro-Erdogan online news portal from Turkey, did an article earlier this year on a figure by the name of Mohammad Harb, an Arab, who apparently, spent his life “searching for the truth about Ottomans” and “accurately” teaching Ottoman history.[2] It was, however, Harb’s emphasis on a “single origin” for Turk-Egyptian ideals and Ottomans as the rightful champions of it, that remains important for the writer, in “a hope to end dispute” and for the “reunification of the ummah” – echoing a desire for reconstituting a community based on ideals of a socially cognizable behaviour[3] emanating from exchanges within the Turk-Arab public discourse. The writer says Harb is hopeful that Erdogan’s initiatives to encourage commercial ties between Egypt and Turkey can help plaster the divide created by European colonists.

This same gentleman, Harb, is subjected to criticism in an article that featured in Arab News on July 13 in immediate reaction to the verdict.[4] The article suggests that Harb “revealed extremist Islamic passion” and wrongly qualified Mehmed’s conversion of Hagia Sophia as lawful in his book. It seems that Harb does command a contested memory evoked by both Turks and Arabs for different ends. Erdogan has also, on many occasions, highlighted shared cultural and religious bonds between Turks and Arabs under an erstwhile Ottoman rule, manifesting a pre-existing sentiment for cementing the civilizational divide perpetrated by the West.[5] In this case, he appeals to a memory of Sultan Mehmed II and through him, fashions himself as the rightful restorer of Mehmed’s will and hence, the worthy ‘New Sultan’. The ‘New Ottoman Empire’, like its predecessor, is a fully cognizant and passionate endorser of its role as an efficient torchbearer of Islamic interest among disparate groups.[6]

In a similar vein, Erdogan rather provocatively and ambitiously claimed (interestingly only in the Arabic version of his speech) that Hagia Sophia will be a “return to the freedom of the Al Aqsa mosque” in Jerusalem as well as the crystallisation of an expansive vision that will uphold the will of the Muslims from Spain to Bukhara, at once constituting an image no other leader in the region can possibly lay a claim to.[7] What Erdogan does in the name of Mehmed is then, not just significant for his ‘right-wing agenda’ within Turkey, but a statement issued for the Muslim world itself.

The ‘quixotic’ politics of Modern ‘Sultans’

Historian Ali Anooshahr in his work, Ghazi Sultans and the Frontiers of Islam throws light on the significance of pre-existing ideals for early Ottoman Sultans as they self-fashioned as ghazis or frontier Holy Warriors. A successful image of a ghazi as a rare confluence of a will to power and adherence to tradition could only be orchestrated by a sea of creative energies and imagination unleashed within the intimacies of the relationship between the Sultans/Mirzas (rulers/princes) and Katibs (scholars and literary elite) in the Islamicate milieu.

The models provided by textual and oral rhetorics popular among local warrior groups from Anatolia to Balkans in the aftermath of Mongol devastation of the 13th century – familiar also to Mehmed II’s predecessors Bayezid and Murad and the literary elite in their realm – were creatively harnessed by early Ottoman scholar-princes to navigate their own rapidly changing needs. This was also done to provide these disparate groups a convincing image of the ideal ghazi in the figure of the Sultan, formulated and articulated in rhetorics most familiar to them. Deriving their authority from such pre-existing images embodied multiple possibilities for princes. These were then systematised and modelled by the scholars and historians for imitation by later generations. Anooshahr sums up arguing,

…princes would read the heroic literature of an earlier age, and would try to outdo their predecessors or actually become them. But this quixotic self-perception is only ridiculous to a modern mind that may both feel physically removed from the world in which these transformations would take place, and also as heir to an intellectual tradition that fundamentally distinguishes between the knowing subject and the outside subject.…. Scholar-princes on horseback read history not for establishing a correspondence of textual records with how the past really was but rather for inspiration to imitate the extravagances of ancient heroes… 

It was the ‘script’ rather than the act in isolation which did the trick for ghazi Sultans and although it is a different one designed to a new social world, it does the same for contemporary leaders – recreating an understood greatness while also subsequently remoulding it. Like the ghazi sultans, it is not Erdogan’s concern or wish to distinguish fact from fiction in the existing ‘popular’[8] memoryscapes of an undisputed hero, transmitted within an illusory coherence of master-narratives, not to forget the televised forms of the same in immensely popular dramas like Ertugrul. As a ‘new Sultan’, he does not seek to understand but to imitate, outdo or even become that ideal- somewhat similar to the “quixotic self-perception.” However, my concern here is to locate this powerful rhetoric in a social world that is far removed from the pre-modern. What makes it possible for leaders of modern ‘secular’ democratic countries to align their ‘religious’ politics with politics of the public sphere in a way that it finds a formidable and even a dangerous space in it? It is to recognize and appreciate that the ‘script’ for the ‘theatre’ of contemporary politics arises from conditions neither ‘secular’ nor ‘religious’ but one where both are already inextricably enmeshed and even mutually assertive. I hope to look at the conditions, knowledge, desires, behaviours and needs out of which they arise as well as those that they constitute, in turn. Talal Asad’s arguments in his work Formations of the Secular become especially pertinent here.

Towards an abstract ‘secular’

In order to highlight the implicit presumptions that guide our understanding of ‘religion’ in the modern public sphere, Talal Asad argues that “political religion” is only allowed space in public debates by secularists when it is supposedly proven as compatible with modernity. If it is ever suspected to even remotely downplay civil liberties, it is branded as a “rebellion” against the same. This is concomitant with the idea that secularism is based on ‘rationality’ and a secular public sphere is hence, where ‘rational debate’ can be successfully carried out. It is only if religion is “willing” to enter this sphere meaningfully by means of “persuasion” and not coercion that secularists feel, it can hope to live up to the crucial fault line between law and morality, central to liberal discourse. What is then this ‘public sphere’ and why does it become necessary to re-work its presumptions? Asad underlines that a preoccupation with the ideal rationality of the secular public sphere hinders the appreciation of the fact that it is, like any other structure of power, necessarily built on an implicit premise of exclusion of certain ideas and identities. If a particular “sensibility, memory, fear, aspiration, hope or desire”[9] seeks to make a space for itself in this exclusionary arrangement, it has to, at times, disrupt pre-existing notions and ideals. To be heard, it also has to constitute its listeners within the same space. Hence, if religion is to be allowed to enter the sphere on its own terms, it will have to “threaten the authority of existing assumptions.”[10] Therefore, those who feel that religion in the public sphere should always legitimize its presence by “moral suasion” / “negotiation” and not force, must be cognizant of the dangers of such an argument because the public sphere itself as well as the essential “secular self” are a product of coercion, embodied and systematized in law in a language of universal rights, enjoyed by self-governing subjects.

Why is this window of ‘unregulated’ self-expression not allowed adequately to “de privatized”[11] religion and what happens as a consequence? I will restrict myself here only to the arguments Asad makes for religion in the political sphere. Religion, as already stated, is sought to be regulated by the secular public sphere based on the assumption that it is essentially guided by an irrational sentimental passion, dangerous to guaranteed freedoms of all kinds. It hence, must only be allowed to appeal to the “moral conscience” of the nation’s subjects by means of moral suasion and negotiation. However, the catch here is that in order for the latter to happen, all parties involved must arrive at an agreement, that the “moral conscience” and their own values are in fact negotiable. For those who do not share the same set of negotiable values, there can be no conduit for negotiation. In order to find a path around this dilemma, “religious spokespersons… act as secular politicians do in a liberal democracy. When the latter cannot persuade to negotiate, they seek to manipulate the conditions…employ a variety of communicative devices to target their (voter’s/listener’s) desires and anxieties.”[12] What Asad is trying to reach here is an understanding of ‘secular’ as well as ‘religion’, re-thought in a way that not only ascribes them an implicit mutual tension, but also the underlying aspirations and desires of an existence in response to the other. Hence, Asad argues for a shift towards an “idea of the secular” which is embodied in its multiple genealogies in diverse knowledge systems including the 18th century West. The idea of this secular today is embodied within the “doctrine of secularism” which

builds on a particular conception of the world (‘natural’ and ‘social’) and of problems generated by that world. The transformations embodied within the ‘idea of the secular’ as it moves through the ‘discourse of modernity’, provide space for humans (to) appear as the self-conscious makers of History…and as the unshakable foundation of universally valid knowledge about nature and society. The human as agent is now responsible – answerable… Responsibility is now held for events he or she was unaware of – or falsely conscious of…Chance is now considered to be tamable. The world is disenchanted.[13]

It is for the sake of this universal vision of the modern nation-state and its need to exclude and discipline to control public knowledge that the ‘secular’ has to supply meaning to itself as a political doctrine.

Getting back to our original concern of the entry and formidable success of religious rhetoric into the public sphere and eventually the political discourse – it follows from Asad’s earlier arguments that any voice seeking to be heard in this public sphere will inevitably have to navigate the politics of it. Those who wish to align their religious sensibilities, in order to “reform” aspects of life in the public as well as the private spheres, will have to “provoke the charge of political illegitimacy.”[14] Turkey’s aggressive ‘secular’ project beginning with Ataturk was aimed at the same – making space for newer expressions by constituting a social body of self-governing subjects with a public and private life regulated by the modern nation-state.[15] However, Turkey’s supposed ‘Islamists’ rallying behind Erdogan seek to intervene and make space within the same public sphere (and in this case, as stated in the beginning, a trans-national public sphere cementing Turk-Arab divide) for a political expression of ideals and desires appealing to a different sensibility. But to constitute in that process, the public of its appeal, it has to make a new ideal thinkable. And for that to happen, the whole paraphernalia of state apparatus and all the intellectual capacity at its disposal is deployed. One must contextualize Erdogan within this tussle. All the desires that seek to make a difference in this sphere regulated by state power, have to ultimately also encounter the coercive mechanisms that run and define it and the ‘right-wing’ in Turkey too, poses a threat to those it seeks to exclude to realize its world-view. How are we supposed to respond to such overt claims of power in order that we don’t end up playing into the same madness? It is important to note the nature of some reactions the decision has garnered from various corners.

Erdogan’s decision has been seen as a threat to ‘secularism’, ‘Islam’, ‘tolerant Islam’ ‘minority rights’, ‘human rights’ and has been labelled ‘extremist’, ‘Islamist’, ‘right-wing’, ‘conservative’, ‘moderate conservative’, ‘ottomanist’, ‘religious authoritarian’ in various forms and disguises. That all of these labels come out of a similar set of implicit assumptions can be a subject of another article altogether. And to avoid digression, I wish to point out for now that Asad’s critique has opened possibilities for recognizing the limits of essentializing ‘labels’ and those of a discourse based solely on universal conception of human rights as embodied in the law and Constitution.

In order to make any mark that remains substantial for the subjects of their concern, reactions, responses and resistance have to strive and reimagine the very “objects, sites, practice, words and representation – even minds and bodies…” that the ‘secularists’ and the ‘right-wing’ seek to (re)mould. It is to blur and enliven that artificial breach between ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ which constitutes and assigns predetermined normative behaviours to ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ – with the latter always in a need to be ‘defended’ and ‘protected’ against the former. As Asad underlined elsewhere, concerned subjects have to acknowledge the limitation of the ‘law language’ based on rights in its ability to enter and essentially disrupt the public sphere in its favour precisely because they continue to be threatened and undermined in multiple ways without the slightest discomfort.[16]

One way to do that, as Gayatri Spivak has argued, is to turn towards non-western and indigenous knowledge systems and textual traditions, ‘enter their protocols’ and foster ‘critical intimacy’ with them in order to preserve and protect the abstract secular without necessarily giving in to European models. Back in India, such a view would mean rethinking the limitations of parochial translations of western ideas into native languages that creates newer terms with no organic connections with the universe of divergent practices and sensibilities that they inhabit. An example would be the term Dharma Nirpekshata which embodies a very narrow understanding and practice of the Western ideal itself.[17] “The task”, she says, “is  to find something like the “secular/transcendental” binary in many languages of the world rather than offer abstruse translations of English or metropolitan words. Din aur Duniya and jagatik or pamarthik the two I work with as candidates for undoing: the two major religions of India.”[18] It is a continuous and “persistent attempt at an uncoercive rearrangement of desires…” that she thinks should be the “mission” of an instruction in the humanities.

Acknowledgement: The author is thankful to Sanghmitra for suggestions on an earlier draft.

[1]Psychoanalytic Anne C. Dailey has questioned the nature of intervention of law in people’s daily lives to contrast the bases of modern legal systems with their ‘unconscious’- ‘the gap between the lived reality of the subject and the law’s false portrait of the human mind ..leading to unrealistic and unjust legal rules and outcomes’.  Anne C Dailey, Law and the Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Perspective (Yale Press, 2017)

[2]See  “A life dedicated to accurately teaching Ottoman History” (dailysabah.com, Jan 21, 2020)

[3] I borrow this term from Marshall Hodgson to imply a set of socially and culturally sanctioned/recognised systems of values, behaviours, et al instrumental in constituting a set of collective ideals that the community would persistently strive for. Marshall Hodgson, Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a world civilization, Volume 1: The Classical Age of Islam (University of Chicago Press, 1977)

[4]See “By changing the status of Hagia Sophia, Erdogan is playing to Extremists” (arabnews.com, July 13, 2020). This article is interesting also because the writer blames persistent ‘Ottoman habits’ for Erdogan’s verdict. The invocation of the ‘Plunder of Istanbul’ is significant here as a means to emphasize Turkey’s ‘real’ ambitions of appealing to ‘extremist passion’ and incite ‘intra-Arab conflicts’ in the Middle-East.

[5] This is especially true in case of Turkey’s involvement with Palestine. See “Israel, Turkey invoke Ottoman Empire in spat over Jerusalem” (timesofisrael.com, July 26, 2017); “Erdogan seeks to expand Turkey’s influence in the Middle East through diplomacy- and force” (April 17, 2018);  and the list can go on.

[6] Here, I refrain from using the term, ‘neo-Ottomanism’, so often abused to describe Erdogan’s policies including the decision on Hagia Sophia. The reason is that it is a mark of idleness on the part of western foreign policy for the term has essentialist overtones and has made politics succumb to a need for ‘clear definitions’, central to the workings of international relations. An umbrella term that is supposed to serve as an explanation for every ‘political move’ that Turkey makes, eventually undermines and dilutes both the term and the changing tides of what it seeks to describe. Instead, it serves better to think about the set of understood principles or the socially and culturally transmitted and recognised set of values which serve as parameters for what constitutes ‘being Ottoman’ for Turkey along with the diverse and opposed ways in which this conditioning reflects in the self-fashioning efforts of its leader.

[7] See “Hagia Sophia resurrection paves way for ‘Al-Aqsa liberation’: Erdogan” (english.alaraby.co.uk, July 11, 2020); “Turkey vows to ‘liberate Al-Aqsa after turning Hagia Sophia to mosque” (The Jerusalem Post, jpost.com, July 11, 2020)

[8] I use the word ‘popular’ here in the sense used by Partha Chatterjee to describe how history as a discipline had to move out of the confines of the ‘autonomy of professional discipline’ in India, after the Babri Masjid Demolition made the new generation of historians cognizant of the ‘domain of the popular’ and the need to develop an ‘appropriate analytic’ of the same. Partha Chatterjee, “Introduction” in Partha Chatterjee and Anjan Ghosh ed., History and the Present (Permanent Black, 2002), 19

[9] “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion” in Talal Asad, Formations of Secularism: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2003)

[10] “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion” in Talal Asad, Formations of Secularism: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2003)

[11] Any religion that enters into the public sphere, according to the secularists, has to take certain forms. Giving it that convenient mould in which it is rendered ‘non-threatening’ when it enters the public sphere, is how Asad uses the word ‘de privatization’. See  “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion” in Talal Asad, Formations of Secularism: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2003)

[12] Asad, “Secularism, Nation-State…” in Formations of.. 187

[13] Asad, “Secularism, Nation-State…” in Formations of..  192, 193

[14] This happened in case of ‘Islamist’ reform movements in the Middle East throughout the 90s and oppositions to them in Algeria and Turkey on grounds of being ‘undemocratic’. Asad argues, “such cases of de privatized religion are intolerable to secularists primarily because of the motives imputed to their opponents rather than to anything the latter have actually done. The motives signal the potential entry of religion into the space already occupied by the secular. It is the nationalists themselves, one might say, who stoutly reject the secularization of religious concepts and practices here.” Asad, “Secularism, Nation-State…” in Formations of..

[15] For a better elaboration, see Asad’s analysis of sensibilities informing law reform in colonial Egypt, their reimagination of the existing tradition in order to make space for ‘secular’ self-governing subjects to occur. ‘Religion’ ‘tradition’ as well as ‘secular’ were in dialogue here to create the possibility of a transformed consciousness to find expression- not necessarily flowing out of a universal conception of right. Talal Asad, “Reconfigurations of law and ethics in Colonial Egypt” in Formations of the Secular. See also, Dyala Hamzah, “Introduction: the making of the Arab intellectual (1880-1960): empire, public sphere and the colonial coordinates of selfhood” and Dyala Hamzah, “From ilm to sihafa or the politics of public interest (maslaha): Muhammad Rashid Rida and his journal al-manar (1898-1935)” in Dyala Hamza ed., The Making of the Arab Intellectual: Empire, Public Sphere and the Colonial Coordinates of Selfhood (Routledge, 2013) for the manners of “creative appropriation” by scholars and journalists of the ‘Arab Renaissance’ through which they realigned traditional Islamic knowledge for consumption in the emergent Arab middle-class public sphere.

[16] “It is possible to work for certain kinds of equalities, certain kinds of solidarities without using that particular kind of law language…that’s why I say it is both essential and a distraction ….there is a certain disconnect which means that one should be wary of putting all our hopes on just that one thing called human rights because one knows that human rights can be and have been used for all sorts of purposes…” Transcribed from Talal Asad on the Limits of Human Rights Discourse uploaded on YouTube by Berkley Center.

[17] See The Trajectory of Subaltern in My Work uploaded on YouTube uploaded by University of California Television (UCTV).

[18] Secular/Transcendental binary in this context, would refer to the core practice at the heart of secularism – of privatizing i.e. “capturing and controlling the possibility of that which is worshipped”. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Terror: A Speech after 9/11”, (boundary 2, Summer 2004)

Niharika Tripathi is currently studying for a Master’s degree in History at University of Delhi.


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