Nothing really escapes politics, least of all public spaces and the architecture that serves as their descriptor.
But more than the architectural characteristics, art form and design, it is the selective appropriation of fragments of a physical structure’s historical identity that reserves a potential to be politicised.
Turkey’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque is a variant of irredentism that replaces territory with artefact.
The Turkish economy, reeling from the currency and debt crisis of 2018, was further hit by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Erdogan’s political image has taken a beating due to the crisis. Turkey’s deepening involvement in Libya and the continuing tariff sanctions by the US haven’t helped his image amongst Turkey’s divided electorate either.
In 2019, Erdogan’s party, the AKP, lost the Istanbul local elections which he himself had dubbed as microcosmic of national elections. This, having created quite a legitimacy deficit for Erdogan, made him respond more and more in an authoritarian vein characteristic of Turkish politics and populist macho men the world over.
He had already implemented an executive presidency after a controversial referendum and greatly scaled up his suppression of dissent and executive reach. What has driven this political adventurism is his religio-nationalist ideology, the latest victim of which is the Hagia Sophia.
Having been a central church of the Byzantines in Constantinople and then the signifier of this city which became Istanbul under the Ottomans, and then a museum upholding the Kemalist legacy, the Hagia Sophia has been a public place in the real sense. It has materialised these diverse traditions within its very architecture. The Hagia Sophia of today has preserved what Isidoros of Millet built in the 530s under Justinian. The Ottomans added ornate designs and extensive renovation was carried out by Fossati brothers, famous Swiss architects, under Sultan Abdülmecid’s commission in 1847.
A number of the Christian mosaics and the magnificent columns that fill the structure were commissioned from afar. Some columns were brought from Egypt. The Hagia Sophia survived different political epochs and retained the spirit of each in the form of a museum, although a living one.
Physical structures and spaces, most prominently public buildings, have served as potent reserves for ideologues throughout history. Sometimes religionists consecrated them and sometimes secularists tried to dismember them—and vice versa. The recent taking down of statues of colonists and racist has-beens around the world is emblematic of the significance such physical structures serve in the public space. Toppling these statues is to bring into public discourse, through a very public act, the obliterated and marginalised histories of Black, indigenous and other colonised communities.
A practical dialogue is initiated that has been otherwise lulled for centuries through dominant imperialist ideologies. On the other hand, rather than letting real-life interactions form the contours of a public sphere, there are projects (most of them failures), like Skopje 2014 in North Macedonia, a project financed by the nationalist government, which try to imprint a made-up nationalist history on public spaces.
Such projects and their failures are a manifestation of the fact that public spaces embody a social history which belongs to more than a single community even if repeated claims are made to the contrary. “They belong to humanity,” as Goce Pavlovski, a Macedonian archaeologist, says, censuring the motives behind Skopje 2014, in an interview with PBS. The same is true of the Hagia Sophia.
Converting it into a mosque doesn’t disenfranchise any religious denomination, an argument reiterated by many and conceded by many—it was a museum and it is still public as the entry is denied to none. But it does privilege one particular group over others (Christians), the historical basis of whose claim goes back to the 6th century CE, almost a millennium before Fatih Sultan Mehmed conquered the city of Istanbul.
The court’s decision undermines the syncretism that the Hagia Sophia held in spirit and matter. The Turkish authorities will now cover its Christian iconography through optical technology during prayer times as if the building’s Christian heritage was a subscript to its Ottoman/Muslim quintessence. The Christian and the Muslim, the Byzantine and the Ottoman stood unified in the Hagia Sophia for a millennium in material and image.
It needs mentioning though that there is an undercurrent to the court’s decision. A very large number of Muslims globally saluted the Turkish Council of State’s ruling that the Hagia Sophia be converted back into a mosque. Muslims of the subcontinent rejoiced, registering the spurt of interest that the Turkish television series Resurrection: Ertuğrul has produced in them towards Turkey. A sizeable number of Muslims, on the other side, were as irked as Orthodox Christians.
But amidst these binanry responses, there was also a mixed response from a minority of Muslims on social media. While they denounced the decision, it held a different import for them, which Erdogan has incessantly implied in invoking Turkey’s national sovereignty—to snub any criticism of the decision.
Turkey’s decision, despite being a display of political symbolism, throws into sharp relief the EU’s religious double-standards. Muslims all around the EU are treated like second-class citizens with crimes against them on the increase and negative perception of them even more so, and have never been seen as constitutive of a European identity whose secular fabric is weaved by a Christian ethic. Modernity in Europe with its rational underpinnings didn’t spring in an a-religious desert. Protestantism was its kernel as Weber and many that followed him noticed.
Turkey has laboured for more than half a century to become part of the EU and while there are several reasons that have obstructed its accession—Turkey’s political authoritarianism, human rights record, structural changes it will bring in the EU, etc.—an implicit unreason has been Turkey’s Muslim identity and its Ottoman past which has rubbed quite a few EU members, especially Greece, the wrong way. Former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy voiced this insecurity when he said: “I want to say that Europe must give itself borders, that not all countries have a vocation to become members of Europe, beginning with Turkey which has no place inside the European Union.”
In a case not dissimilar to the Hagia Sophia, Muslims have been denied any right to pray inside the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba in Spain, a right they have as much as Christians to the Hagia Sophia. This again highlights the selective indignation of the EU that omits Muslim rights and identity in Europe even if history delegitimises such omission. Turkey’s ‘two wrongs-make-a-right’ defence holds as much water as do the EU’s cries for tolerance.
The politicisation of the Hagia Sophia gives Erdogan a new lifeline and renewed currency to brandish his authoritarian Ottomanism. His Vision 2023 may be revitalised with a new Islamism. But the repercussions may not stop at Turkey’s borders. Muslims the world over rejoiced and in countries with predominant Muslim populations, say Pakistan or Indonesia, it will only encourage the growing Islamic populism. But at the same time, it will also offer a rhetorical aid to anti-Muslim politics in Europe and countries such as India.
The nemesis of Turkey, Greece, doesn’t have a single official mosque for half a million Muslims and the first one, the Athens Mosque, which was sanctioned has little prospects of opening soon. In India, the Indian Supreme Court’s upholding the decision to build a Hindu temple in place of a mosque, the Babri Masjid, that it acknowledges was illegally demolished has legitimised the violence that marked the beginning of the Ayodhya movement in the 1990s.
If iconic public spaces which have a supranational historical significance and are emblematic of secularism and tolerance as the Hagia Sophia was in Turkey, can be so easily appropriated for political gains, it is an indicative of what is happening – and what will happen – elsewhere.
That the 2017 referendum in Turkey gave the executive more control over appointments to the supreme board of judges and prosecutors is telling of this trend. Similarly in India, the Supreme Court has rendered itself ineffective in the face of significant matters when the political stakes are high.
Time will be the judge of Turkey’s decision but for the time being politics seems to have won yet again. Ataturk’s overbearing secularisation seems to have found a counterpart in Erdogan’s Islamist gradualism and rekindled an irredentism of sorts that makes claims to anything that power seeks.
Mir Uzair Farooq is a graduate student of political science at the University of Delhi.