Sunday, December 3, 2023

Bigger picture: Hagia Sophia reflecting a panaromic view of Turkish domestic arrays

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Much of the parallels have been drawn on Social Media in India – after Turkey’s decision to make heritage site Hagia Sophia back to a mosque – with the construction of Ram Mandir in India. The fine thread keeping them apart is that of the process, where Ram Mandir’s construction has been followed by much of political disputes, communal riots, polarization of votes, demolition of Babri Masjid, etc as the site is claimed – with oscillating reports of archaeological surveys – to be an ancient Hindu temple destroyed by the Mughal ruler Babur and transformed into a mosque in early 16th century.

From the definitive record, Hagia Sophia started off life as a Byzantine Cathedral in early sixth century followed by a Greek Orthodox Cathedral (537– 1204), then a Roman Catholic Cathedral (1204–1261), it was called the church of holy wisdom; which was transformed to a mosque by Ottoman King Mehmet II after Constantinople (Istanbul) fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, and remained a mosque for centuries, which later get converted into a museum in 1935 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Turkey’s leading founding father) to assert more secularistic ideas in the public sphere.

It is now that the Erdogan’s Government took a decision to declare the UNESCO World Heritage Site open to prayer as a mosque — changing its status from a museum to a museum-cum-mosque — that has soared secularistic concerns all over the world; whereas, others in the world, with the same functionality i.e., church-cum-museum are Vatican Museum and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Though Turkey says that the World Heritage status of the landmark monument will not be affected due to the recent decision to turn it into a mosque, it’s outstanding cultural, historical, and spiritual value will not be altered. The majoritarian impression of Erdogan’s Government on western politics – seems more likely to assert the rebirth of an Islamic Turkey after the hype of the tagline “Hagia Sophia is no longer a museum but a mosque. However, the current AKP government in Turkey has also granted other religions the opportunity to pray in buildings that had long been forbidden to worship and used as museums. These include the Armenian church of Surp Giragos in Diyarbakır, the great synagogue of Edirne, and the monastery of Aho in Gercüş. For the first time this year, Jews from Turkey celebrated Hanukkah (the festival of lights) in a public way. Erdogan has always denied the allegations of wanting to impose Islamic values, but critics point to his failed bid to criminalize adultery and attempts to introduce “alcohol-free zones,” as evidence otherwise.

Even the conspiracy theories surfaced the 2016 coup — alleging the involvement of government in enabling the coup to exercise crackdown on opposition and critics with erosion of judicial independence, giving AKP greater and unstoppable power over all state institutions and paving the way for its brand of political Islamism at odds with the founding principles of the Turkish Republic — are also the products of a few cranks on the fringes of Turkish society — as one thing Turks across all segments of society — Islamists, secular people, liberals, nationalists, Kurds — have long been worried about is the influence of Gulen’s loyalists inside the state, and largely united in believing Fetullah Gulen was behind the coup, moreover, that the United States was somehow wrapped up in the failed coup. They not only support the crackdown but also believe Gullen being an American agent. In an interview, President Erdogan said: “The coup plotter is in your country. You are nurturing him there. It’s out in the open.” Turkish government has sent a dossier of evidence to the White House to back the demand of Gulen’s extradition, claiming that he commands the FETO (Fethullahist Terrorist Organization) — to which in various interviews, Gulen has strongly denied involvement in the coup.

Though, in an interview on CNN Turk, John R. Bass, the United States ambassador to Turkey in 2016, referred to “the apparent involvement of a large number” of Gulen’s supporters in the coup plot. The West has criticized the purges, in which tens of thousands of people have been arrested and dismissed from their jobs for supposed links to Gulen. However, fear of arbitrary arrests is not the only factor explaining his unrivaled popularity. Turkish populace believes that Erdogan embodies political stability, religious freedom and a more than a decade of economic success — even when he is portrayed in systematic persecution of his own Kurdish community, with a continuous war against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which is viewed as a terrorist organization, and Erdogan refuses to resume negotiations with the Kurds to end the carnage that has taken the lives of approximately 40,000 on both sides in the fifty years old conflict. Also, Turkey is one of the lowest-ranked countries when it comes to press freedom index in the world. “Defending other people’s freedoms in Turkey could ultimately cost you your own”, Nils Muiznieks, former Amnesty International’s Europe Director, in an Amnesty’s report.

Reference to yet Erdoğan’s unmatched popularity — significance of material gain plays a vital role — After Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, average incomes have risen from $3,800 to around $10,000 as of 2017 according to World Bank data. Hence, the AKP rule saw the number of people living below the poverty line dropped from 23% of the population to less than 2%. Over the last two decades, Turkey has significantly improved people’s material well-being with the implementation of a well-designed welfare safety net — until 2018’s currency crisis was set off by concerns over central bank independence and tension between Ankara and Washington — led to three straight quarters of economic contraction and a modest annual growth rate of 0.9% last year, followed by the economy’s status of many countries on the verge of collapse in the pandemic.

Furthermore, Erdogan is also perceived as one of the few successful Turkish politicians in terms of expanding the rights of Christian and Jewish associations – for instance, in helping them to recover properties that had previously been confiscated. Even in Hagia Sophia, the Christian iconography has largely remained intact and remains there to this day. However, relating this act to current BJP government’s verdict on Ram-Mandir/Babri- Masjid in India enlightens the insatiable appetite for whataboutery — as BJP has long been known for a glorified history of discrimination against Muslim minority and Dalits.

Where many in Turkey, worry that all these social and economic advances will be reversed if Erdogan leaves office. As when a rogue faction of Turkey’s military moved to seize control of the country on the night of July 15, President Erdogan was on vacation in the Mediterranean town of Marmaris and had escaped when the coup- men reached his hotel, to take him as captive or possibly execute him. Yet in response he flew not to the capital, Ankara, where warplanes were bombing the parliament building, but to Istanbul, where he had come of age and begun his career in politics, and is still remembered as the mayor who brought running water to the city’s slums — He placed his bet on the people who had known him longest and who he knew would fight for him — unable to address the public on TV stations hijacked by coup plotters– Erdogan connected to a private Turkish newscaster over the iPhone app FaceTime and urged his supporters to take to the streets, civilians nevertheless had definitely played a role in thwarting the coup. It was later that day, a triumphant Erdogan appeared before throngs in Istanbul, calling for the prosecution of the plotters. “We want execution!” the crowd chanted back. The President is believed to have emerged from his near-death experience stronger than ever— and even more determined to tighten his grip on power. Loyalists to Erdogan’s system of passive secularism in Majoritarian government, Turks also believe that if Erdogan is a survivor, he is also a political operator who adapted his message to match the shifting winds of international politics.

Nayla Khwaja is a post-graduate student of development communication at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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Nayla Khwaja
Nayla Khwaja
Nayla Khwaja is a post-graduate student of development communication at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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