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The meaning of the azan at Hagia Sophia

As the muezzin summons the faithful to prayer at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on July 24, a sense of jubilation will suffuse Muslim hearts in Turkey and in the ummah. Equally, it will cause anger among the world’s orthodox Christians and disappointment among Catholics and Protestants. This is borne out by the welcome in Turkey and dismay in the Christian world, especially in Europe, of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement to turn what has been since 1935 the Hagia Sophia museum once again into the Ayasofya mosque.

The question of secularism

This azan, which will reverberate for a long time, can be viewed from many perspectives: ideological contestations within Turkish society and politics stretching over the past century, the contradictions between Islam and Christianity in Europe for over a millennium, and a milestone in the retreat of secular nationalism.

Ankara’s attempts to project this decision as having no impact on the country’s secular principles put in place by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, are futile. The Turkish state, dominated by Mr. Erdogan for almost two decades, has decisively turned its back on secularism though it is desperately trying to project otherwise. In doing so it is tying itself in knots. This was illustrated in the letter of the Turkish Ambassador to India to this newspaper on July 16. He stated that his government’s decision was based on its respect for the rule of law for it was merely following a court decision annulling a 1934 cabinet decision to convert an endowed mosque into a museum. Comparing it to the Indian Supreme Court’s decision in the Ayodhya case he noted, “Neither of the decisions has anything to do with the secular characters of our democracies”. It is strange then that Turkey neither opposed the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation for its concern about the Supreme Court judgment nor does it oppose the organisation’s regular criticism of India’s treatment of its Muslim minority.

A brief history

Friction and contradictions between Christianity and Islam in Europe have continued since the conquest of Spain by the Arabs in the second decade of the 8th century. It was only at the close of the 15th century that the last enclave in Spain was lost by the Muslims. Forty years earlier, the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, the famed capital of the Byzantines, in 1453, and converted the Hagia Sophia cathedral into a mosque. Over the next two centuries, the Ottomans expanded in Europe and at their height held, as Professor Malcolm Yapp records, “most of south-eastern Europe to the gates of Vienna, including present-day Hungary, the Balkan region, Greece and parts of Ukraine”. By the end of the 17th century, Ottoman vigour was spent and the Christian states of Europe gradually gathered together to begin to push the Turks out of Europe. But that process was only over after the First World War.

It is necessary to recall this brief history for its memory has not entirely receded in European consciousness. This history still motivates attitudes and action as seen in the bloodletting in the Balkans after Yugoslavia’s collapse. More relevant to Turkey is that these memories have contributed to the strongly-held view in some European circles that Turkey’s entry into the European Union (EU) is incompatible with the Christian roots of Europe. Former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing alluded to this in 2002 when he said Turkey, which had “a different culture, a different approach, a different way of life”, should never be allowed to become an EU member. Becoming an EU member has been a major aim of Turkish foreign policy for decades. Such attitudes contributed to the weakening of Turkish secularism. Europe never embraced the country. That strengthened Islamic forces who have always wanted the return of the Ayasofya mosque.

A progressive outlook

Secular nationalism was an important ideological marker of the 20th century. States wedded to Marxist ideologies wished to root out religion from public spaces and also as a factor in the lives of their citizens. Other polities, whether liberal and democratic or authoritarian, were committed to reducing the salience of religion as an ingredient in nationalism and in public life even if they were reconciled to its continuing significance in the private sphere. These were elements of a progressive outlook which influenced political elites not only in the developed world but also in de-colonised countries. Ataturk and his attempts at propelling Turkey into the modern era won him admirers including Jawaharlal Nehru. Now the secular impulse is under challenge everywhere.

While the progressive view favoured secular nationalism in the Islamic world, its political elites were fractured on accepting it as the dominant idea in nation-building. This was witnessed in important countries such as Egypt under the charismatic Abdel Gamal Nasser whose promotion of the idea of Arab nationalism was stoutly opposed by the Islamic Brotherhood as a conspiracy against the Islamic faith. Having secured a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, the Pakistani elite was initially ambivalent about the extent of the role of faith in constructing the new country’s national ethos. But it fought a losing battle against the clergy and against those who wondered what the rationale of Partition was if Pakistan was not to become an Islamic state. The case of Pakistan is important in the Turkish context because of the close relations that came to be established between the armies of the two countries. The Turkish army was at the vanguard of defending Ataturk’s secularism till it was outmanoeuvred by Erdogan. The Pakistani army under Zia-ul-Haq became the votary of the Nizam-e-Mustafa. Public affairs were increasingly infused with religiosity. Pervez Musharraf, an ardent admirer of Turkey, and a professed votary of ‘moderate’ Islam, could not reverse the course set by Zia-ul-Haq.

In Iran, Shah Reza Pehlavi too championed a polity which did not emphasise the country’s Islamic credentials. He was overthrown in 1979. The Islamic Revolution that followed was in direct opposition to the principles of secular nationalism. It established a faith-based Shia polity dominated by clerics. That exacerbated the ancient contradictions between Shia and Sunni states but it did compel the Sunni states to gradually move towards granting greater space to the Sharia in governance.

But in Turkey, the generals who staged a coup in 1980 reasserted the tradition of secular nationalism. Now Mr. Erdogan has contained the army’s influence and the generals are instruments of his will.

The public cultures of almost all countries are going to increasingly be based on the faith of majorities even if some symbolically seek to incorporate a few elements of minority religions. The Ayasofya mosque will clearly point in that direction.

Vivek Katju is a former diplomat

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