Turkey’s Secularism under Threat

Secular Turkey under Threat Azam Gill

The stench of regression can be detected in present-day Turkey where Sufi Jalaludin Rumi, the14th century’s doyen of Taṣawwuf, or Sufism, composed his magnum opus, advising: “Listen with ears of tolerance! See through the eyes of compassion! Speak with the language of love.”

Turkey’s ambitious revivalists have dragged Istanbul’s 1483-year-old Hagia Sophia World Heritage Site into their own identity crisis. To their satisfaction, Turkey’s Council of State ruled that the Hagia Sophia should revert to its last status as a mosque, based on the defunct Right of Conquest, while ignoring its origin as a world-class cathedral.


By confirming the definition of aggression codified in the Nuremberg Principles, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3314 played the funeral march over any residual Right of Conquest delusion among former empires. Yet, appallingly for this day and age, Mr. Numan Kurtulmus, deputy chairman of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) unhesitatingly declared: “Hagia Sophia is our geographical property… conquered …by the sword …”

After winning Istanbul “by the sword” in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II appropriated the entire city as his personal possession and then carved it up between endowment property as ‘vaqf,’ public land called ‘miri,’ and eventually some private ownership as mülk. He made the 900-year old Hagia Sophia Cathedral his prized personal possession which he flaunted to the rest of the world by converting it into a mosque.

Five hundred years later, modern Turkey’s sagacious founding-father, Kemal Pasha Ataturk, instituted secularism and sought reconciliation by converting the Hagia Sophia Church-Mosque into a museum for all.

The divisive issue was laid to rest for decades, during which the world applauded Turkey’s social and political development put into motion by Ataturk.

Yet, Mr. Erdogan and his revivalists are hell-bent on upsetting the apple-cart to realize their delusions of grandeur by actually resurrecting their medieval past, which threatens Turkey’s hard-won soft power.

The judicial validation of the Right of Conquest over six thousand square meters of the Hagia Sophia will only whet their appetite to reclaim more. They are trapped in their self-cast spell of nostalgic reactionary expansionism.

Now, precedent in hand, they will keep chipping at Turkey’s secularism until it is laid bare to the bone and meekly relapses into the gloom of a self-righteous theocracy.

Turkey’s empire encompassed over twenty countries, stretching from Eastern Europe to the sands of Arabia.

Perhaps the revivalists are now going to start claiming them all, starting with Saudi Arabia, which they ignominiously lost to a Bedouin chief called Ibn Saud, assisted by one T. E. Lawrence.

Referring to the four hundred and thirty-five churches and synagogues in Turkey, which he believes exonerates the current decision, it slipped the Turkish president’s mind that the equation of Hagia Sophia does not include the Jewish faith! This Freudian slip, exposes him as one of those people who really believe in a vast Judo-Christian conspiracy to subvert the destiny of Muslims, confirmed by his forced comparisons between Hagia Sophia and the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Borrowing the elegance of the ‘churches and synagogues’ argument, Turkey’s 82,693 mosques should be enough for Muslims to worship in without re-appropriating a church.

Istanbul’s Camlica mosque rivals, if not surpasses, any religious edifice of Byzantine or Turkish splendor. The 150-million-Turkish Lira, women-friendly Calica Mosque in Istanbul is the brainchild of two female architects, and a synthesis of Turkey’s fine arts and technical mastery that upholds the legacy of Koca Mimar Sinan Agha, one of history’s greatest architects.

The 4.5-ton finial capping the main dome is unique. Its worshipper-capacity exceeds 60,000, complemented by a 3,500-capacity car park, a 1,000-capacity conference hall, an 11,000 square meter museum, an Islamic art gallery, a library and, a tunnel connecting it to the residential area.

And Turkey’s revivalists still obsess over Hagia Sophia for a mosque.

Mr. Erdogan’s government has apparently encouraged this divisive issue for a premium seat on the medieval revivalist bandwagon by overturning Kemal Pasha Ataturk’s secular legacy, hoping, thereby, to wrest the leadership of the Muslim world from its former Saudi Arabian subjects and checkmate Shia Iran’s ambitions.

It would be good to remember that there is no consensus in Turkey on returning Hagia Sophia to its last, though not original status. To determine that would require a referendum.

After all, Orhan Pamuk, reportedly told the BBC: “There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this but their voices are not heard.”

Evoking the obsolete Right of Conquest, only draws attention to Turkey’s aggressive past for which it has never apologized or expressed a sign of regret, unlike many of its counterparts.

To free Hagia Sophia from the identity crisis it has been ensnared in, it should remain a museum except for Fridays, for a Muslim service and, Sundays for a Christian service, with joint bring and share meals once a month.

If not, then it should be granted its past status of a church, for which Turkey’s far-sighted magnanimity will receive the world’s deafening applause for true greatness.

Jalaludin Rumi’s wisdom transcends time: “yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world; today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”