The recent change of status of the iconic Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has resounded across the world. Turkey’s highest court of law ruled that the cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum would once again start functioning as a mosque, and it has. The responses have been varied.
Followers of the Orthodox Church in Greece and Russia have come out strongly against the decision. Greece branded the move by Muslim-majority Turkey an “open provocation to the civilized world”.
Non-Orthodox Christian-majority countries like the United States and France—both officially secular—have been more muted in their response, and even the Roman Catholic hierarchy expressed no more than “concern”. Still, there was little welcome for this move in Europe.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which listed Hagia Sophia as a heritage site, has said it regrets Turkey’s unilateral decision.
In South Asia, the move has reverberated across Muslim communities and been met with approval by large sections of it. Pakistan’s largest Muslim party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, welcomed Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan’s hosting of the first public prayers at Hagia Sophia for nearly a century, on July 24, and the Jamaat was not alone.
The first adhaan (Islamic call to prayer) was sounded on the very day the judgement by Turkey’s highest court was handed down—July 10—and the reaction of Muslims in India was instantaneous and joyous. Muslims in India are a relative minority in a Hindu-majority, constitutionally secular country, but in absolute terms they constitute the world’s second-largest Muslim community (only Indonesia has a larger number of Muslims). Many Indian Muslims uploaded praise of Erdogan on social media, videos of the first adhaan, and so on. A YouTube channel titled Al-Hind Al-Islamiyya even ran videos praising Erdogan’s promise to next liberate the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Many justified the move, arguing that the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II, had bought the monument which, therefore, should have remained a mosque, and the decision to turn it into a museum in 1935 by the secular founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, had no legal or democratic basis.
In Indonesia, organizations like the Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organization, and Muhammadiyah, the country’s oldest Muslim organization, have also welcomed Turkey’s decision on Hagia Sophia.
Interestingly, the contrarian voices among Muslims have been from the heartlands of Islam, from the Arab world. Editorials in the Arab press, social media influencers, and prominent personalities in the Arab world have strongly criticized Turkey’s decision.
Columnist Talal al-Torifi summarized Erdogan’s objectives in his column, writing, “What the current Turkish government is doing under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against the Arab world is a reflection of old Ottoman habits. … All the Turkish government’s actions with a religious dimension attempt to bolster support for its positions and portray it as a bastion of Islam.”
Indeed President Erdogan is trying hard to position himself as the leader of the Muslim world, trying to carry on the legacy of the Ottoman rulers, who were also proclaimed as Caliphs of the Muslim world from the sixteenth century onwards, and were acknowledged as such by Muslim rulers in places as far away as India.
The rejection of Erdogan’s Hagia Sophia decision by much of the Arab world is a reflection of the fact that he has gotten Turkey embroiled in escalating tensions with its neighbors. Erdogan’s policies seem to be eroding his domestic support base. This lack of local support is why he is increasingly turning to Muslims of geographically distant countries for support.
Traditionally, Muslim communities in South Asia and elsewhere have looked to the Arab world for spiritual and temporal guidance, but the evolving dynamics of late have meant that Erdogan is increasingly rivalling countries like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.
Muslims of South and Southeast Asia now have two competing visions of the future before them.
One is that of traditional Arab countries, promoting respect for diversity, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence of different faiths. This can be seen in the preservation of churches and synagogues in these lands. Countries like UAE, Bahrain, Oman have restored and or allocated land and resources for building Hindu and Sikh temples and gurudwaras for their expatriate communities. The UAE is renovating churches destroyed by Da’esh (the Islamic State) in places like Iraq. Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 has involved some radical changes already, like allowing women to drive, and set a path for reform and greater openness in the country. This is a vision for a more inclusive and progressive future.
The other vision, offered by Erdogan, is the reverse; nostalgic and backward-looking in theory, and repressive in practice, involving clamping down on the media, backsliding on women’s rights, and promoting a narrow religious view of the in-group. The change in the status of the Hagia Sophia is a confirmation of this vision. There seem to be some domestic benefits for Erdogan in pursuing this course, but in an increasingly globalized world it is bringing Turkey into conflict with its neighbors.
The choice of which future they want is there for the people of South and Southeast Asia to make.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.