Fouad Alasiri, urban planner
On December 6, 1992, more than 150,000 radical activists gathered and demolished the 460-year-old Babri Mosque in India. The government remained silent over the demolition, sparking several months of violence which saw more than 2,000 people killed. The incident serves as an example of what could happen if radicals and populist leaders make reckless decisions without considering the long-term consequences.
Last week, the Turkish High Court decided to convert the Hagia Sophia — a church-turned-museum — into a mosque. While this decision seems, on the surface, less radical than demolishing the building altogether, it will certainly have negative, long-term consequences. The move was widely seen as a political move by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and was done with no respect for the building’s heritage and history.
The structure and integrity of world heritage sites should be unequivocally protected. This includes not only physically protecting these buildings by keeping the original architecture, style and building materials intact, but also keeping the site’s original function and name. The Hagia Sophia decision simply does not align with modern values. Erdogan’s decision has crossed a red line, disrespecting 1,400 years of Islamic rule that prevented the conversion of religious temples or churches into mosques.
Islam’s History of Preservation
Between the 8th and 14th centuries — the Islamic Golden Age — most, if not all, religious sites were protected in places like Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Persia, Iberia etc. To be sure, Islamic leaders and sultans during this era did commit horrible crimes while expanding their political territories — no different than the leaders of European nations and empires. Despite this, religious and cultural sites were largely preserved and protected. The reasons for preserving these sites could have ranged from improving the new ruler’s image, to taking advantage of the local people’s skills and knowledge or could be based on moral reasons.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Occupied Jerusalem is a living example of this history of preservation. The Church — where Christians believe Jesus is buried — is considered the holiest church in Christianity. Despite 14 centuries of Islamic rule, the church remained a church and was never exploited for political gain or harmed during any war or conflict.
The Age of Cultural Destruction
This protection, however, ended in 1453, when the Ottoman Empire seized and occupied Constantinople from the Byzantine Empire. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror — also known as Mohammed II — ordered the Hagia Sophia to be converted from an Eastern Orthodox church to a mosque, going against Islamic rules and past precedents.
During its conversion, many mosaics depicting Jesus, angels and Christian saints were destroyed or covered up by new Islamic artwork. Conversely, it is important to note that during this time period Muslim heritage sites were also being erased by Christians. When Muslims lost control of Iberia in 1492, Queen Isabella of Castile and King Fernando of Aragon, converted many mosques to churches.
Fast-forward to the beginning of the 20th century, a collective shift in mindset took place where the destruction of heritage sites was largely viewed as a crime against humanity. In 1935, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk — the father of the modern Turkish state — ordered the Hagia Sophia to be converted from a mosque to a museum.
In May 2014, tens of thousands of Turkish worshippers gathered to ask the government to convert Hagia Sophia back to a mosque — just days before Erdogan began his presidential campaign. In response, he instructed officials to conduct a study to find another use for the Hagia Sophia. The move was widely condemned by critics. Many Greek officials condemned the move as infringing on their religious and national sentiments. Others viewed Erdogan’s decision as a political move against Greece or an attempt to expand his Islamist electoral base.
In June 2018, Erdogan won a new five-year presidential term. It granted him sweeping new presidential powers, won in a controversial referendum in 2017 and in March 2019 Erdogan explicitly called for the conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. Critics decried the move, pointing out that there was no mosque shortage in Istanbul. In fact, the Sultan Ahmet mosque — which directly faces Hagia Sophia — can host 10,000 worshippers and the nearby Suleymaniye mosque can accommodate a whopping 20,000 worshippers and is rarely ever completely filled.
In response to Erdogan’s declaration, the Hellenic American Leadership Council, the Armenian National Committee of America and In Defence of Christians all sent letters to UNESCO, demanding that it acts to protect Hagia Sophia. In addition, they have launched a social media campaign to highlight the importance of the issue.
Historically, heritage sites were destroyed to weaken political opponents. For example, in 1944 the US army bombed a historical site founded in 529 by Benedict of Nursia in Montecasino because they thought German troops may use it. It is clear that Erdogan is doing the same thing. He is using the Hagia Sophia as leverage against his domestic and foreign political opponents.
The Dangers of Neo-Ottomanism
In a report published by the Middle East Institute, researchers Marwa Maziad and Jake Sotiriadis talk about the Neo-Ottoman movement in Turkey which places a high emphasis on nationalism and political Islam building upon the Ottoman Empire legacy through the expansion of military, economic and political power. When looking at Turkey’s behavior in the region today, it is clear that it is implementing this Neo-Ottoman strategy as it moves to expand its influence in countries like Qatar, Somalia, Libya and Syria.
By pursuing this strategy, Turkey has managed to anger the US, Europe, Russia, Egypt and the GCC. With each passing year, Turkey has drifted further from diplomacy and closer towards the use of force to achieve its goals. An example of this is Turkey’s forays in the Mediterranean Sea. Instead of calling for negotiations with Cyprus upon the discovery of natural gas in Mediterranean waters, it has provocatively boosted is naval presence there.
While Erdogan has pointed fingers at Greece, saying there is not one standing mosque in Athens, this is no excuse for converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque. It is simply a way for Erdogan to deflect media scrutiny by comparing the number of mosques in Athens to the number of churches in Istanbul. Allowing Erdogan to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque will surely please radical jihadists and embolden them to target other non-Islamic heritage sites in the region. If radical groups see governments disregarding and destroying heritage sites, they could view that as a green light to target other heritage sites.
Therefore, UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has an important responsibility to ensure that these World Heritage Sites are protected. Not only should the Hagia Sophia not be turned into a mosque, but there is a legitimate argument that it should be converted back into a church and a museum. By doing this, Turkey could not only correct the Ottoman Empire’s historical mistake, but also defuse growing regional tensions.
Even though the conversion of Hagia Sophia will probably not deter tourists from visiting the site, it is a stark indication of what is to come. The big question, going forward, is to what end will Islamist politicians like Erodgan go to pander to radicals? I fear that this road towards radicalism has no end.
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.