Happenings Concerning Hagia Sofia Call for India’s Moral Voice
Amb Satish Chandra, Vice Chairman, VIF

Turkey's recent decision to convert the iconic Hagia Sofia museum into a mosque is condemnable. It marks yet another move by Erdogan's Turkey to turn its back on the measures, admired the world over, taken by Kemal Ataturk to turn Turkey into a truly modern secular state.

It may be recalled that the Hagia Sofia was built in Istanbul in 537 AD on the orders of the Roman Emperor Justinian I as a church. Over the centuries it continued to be used as a church till the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 by the Ottoman Empire under which it was converted into a mosque much as many other places of worship the world over have been converted by Muslim conquerors. However, in 1934 under Kemal Ataturk the Hagia Sofia was converted into a museum open to people of all faiths. Indeed, in due course it became an UNESCO World Heritage site.

The conversion of the Hagia Sofia into a mosque has attracted much criticism. Church leaders the world over, including the Pope, have been highly critical. Indeed, the Russian Patriarch Kirill considered it a "threat to the whole of Christian civilisation".1 The UNESCO on its part termed the decision as "regrettable” and made known that it had not been consulted in the matter. It went on to call upon Turkey "to open a dialogue without delay in order to avoid a step back from the universal value of this exceptional heritage whose preservation will be reviewed by the World Heritage Committee in its next session."2 The US State Department spokesperson expressed disappointment at Turkey's move, the EU foreign policy chief called it "regrettable", Cyprus condemned it, Greece branded it as an "open provocation to the civilised world", the deputy head of the Russian foreign affairs committee of its upper house termed it as a "mistake" which would bring nations into collision.3 The only supporters of the move so far have been Hamas and Northern Cyprus. In the days to come we could expect outliers with an abysmal human rights record like Pakistan and China to do likewise!!!!

The conversion of the Hagia Sofia into a mosque by Erdogan's Turkey should come as no surprise as he has steadfastly pursued an Islamist agenda, albeit covertly at the outset, since assuming power in 2002. As suggested in an article published last year titled "Turkish Secularism and Islam under the Reign of Erdogan" the present government is "the most oppressive" in the history of the Turkish Republic and under it not only is the promotion of bureaucrats decided according to religious affiliation, "but also the entire education system, judiciary, police force and the military schools have undergone a deep Islamization process".4 Moreover, his foreign policy interventions particularly in Syria and Libya have given rise to radical Islam. Erdogan's unjustified and highly trenchant criticism of India whether on Kashmir or on internal disturbances is partly fuelled by his Islamist agenda and partly by deep friendship with Pakistan. The fact that Erdogan's Islamist agenda has little to do with any deep sense of piety or love for Islam is borne out by the fact that it is loath to criticise China for the barbaric treatment meted out by it to the Uighurs. Such criticism has been muted and it studiously refrained from joining the 22 mostly European countries which called on China in 2019 to stop the terrible repression being visited by it on its Uighur minority.

India's unequivocal condemnation of the Hagia Sofia incident is essential and we must join forces with those who have opposed it. The argument that the issue is not of critical concern to us and hence can be ignored is fallacious. Let there be no mistake that the issue is of critical civilisational import. In today's globalised world we can ignore narrow divisive moves of this nature only at our peril as they nurture a culture of fanaticism which holds the potential of ripping us apart.

It may be recalled that India has in the past been respected as the voice of sanity and reason most notably in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid. It must not shy away from raising its strong moral voice again today against the myriad of evils which currently colour the international landscape extending from the Hagia Sofia incident in Istanbul to the brutal repression of minorities by countries like Pakistan and China. That some would feel offended at our so doing should not deter us as this would be in the larger international interest and would win us not only greater respect but also many more friends. Above all, it would help make the world a safer and peaceful place by elimination of evils such as the repression of minorities which is in keeping with our best traditions.

  1. Aljazeera 11 july 2020 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/07/world-reacts-turkey-reconverting-hagia-sophia-mosque-200710135637861.html
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  4. "Turkish Secularism and Islam under the Reign of Erdogan" by Haken Yavuz and Ahmet Ezdi Ozturk in Journal of South East European and Black Sea Studies, Vol 19 2019 Issue 1 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14683857.2019.1580828

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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