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Hagia Sophia Controversy, And The Undoing Of Kemalism In Turkey

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Eerie parallels continue, between Babri Masjid in India, Hagia Sophia in Turkey, and the Islamabad Mandir controversy in Pakistan, writes Yasser Latif Hamdani.

The great Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, converted Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a mosque to a museum. In doing so he was trying to ameliorate 500 years of injustice that had been meted out Greek Orthodox Christians. In 1453, when the great Ottoman conqueror Mehmet Fateh had taken Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, he had converted the Hagia Sophia Church into a mosque. Mehmet Fateh’s action was – as most actions are – a conqueror’s way of telling the vanquished that a new age was upon them. It violated the principles set out by Hazrat Omar (RA) in his conquest of Jerusalem and Christian lands which forbade the conversion of Churches, monasteries, synagogues, and other religious places of worship to mosques. Hazrat Omar (RA) was following the noble principles that were set by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), especially the Testamentum of Holy Prophet (PBUH) with the monastery of St. Catherine, which had promised protection and complete freedom to Christians in Muslim lands.

Mehmet Fateh was a very interesting historical figure. While on the one hand, he converted Hagia Sophia to a mosque, on the other he promised religious freedom to Greek Orthodox Christians and Greek Orthodox Patriarch was given a prominent place in his court. For the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Fateh gave the following decree: “that no one should vex or disturb him; that unmolested, untaxed and unoppressed by any adversary, he should, with all the bishops under him, be exempted from all taxation for all time.” Therefore, it is very strange that otherwise, a tolerant and moderate ruler like Fateh would convert Hagia Sophia to a mosque and that too in contravention to the established principles of Islamic jurisprudence. The purpose of pointing this out is that conversion was done for political ends and not necessarily out of some religious principle.

Comes 20th Century and Ataturk finally made Turkey a republic and abolished the Caliphate in 1924, finally repealing the state religion clause in 1928. In 1935, Kemal Ataturk made up his mind to undo the long-standing grievance of the Christian world regarding Hagia Sophia. However, there were certain actions that Ataturk had already taken which stood in the way of its reversion to a Greek Orthodox Church. Most notably in the Treaty of Lausanne, Ataturk had agreed to an exchange of populations based on religion i.e. Muslims from Greece became Turks and Greek Orthodox Christians from Turkey became citizens of Greece overnight. Furthermore unconscionable restrictions in terms of professions that non-Muslims in Turkey could hold i.e. several professions were reserved for Muslim Turks by a 1932 law led to the exodus of any remaining Non-Muslims to an extent that formerly home to large Christian and Jewish (Donme) populations, Turkey became almost 99.6 percent Muslim. This meant of course that there was no need of returning Hagia Sophia to Christians, given that there were hardly any left in Turkey. It remains a paradox of history that the great secularizing and modernizing leader Kemal Ataturk is also responsible for turning Turkey into a completely homogenous Muslim nation. Even the great Ataturk who reveled in tearing down vestiges of the Ottoman Empire could not dare convert a mosque back to a church. By making Hagia Sophia a museum, Ataturk sidestepped the controversy. In time though, the museum with its Islamic and Christian symbols side by side became a monument to religious amity and coexistence worthy of a modern secular nation, even if a homogenously Muslim one.

Turkish court’s decision to allow the conversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum to a mosque has opened a new can of worms that has parallels with the subcontinent. India’s Babri Masjid dispute and the Indian court’s judgment on the matter have eerie similarities to Turkey. It also indicates a similar descent into theocracy of these two hitherto secular states that we in Pakistan are most familiar with. Unlike India and Turkey, Pakistan was quick to abandon Jinnah’s secular ideals in 1949 before becoming completely theocratic in 1973 and fundamentalist under General Zia. India under Modi is only now undoing the secular legacy of Ambedkar and Nehru and Erdogan in Turkey is dismantling Kemalism with a ferocity that has hitherto been unprecedented in that nation. So eerie parallels continue, between Babri Masjid in India, Hagia Sophia in Turkey, and the Islamabad Mandir controversy in Pakistan. This emanates from the abandonment of the noble secular principles, which are sine qua non for the existence of a modern nation-state.

After almost 90 years of looking westwards and trying to be part of the European Union, Turkey is now looking decisively eastwards and not in any positive way. Erdogan’s ambitions seem to be to revive the old Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate. The export of retrogressive TV shows like Ertugrul, which distort history, to the Muslim World is part of this grand plan. In not so distant a future we might see the reintroduction of a state religion and the declaration of an Islamic Republic in Turkey. As a Pakistani who has seen what that has meant for our country, one looks on in horror. Turkey that until now was an admirable model of coexistence between Islam and modernity is hurtling towards a theocracy and that is going to be good for no one. Ataturk may not always have been perfect but he had liberated not just Turkey but the entire Muslim world from what was an anachronistic institution standing in the way of progress in the Muslim world. 100 years later, Erdogan, both as charismatic and authoritarian as Ataturk himself, is undoing the good that Ataturk did and there is no one in Turkey to stop him. It will not bode well for the rest of the Muslim World either.



  1. Ahmed July 23, 2020

    Didn’t sultan Fateh buy the Hagia Sophia from them?

    So what’s the issue here?

    Kemal making it a museum was wrong.

  2. Talat Mansoor July 25, 2020

    The writer is a lawyer. Surprising that he has missed out the important that Sultan has paid the church for Haifa Sophia.

  3. Ahmed July 26, 2020

    He also omits things Jinnah said about Pakistan being an Islamic state.

  4. Farrukh July 29, 2020

    Coming from a lawyer, an article steeped in ignorance. No Church or Synagogue was converted to a Mosque in Jerusalem as it was HANDED OVER to Muslims under leadership of the 4th Caliph. Whereas when a land is conquered in battle, rules are DIFFERENT. much ado about nothing


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