India's studied silence on Hagia Sophia conversion

It is interesting that India opted not to be part of an international chorus of protests against the Turkish president’s decision to revert Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, a decision which not just hits at the foundation of the modern Turkish state, envisioned in the early 20th century by Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, but also against the universal values of secularism

Nilova Roy Chaudhury Jul 18, 2020
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It is interesting that India opted not to be part of an international chorus of protests against the Turkish president’s decision to revert Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, a decision which not just hits at the foundation of the modern Turkish state, envisioned in the early 20th century by Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, but also against the universal values of secularism. A slew of governments, from neighbouring Greece to the United States, European Union and Russia, issued notes of concern and protest, while UNESCO warned that the monument’s world heritage status could even be reversed with “any decision that might impact the universal value of the site.”

India, however, chose not to protest, missing out thereby on getting back at one of its diplomatic bugbears, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan.

The Hagia Sophia, a major tourist attraction of Istanbul, which itself stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and, indeed, as a confluence of western and eastern civilizations, was built as a church, then turned, at the height of the Ottoman empire, into a mosque and, after Ataturk’s rise to power, converted into a museum. It has universally been considered a symbol of Turkish secularism.  

Erdogan has in recent years sought to project himself as another pole in the global Islamic leadership stakes, rivalling Saudi Arabia and Iran and has lost no opportunity to use global forums to repeatedly bait and criticise India, first over the decision to revoke Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in Jammu & Kashmir and, more recently, for causing a “massacre” of Muslims in the riots in Delhi. 

It was expected that India, which has been critical of Turkey’s role in Cyprus and in Armenia, would use the opportunity to criticise Erdogan for his decision to revert the Hagia Sophia’s status to a mosque.

"India right now has become a country where massacres are widespread. What massacres? Massacres of Muslims. By who? Hindus," Erdogan had said in a speech in Ankara after riots in the Indian capital earlier this year. 

Turkey also enhanced defence sales to Pakistan, and joined Malaysia in criticising India for its Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) at a forum to champion Islamic countries, away from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

New Delhi had lashed out then at Erdogan, saying his remarks "reflect neither an understanding of history nor the conduct of diplomacy...They distort events of the past to advance a narrow-minded view of the present," India’s Ministry of External Affairs had said.

The fact that Erdogan’s action to revert the secular monument to a shrine of one faith reflects a growing turn towards majoritarianism which is finding expression in many countries, including India, is probably among the reasons why New Delhi has opted to remain silent.

When Turkey's highest administrative court unanimously revoked a 1934 cabinet decision which made the Hagia Sophia a museum, Erdogan on July 10 signed into law the conversion of the magnificent 6th-century Byzantine church building back into a mosque and declared it open for worship. 

From July 24, the Hagia Sophia will reopen its doors to Muslim worshippers, and Friday prayers will be held within its compound.  

Unlike a century ago, when the fall of the Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire gave rise to the Khilafat Movement and a fresh impetus to the freedom struggle in India, with no less than Mahatma Gandhi speaking out in support of the Movement, the Indian government is choosing to remain studiedly silent this time. Its silence can be interpreted in two ways: it will not comment on an 'internal matter' and risk opening up its own fraught domestic issues for scrutiny; it would not like to alienate its Muslim population further by questioning a mosque's establishment in Turkey. 

Erdogan’s move to revive the great shrine of the Ottoman empire as a mosque is seen as part of his efforts to project Turkey as a Muslim majority country and reclaim internal political support, which had waned with the worsening state of the economy, while staking his claim to rival Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Islamic world.

Turkey’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim, but it is the only Muslim country in the world that has no state religion, and its Constitution guarantees religious freedom. Erdogan’s effort to reclaim what was once the largest church in Christendom is another step toward asserting the country’s majoritarian Islamic identity.

(The writer is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal)