NOTE: This article is something of a departure from my usual offerings. I was asked to comment on the transition of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum to a mosque. So here are some thoughts.
Turkey will once again be using the ancient Christian cathedral of Hagia Sophia as a mosque now that a Turkish court has cleared the way in a rather shaky display of judicial process. Hagia Sophia was the greatest Christian house of worship in the world for nearly a thousand years until brutal Islamic aggression toppled Constantinople and stole the building. It is one of the very few Christian churches they did not destroy in the wake of conquest.
On July 10, Erdogan, the Turkish leader, addressed the Turkish nation and in that address he quoted from the will of Mehmet, the conqueror of Constantinople in 1453 which states that whoever alters the status of the Hagia Sophia “has committed the most grave sin of all” and that “the curse of God, the Prophet, the angels and all rulers and all Muslims shall forever be upon him. May their suffering not lighten, may none look at their face on the day of Hajj.” Lovely.
Some will say that Hagia Sophia is just a building and no big deal. But it is a big deal. The re-opening of this Christian church as a mosque represents the rolling back of years of modernist policies, begun by Kemal Ataturk, who declared the church\mosque a museum in the 1930’s as a gesture of dialog and understanding with the west as he attempted to bring Turkey out of the middle ages. Declaring Hagia Sophia to be a museum, and therefore a neutral space, was a major symbolic step in this direction.
The subsequent modernization and westernization of Turkey has been a source of constant irritation to Islamists who have felt betrayed by the move toward modernity and long for the days when the caliphate ruled and all things were brought under the sway of Sharia. In one sense this is completely understandable. Islam and western values are inherently incompatible. Serious Muslims know and understand this.
The reclaiming of the church as a mosque is an act of unbridled religious nationalism aimed at building up Erdogan’s power and moving Turkey backward along the road to being a thoroughly Islamic state. Erdogan calls this move an assertion of national sovereignty. It is also a bald political concession to the Islamic hard liners in his country.
And the fact that it is causing unease and even anguish among many of the world’s Christians, and other infidels, is just icing on the cake.