People visit the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul on Thursday, June 25, 2020. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Aslı Erdoğan is a Turkish writer, human rights activist, and columnist . Aslı Erdoğan’s
books have been translated to several languages, including English, French, German,
Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, Arabic and Bosnian. Because of her civic commitment as a
journalist for the defense of the rights of the Kurdish people, she was arrested in August 2016 and kept in prison for three months. In 2017 she was awarded the
Princess Margriet for Culture by the European Cultural Foundation, for her literary
work illuminating a vision of society based on non-violence and political and cultural inclusion She was also awarded the 2018 Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Human Rights.
I am from the city that was originally founded as Constantinople and now more than a thousand years later it is called Istanbul. And in between those two, the city had more than two dozen names. This is the city which has faced almost two dozen besieges, two pandemics of plague, around ten giant earthquakes, has survived innumerable wars, fights, intrigues, struggles , has watched hundreds of kings come, rule and go, and has welcomed several languages, religions, monuments… And for me, a native of the Polis, as the Greeks called it, there is one indisputable symbol of the uniqueness and wisdom of the City, St Sophia. A monument, as imposing and unique, at least for me, as the Egyptian pyramids.
I have often wondered how fairly Byzantium was treated in Europe’s search for its historical roots. Constantinople was Roman and Greek and Christian and more… This is where The Mediterranean met the Black Sea, twelve thousand year old Asia Minor cultures met Thrace and Greek peninsula, Persia and ‘‘the East‘‘ met the West… However, a two-day walk around today’s Istanbul will reveal that the Ottomans treatment of Byzantium, from whom they learned and assimilated a lot, was far from fair. Palaces in ruin, churches converted into mosques, a thousand years of Byzantium, largely, not allowed to shadow the following glory of the Ottoman era…
The reconversion of St Sophia back into a mosque is definitely intended as a slap in the face of those who still believe that Turkey is a secular country. The state induced secular system of Kemalism, maybe laicism is a better word as Turkey followed the French model rather than Anglo Saxon secularism, one of the handful trials in whole the Islamic world, has been declared invalid. Although the majority of the Turkish public see this reconversion as a political manoeuvre to divert attention from the economic crisis, the opposition parties, especially CHP as the flag holder of Kemalism, have been rather mild in their objections, or in fact silent, and in one or two cases, downright approving. No one dares to offend the religious feelings of the masses, although no one has asked the masses if they are actually wanting such a reconversion.
Judging from Erdogan’s own statements, Kemalists and Kemalism are not the only ones to be taught a lesson. By defining the reconversion as ‘‘a final touch of a conquest‘‘, he is proudly announcing himself as the follower of Mehmed the Conqueror, and other Ottoman kings. ‘‘Conquest‘‘ is a term that belongs to the terminology, or ideology, of a bygone era, in which the winner could occupy and annihilate the defeated with no moral concerns. The destruction or conversion of the temples of the defeated was a common practice of the past. Erdogan regime is stating that from now on, Ottoman Empire will be the new role model of contemporary Turkey. This regime will no longer burden itself with the moral value , attributed to West or contemporary society, or in a broader sense concepts of modernity, of ‘‘the West‘‘, and it certainly will not allow such trifles as law or democracy and so on to hinder its major ‘‘ conquest‘‘… Conquest of absolute power.