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Hagia Sophia, or the Defeat of Universalism

Hagia Sophia, or the Defeat of Universalism
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

By restoring Hagia Sophia's status as a mosque, Erdoğan is breaking with Mustafal Kemal Atatürk’s desire to open up to the world, which inspired him to turn the monument into a museum in 1934. The current Turkish president wants to assert the Muslim identity of his country. In doing so, according to Dominique Moïsi, he is burying the universalism of a building whose symbol goes beyond religious beliefs.

In 1934, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk' transformed the Hagia Sophia mosque into a museum, calling it "a gift to humanity". Eighty-seven years later, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - who sees himself a successor to Atatürk - has just decided to return this architectural masterpiece, inscribed on the World Heritage List, to the Turkish people (and beyond that, to the Muslim world). As of July 24, Hagia Sophia will become a mosque again, as it had been from 1453 to 1934. Of course, it will remain open to tourists outside of prayer hours, but it will no longer be a universal destination. Over time, Hagia Sophia had becomethe living testimony of a quest for reconciliation between Christian and Muslim monotheisms. The juxtaposition ofdomes and minarets, as well as the coexistence of Christian mosaics and Muslim calligraphy, resulted in a unique expression of strength and harmony. Atatürk's choice was visionary, while Erdoğan's is retrograde.

Universal and timeless

A little over a year ago, the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris shook the whole world. The spectacular images of the burning cathedral travelled around the globe, generating a tremendous outpour of generosity. Along with the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the iconic symbols of the City of Light. Celebrated by Victor Hugo, the cathedral was not only significant to Christians and Parisians. It had quite simply become one of the "wonders of the world" – an homage to the divine - which reflected and celebrated the greatness of man. The same is as true of buildings as it is for musical works. Some, because of their beauty, have become not only universal, but timeless. Salieri, Mozart's great rival, was simply an eighteenth-century composer, talented but limited.

Hagia Sophia falls into this category of monuments that naturally belong to all mankind.

Mozart transcended his time, as did the great composers, from Bach to Shostakovich. Hagia Sophia falls into this category of monuments that naturally belong to all mankind. Restraining it to the celebration of one cult means to lessen it. How will a museum be turned into a mosque? Will its splendid figurative mosaics be concealed during Muslim prayers?

The example that was just set by the Turkish President is an unfortunate precedent, and a major step backwards for the notion of progress. Not so long ago, the possible internationalization of Jerusalem’s holy places was still mentioned as one of the conditions for a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The project was to place the Wailing Wall, the Holy Sepulcher and the al-Aqsa Mosque under the control of the United Nations, to prevent any form of irredentism or revisionism. Certainly, considering that the sacred places of all religions are highly emotionally-charged, and given the real weakness of the United Nations, this project was probably a utopia.

An attack against civilization

In this month of July 2020, religious nationalism is stepping into the breach of indifference and resignation that Covid-19 has been opening up. The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque was met with regret, but without passion, by a world exclusively obsessed by the developments of the coronavirus. Only the Vatican, Greece and Russia – the latter two seeing themselves as heirs of the Eastern Empire – and a few saddened voices between Washington and Paris expressed their dismay.

Yet this spectacular step backwards may historically remain as one of the major symbolic events of the year 2020: the final nail in the coffin of universalism, or worse still, an attack on civilization.

From Donald Trump's "America First" to Erdoğan's "Turkey First" (unless it is "Islam First"), we are witnessing a phenomenon of generalized retrogression, that may be seen as the direct result of the rampant globalization of these past decades. Globalization and fragmentation are interlinked. At the beginning of the 1990s, the fall of the USSR was accompanied by an explosion in the number of states. At the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, dozens of new flags appeared before the world - almost all of them as cryptic as they were unknown. The quest for marginal difference that followed the fall of the Soviet empire gave way to a new phase, whose roots undoubtedly lay in the previous one.

From Donald Trump's "America First" to Erdoğan's "Turkey First" (unless it is "Islam First"), we are witnessing a phenomenon of generalized retrogression

Religious nationalism

In the case of Turkey, it seems as if a returning imperial fantasy and the rise of religious nationalism have gone hand in hand. The Ottoman Empire reached its peak with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Hagia Sophia, which had been a church for ten centuries (its construction was completed in 537, during the reign of Justinian), where the Byzantine emperors (and Empress Theodora) were crowned, was becoming a mosque. Atatürk's Turkey, seeking modernity and secularism, then took a step that no longer seems so natural today, during a time of religious nationalism and quests for identity, from Modi to Erdoğan.

Some will surely want to say that Turkish President's gesture is revealing of Islam’s profound conquering nature. The youngest of three monotheistic religions, in its quest for legitimacy, wants "more and always more", especially after centuries of geopolitical humiliation and geographic shrinkage. There is no rebirth without self-affirmation, as there is no affirmation without – litteral - re-appropriation. "The more people I shock, the more certain I am to be heading in the right direction", seems to think Erdoğan, as did Putin before him.

The Turkish President is also probably, if not primarily, motivated by domestic political calculations. His country is going through a particularly difficult economic and social period, aggravated by Covid-19. Doesn't Erdoğan intend to win back his Istanbul supporters, the city to which he owes his political success, but also the city that could, judging by the latest municipal elections, be the cause of his political downfall ?
One thing is for sure. The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is not a victory for Turkey. It is a defeat for universalism.


Copyright: Ozan KOSE / AFP

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