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Adhaan in Ayasofya

28th Aug 2020
Adhaan in Ayasofya

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, accompanied by Parliament Speaker Mustafa Şentop, Vice President Fuat Oktay, Communications Director Fahrettin Altun and Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahçeli, during first Friday prayers at Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia Mosque) on July 24, in Istanbul, Turkey (Credit: Mustafa Kamac/Anadolu Agency)

Sümeyye Sakarya

On July 24, Ayasofya (Hagía Sophía) hosted the first Friday prayers in 86 years as a mosque. The prayer was attended by about 350,000 people despite the Covid-19 and social distancing measures. While some travelled from other cities, many arrived in the early morning to secure a place to pray.

There were people from all different ages, provinces, and even countries such as Sudan and Senegal. In this sense, it was like an Eid celebration rather than an ordinary Friday prayer.

However, this was only one side of the story. The decision to revert Ayasofya from a museum to a mosque also sparked an international outcry and has received criticisms over nationalism, the instrumentalization of religion, populism, and disrespect to pluralism, religious dialogue, world heritage, and of course, secularism.

Analysing the criticisms, we can identify two sets of arguments. The first argument is that a mosque, unlike a museum, is not pluralistic. However, it is not clear what makes a museum more inclusive than a mosque.

This question is significant, especially considering the history of Ayasofya.
As it is well-known, Ayasofya was initially constructed as a church. Indeed, except for 1204-1261, when it was plundered and then converted into a Roman Catholic Cathedral by the Crusaders, it mostly served as the imperial cathedral and was the symbol for the political power of the Byzantine Empire.

Then, with the conquest of İstanbul, it was converted into a mosque, again the imperial and main one, by Fatih Sultan Mehmet. Its status has never been that of an ordinary place of worship. With the awareness of this political legacy, Kemalists’ top-down decree to turn it into a museum, while destroying many other mosques, was to de-Islamise and secularize it.

For, Ayasofya, as a mosque, was symbolizing the power of Islam, ‘Muslimness’ of the land and politics, the Ottoman legacy, being “Oriental,” all of which means nothing but embarrassment for the Republic before the modern, developed, secular west. In this sense, these secular criticisms can be read as a continuation of this Kemalist outlook. Since the West and secular have the natural upper hand and superiority as the normal and standard, a museum is always superior to a mosque and Muslims as the abnormal need to justify their decisions accordingly.

A milder or latent version of this secularism argument, mainly by fellow Muslims, is that the place should be kept as half-church/half-mosque or returned to a church for inclusivity, tolerance or pluralism. By de-linking the mosque, Ayasofya, from its political position, firstly, they claim that Islam/mosque should be excluded from politics, its de-Islamisation.

Otherwise, if they did not de-link, they should also have said that Fatih should have ruled with the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor or should not have conquered, even more than that, contemporary Istanbul or Turkey should be governed with or by Greece to prove our tolerance as Muslims.

Considering none of these are plausible to say by those Muslims, the only way of claiming the half/church is de-linking Ayasofya, the mosque, from politics by erasing its thousand years of history and de-Islamising politics by keeping the mosque outside. Moreover, those arguments reduce Muslimness to non-political spheres such as culture, religious dialogue, or spirituality.

While it is appreciated to express Muslimness in religious-cultural dialogue through inclusivity, expression of ‘Muslimness’ in a conflict — politics — is not welcomed.

The second set of arguments suggests that decision to revert Ayasofya to a mosque is unsound because it is motivated by political concerns. One version claims that it should be converted into “something like a shelter for homeless, a hospital for the sick and needy, a radical education or art centre to raise consciousness, or an indoor garden” as Ayasofya symbolizes imperialism, blood, material power and wealth.

However, it is very naïve to believe that there can be anything free from power/politics while those “something like” places also serve according to the power relations through their discriminatory practices throughout the world.

Another version regards Erdoğan’s national/domestic political concerns. Yet, why cannot Ayasofya become an issue of national politics? Considering “national” is a fact of contemporary politics which we cannot change overnight regardless of our approval, it is very understandable that the actions of political actors, more or less, will be related to national politics — intentionally or unintentionally.

Furthermore, here, there is no hypocrisy as, for decades, Islamists, including Erdoğan, have expressed their dream of Ayasofya as a mosque since this would mean the toppling of a Kemalist icon which symbolizes the erasure of Islam. Hence, the problem is not about domestic politics, but rather that Erdoğan’s decision helps to restore the place of Islam in Turkey and the world. Reverting Ayasofya to the mosque is part of the global decolonization struggle.

The global struggle to deepen decolonization has seen demands for the toppling of statues of colonialists and racists, and the decision to revert Ayasofya to being a mosque should be seen as part of this struggle.
On July 24 a monument to auto-colonialism was replaced by the Adhaan, calling the faithful to Jum’ah prayers.

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