A loss of Secular Wisdom at a Holy Place: Regretting Erdoğan’s decree

Editor’s Note: Hagia Sophia is among the world’s most historic structures. Built in A.D. 537 during the reign of [Eastern] Roman Emperor Justinian I, at the time of its completion it had the world’s largest interior space. The structure arose on a promontory in the ancient city of Byzantium, which had been renamed Constanople.  Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) has been at various times a Byzantine Christian Cathedral, a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Cathedral, an Orthodox Cathedral again, and a holy Mosque. For several decades beginning in 1935, it was a secular museum, in keeping with the secular emphasis of the modern government of Turkey.  This past week, in the midst of pleas from around the world to retain it as a religiously-neutral place, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, designated the building again as a mosque.  

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decree that declares the iconic Hagia Sophia a mosque is another attempt to impose a lop-sided History on the landscape of Turkey and propound a regressive discourse.

When we visited Turkey in 2015, I was mesmerized by monuments and cultural icons that paid tribute to its syncretic culture.

Istanbul, to me, was a rare example of a city that imbibed the excellence of two global civilizations: Christian and Islamic.

In my work, my constant attempt is to move beyond the contours of militarization to nation-building and to the recuperation of a “pluralistic” culture in terms of religious and cultural identities.

Istanbul gave me a chance to engage with a political and nationalist consciousness that transcended divides.
It epitomized the pluralism that we were losing in the subcontinent.

In the wake of polarization, virulence, fragmented communities, and vehement disregard of the other, Turkey’s secularism was a beacon of hope.

It showed the world that it was possible to honor one’s Islamic heritage, faithfully observing religious practices, while maintaining conviction in a pluralistic polity.

It is sad to see a regressive discourse being propounded and legitimized in Turkey.

Note: Dr. Nyla Ali Khan is a South Asian Muslim who was born in the Kashmir region, which stretches across the borders of India, Pakistan and China. A widely published author, she regularly writes for The City Sentinel newspaper and CapitolBeatOK.com, an online news service in Oklahoma City.