Saint Sophia museum in Istanbul being reverted into a mosque has brought back, like a powerful refrain, that couplet of Mir Taqi Mir which has been an emotional crutch for me on such occasions. For instance, when I visited the great Cordoba mosque built in Southern Spain in 786 AD, and which was later converted into a live church.
“Mut ranja kar kisi ko, ke apne to aeteqaad,
Jee dhaaye ke jo kaaba banaya to kya kiya?”
(Never hurt a human being. It is not worth building even the House of God or Kaaba, if the project breaks human hearts)
Mir’s contemporary, Mirza Rafi Sauda, inverts Mir’s image:
“Kaaba agar che dhaya to kya jaae ghum hai Sheikh;
Yeh qasr e dil naheen ke banaya na jaa e ga.”
(Destruction of Kaaba is not as catastrophic as the breaking of the heart, which is irreparable)
From the Bosporus, the Istanbul skyline is exactly like its picture postcards: a skilful contrast of domes and minarets, slim as thermometers. The brooding Ayasofya Museum stands apart. The greatest Byzantine Cathedral, built at the edge of Europe in 537 was designed to dominate the panorama of the Marmara Sea and the Asian mainland beyond.
The first Arab probe of Sindh by Mohammad bin Qasim was in 711 AD, exactly the date when Tariq Ibne Ziad crossed over from Morocco to set up station at what he called Jabal al Tariq or the Rock of Tariq which the British renamed Gibraltar in 1704 after the famous Spanish-British naval engagements, including the Spanish Armada.
Before the Iberian Peninsula turned into a cauldron of intra-European conflict, 800 years of Muslim rule was somewhat unevenly spread across Spain. To flavour this phase of history, one has to read Maria Rosa Menocal’s masterly, Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. The title itself tells the story. It is astonishing that in the past three decades of gruelling Islamophobia, not one of our liberals had the width of vision to recall phases in history when robust multiculturalism thrived under Muslim rule. After Reconquista in 1492 by the Christians, the Inquisition was much harsher on the Jews who found refuge in Morocco and later in the Ottoman Empire.
The glory of the greatest Eastern Orthodox Cathedral came under partial eclipse when the Roman Catholic Church occupied it for six decades. But it was Sultan Mehmet’s establishment of the Ottoman Empire in 1453 which caused the Cathedral to face a predictable total eclipse. It was transformed into a mosque.
From the debris of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Mustafa Kemal Pasha “Ataturk” resurrected what is modern Turkey. He was determined to take his country from “backwardness” into “modernism.” In other words, he turned his back on “Muslim traditionalism” and dreamt of a secular Turkey, custom-made for Europe. He replaced the Arabian alphabet with Roman script for the Turkish language. He banned the Fez cap, brought the practice of Islam under a department of religious affairs attached to the prime minister, and so on. Little wonder the texture of life in Istanbul and Ankara was more European than Islamic, rather like North Tehran under the Shah of Iran. But what was the ingredient that made Turkey’s secularism comparatively more durable? It was the Turkish army which became the guarantor of the Republic’s secularism. Ataturk divined, and quite rightly too, that Sophia mosque would be an eyesore for Europe, in perpetuity. With one executive order in 1934, it was reinvented as a museum of Byzantine history.
It was western callousness which, in the ultimate analyses, made Turkey’s secular edifice vulnerable. Western, mostly American, Israeli hostility to Arab Socialism (Egypt), Ba’athism (Iraq, Syria), Libya’s cradle-to-grave welfare system (details for the Afghan tumult are only slightly different) which promoted Islamic extremism on an unspeakable scale.
Details for Turkey’s upheaval need to be explained. With the breakup of former Yugoslavia, Serbian and Croatian nationalisms turned upon Bosnian Muslims with vicious brutality. Srebrenica is only one chapter in that bleak and shoddy history. Briefings by the UN military commander, General Sir Michael Rose, were laden with more gruesome detail by the day particularly the four year long siege of Sarajevo. Balkans, the turf for continuous conflict throughout history between the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian Empires, became a wide open killing field when Belgrade could not hold Yugoslavia together. The helplessness of the Bosnian Muslims was unbelievable. Europe’s reason for not intervening rang hollow. Its intervention, it was argued, would cause individual European countries to take sides in a conflict in which World War II adversaries, Serbia and Croatia were fighting each other over the spoils of Bosnia.
Europe being sucked into the Bosnian war carried the risk of under mining the very purpose for which EU was being forged – to avoid conflict between member states. This was sophistry, said Salman Rushdie. Reverse the religious affiliations of the combatants, and European troops would be in Bosnia within a day.
Mornings evenings and afternoons, the Turks watched the brutalization of Bosnia and Sarajevo, both an evocative part of Turkish historical memory. A powerful anti-West, Islamist party, Refah or Welfare took shape and spread like prairie fire. Necmettin Erbakan, founder of Refah, became prime minister. Citing the secular Constitution, the army summarily dethroned the “Islamist” prime minister.
Erbakan’s protégés, Abdullah Gul and Tayyip Erdogan, dismantled “Refah” and reappeared in a secular garb as leaders of AK or Justice and Development Party. As evidence of their secular credentials, they kept alive their application for membership of the EU, European callousness notwithstanding. In fact, French President Giscard d’Estaing virtually slapped Turkey across its face. “European civilization is Christian civilization.”
After his mishandling of Syria, misreading of Europe, the US and Russia, his popularity in serious question, Erdogan has fallen back on the oldest trick in the politician’s book – religious extremism. “Look”, he will address Islamists, “like Mehmet, the conqueror, I have restored for your supplications a great mosque.”
The writer is a journalist based in India