Hagia Sophia and American Muslims

Many Muslims, American Muslims included, no longer see world affairs through the lens of traditional notions of dominance and conquest. Islamic history now lends itself to alternative interpretations.

Turkish President Erdoğan’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia back to its original function, a place of worship, has generated mixed reactions inside Turkey and beyond. Turkish religio-nationalists, for whom the conversion of the structure into a museum in the 1930s under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s modernist and Western-oriented reforms has long rankled, were exhilarated to see that move avenged. Today, July 24, a highly anticipated first jum’ah, congregational prayer, will be performed there.

Both actions—converting the mosque into a museum and the museum back into a mosque—were products of executive decisions by strongman presidents. They reflect the changing political culture and the role of religion in the definition of the nation. In the last two decades, Turkey has been gradually moving away from the authoritarian secularism of Kemalism to an authoritarian Muslim-ism under Erdoğan.

Erdoğan’s triumphalist action was welcomed by traditional nationalist and religious segments of Turkish society. His base rejoiced. Opponents of the Erdoğan regime, however— which includes a significant chunk of the religious segment— saw it as sheer political manipulation and a response to declining support for the regime. Yet Erdoğan, a master of politics who frequently resorts to polarization as an electoral strategy, in this case may very well have been moved more by international concerns than domestic ones. Although Greece and the Orthodox Christian world are most immediately affected by the act, its intended audience might very well be Egypt and the Arab-Muslim world. The reconversion of Hagia Sophia back to a mosque is ultimately an assertion of Turkey’s sovereignty as a country; it has very little to do with the tolerance or intolerance of Islam as a faith. It should be seen as an extension of the demonstratively independent foreign policy that has been pursued for some time now by the Erdoğan regime.

For the average Muslim, who might be imagined to harbor a grudge against Western dominance and exploitation in the Muslim world, the reconversion of Hagia Sophia is a reversal of a conquest undone. This long-delayed gratification of Muslim sovereignty and conquest could only give pleasure to Muslims who now see a Muslim leader, perhaps a caliph, defending Islam against secularism and Western powers. But many Muslims, American Muslims included, no longer see world affairs through the lens of traditional notions of dominance and conquest. Islamic history now lends itself to alternative interpretations. Thus one approach is to ask, as Mustafa Akyol does in a recent piece in the New York Times, “Would the Prophet Muhammad Convert Hagia Sophia?” The answer to this question is a “no” for many Muslims. But there are other Muslims who would answer the question otherwise—or rather pose it differently to begin with—and who find in Muslim tradition a full justification for their desire for Muslim supremacy, rather than Muslim pluralism. Another reflection of this subordination of religion to political power can be found in Egypt, as Khalil al-Anani highlights in his Foreign Policy piece, “All the Dictator’s Sheikhs.” Of course, the question of how Sisi co-opted Egypt’s religious institutions for political gain is hardly a Sisi story, or even a recent development. A longstanding hidden truth about the relationship between religion and politics is simply becoming visible to an increasingly educated and critical Muslim audience.

Take the example of American Muslims, whose conception of Islam is, generally, as a non-state civic religion. For them, Islam now is a universal good that is sensitive to the needs and sensibilities of others. For Turkish Islamism, on the other hand, Islam is “our property,” a resource and weapon to be deployed in contentious encounters with others. President Erdogan made this clear in a tweet where he shared a video depicting a pan-Muslim celebration of his action: “Hagia Sophia,” wrote Erdogan, “you are ours from all eternity!” Of course the Turkish religious establishment (the Directorate of Religious Affairs and various cemaat entities) would applaud any choice made by the president, be it pro-conversion or anti-. It is clear that while American Muslims are concerned with notions of liberty and freedom of religion, Turkish Muslims, at least in this matter, are preoccupied with sovereignty and ownership. 

When Sayyid Syeed, the President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) expressed his disapproval of the Turkish decision to turn the museum into a mosque, he used strong words in defense of pluralism and expressed concern for the civil rights of Muslims in non-Muslim societies and globally. But Mr. Syeed was soon warned off by Yusuf Ziya Kavakçı in a public message he sent to a large listserv. Mr. Kavakçı, the father of the Kavakçı sisters, who currently enjoy positions in Turkey’s ruling party, and himself a long-serving Turkish-American imam in Texas, kindly reminded the ISNA president of the unspecified (but presumably dire) consequences of not aligning with Mr. Erdoğan, whom Kavakçı sees as the “reis and naib khalifa” of the Muslim ummah. In response, ISNA President Syeed released a second statement where he said, “My recent reflection about the conversion of the Hagia Sophia back to a mosque was aimed to engage a specific circle of intellectuals in theological discussion in light of our rich Islamic history. Hence, it was not an official statement of ISNA as an organization, and ISNA’s Board adheres to a formal policy of non-involvement and does not take any official position on this matter.”

To American Muslims, this strange relationship between religion and politics remains mostly invisible as long as their conception of a mosque remains a spatial vehicle for worship and the expression of a civic freedom of religion. But not all mosques or places of worship are like that. There are places where the sovereignty of God is but the lightly veiled sovereignty of a worldly power (be it king, sultan, caliph or impersonal modern state). In such symbolic spots the mosque, cathedral or temple is not a mere place of worship, but a place of declaration of political sovereignty and a site of state power. In these rare locations where the truth about religion and politics comes into the open, the state appears holier than the holy. Unless a state chooses secularity and releases religious sovereignty to its own spiritual domain, religion, as Muslims are increasingly discovering, remains a political tool of the state. In a sense, the minority Muslims and Muslims in America are shielded from this bitter truth about religion—about all religions, Islam included—by their purely civic and horizontal relationship to their faith.

The liberation of Islam as a universal good from the Muslim states that instrumentalize religion for their own purposes is an emerging challenge for Muslim thought. It surfaces in the rare moments when one discovers that indeed religion and politics are not independent phenomena; that, despite the sincere sentiments of believers on the ground, at the top religion becomes a political affair where, as the sociologist Emile Durkheim argued, the true god is not God but “us”.

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