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Con­cern­ing recent head­lines in Turkey about Hagia Sophia — large­ly echoed else­where — we have read a num­ber of arti­cles in every style imag­in­able… Rather than writ­ing “in the man­ner of Eti­enne Copeaux” we pre­ferred ask­ing him to take to the key­board again… We thank him for accept­ing our request.

Here is an excel­lent update, one every jour­nal­ist and ana­lyst would be well advised to read…

By Eti­enne Copeaux

It is a bit annoy­ing when the media sud­den­ly dis­cov­er cer­tain top­ics they treat as “news” sim­ply because it is news to them. This is the case with the resti­tu­tion of Hagia Sophia to Mus­lim wor­ship this July 11 2020. Appar­ent­ly, in so doing, Erdo­gan would be cross­ing an impor­tant thresh­old in the destruc­tion of the sec­u­lar state estab­lished by Atatürk, this lead­ing one to under­stand, as usu­al, that before Erdo­gan every­thing was for the best in the best of all worlds in Turkey; accord­ing to a cer­tain leg­end of the 20th cen­tu­ry, it being “the only sec­u­lar Mus­lim coun­try” and Atatürk being per­ceived, as always, as the mod­ern­iz­er who pulled Turkey out of obscurantism.

One can­not say this often enough: Atatürk is the one who approved the Armen­ian geno­cide (1915) and the first expul­sions of Ortho­dox Chris­tians (1914, then 1923), he is the one who found­ed a sup­pos­ed­ly sec­u­lar repub­lic but only once it had been “cleared of its allochtho­nous ele­ments” (the expres­sion was pro­vid­ed by his Swiss anthro­pol­o­gist friend Eugène Pit­tard). “Allochtho­nous” mean­ing here non-Mus­lim. One must also men­tion again that all the “exchanges of pop­u­la­tion” and oth­er mass expul­sions in those days, be they before or after the estab­lish­ment of the repub­lic, were found­ed on reli­gious cri­te­ria and not on lin­guis­tic or “eth­nic” ones. Thus, dur­ing the “Great Exchange” in 1923 those “Greeks” that were expelled from Ana­to­lia were in fact Turk­ish-speak­ing Ortho­dox and the “Turks” expelled from the Balka­ns were in fact Mus­lim Bosni­aks and Epirotes who spoke not a word of Turkish.

In short, in 1923 the repub­lic was found­ed as a com­mon home for Mus­lims from the region. As every­one knows, the process was com­plet­ed by the anti-Jew­ish pogroms in 1934, the mas­sive expul­sion of Ortho­dox from Istan­bul (which was still a “Greek” city at the time) between 1955 and 1964 and final­ly, the expul­sion of the Ortho­dox from north­ern Cyprus, manu mil­i­tari, in 1974. On this 25th anniver­sary of Sre­breni­ca, one does well to remem­ber that Turkey per­pe­trat­ed a per­fect eth­nic cleans­ing through­out the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, includ­ing by genocide.

In 1935, Atatürk’s trans­for­ma­tion of Hagia Sophia into a muse­um was thus noth­ing but a toy, a bauble, as were oth­er mea­sures, agi­tat­ed in order to deceive naive West­ern­ers who for­got all the rest men­tioned above, thanks to this ges­ture now qual­i­fied of being “appeas­ing”, “mod­ern”, and who knows what else.

The medi­a’s cur­rent pas­sion for Hagia Sophia angers me, and here is why: in 1974 imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the inva­sion of north­ern Cyprus, the Turk­ish army and the right-wing mili­tias accom­plished a huge “job”, by hand if you please, using sledge­ham­mers. I am speak­ing of the sys­tem­at­ic destruc­tion – often accom­pa­nied by the pro­fa­na­tion – of every tomb in every Ortho­dox ceme­tery in the north­ern part of the Island from which Greek Cypri­ots had been expelled – a kind of geno­cide against the dead. This is with­out men­tion­ing the pro­fa­na­tion of church­es. As regards the ceme­ter­ies, it rep­re­sents a major anthro­po­log­i­cal crime, per­pe­trat­ed in cold blood and nev­er denounced by Europe or the rest of the West, such stick­lers on ques­tions of “sec­u­lar­ism”. We vis­it­ed the des­o­la­tion of these ceme­ter­ies dur­ing our inves­ti­ga­tions between 1995 and 2005. You can see them for your­self. We have cov­ered them in an entire chap­ter in our book Tak­sim, in arti­cles, in talks at con­fer­ences. But this has nev­er raised the slight­est scan­dal. Because “sec­u­lar Turkey” is our ally. (The rel­e­vant chap­ter is avail­able here in French).

Jour­nal­ist friends, Recep Tayyip Erdo­gan absolute­ly does not rep­re­sent a break from the “sec­u­lar” gov­ern­ments that came before him. Quite sim­ply, he is at the end of a chain, of a process begun around 1950. Already in the 1990s, lead­ers, be they civil­ian or mil­i­tary — includ­ing sec­u­lar ones — did not hes­i­tate to make a Mus­lim prayer dur­ing offi­cial cer­e­monies. Fol­low­ing the coup d’é­tat in 1980, the gen­er­als who gov­erned the coun­try – gen­er­als from an army described as “the guardian of sec­u­lar­ism” – made reli­gious edu­ca­tion (Sun­ni Mus­lim, of course) manda­to­ry, and the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive taught to school chil­dren was designed so that the notion of belong­ing be both Turk­ish and Mus­lim. This rep­re­sents the begin­ning of the imple­men­ta­tion of the “Tur­co-Islam­ic syn­the­sis”. In 1956, Prime Min­is­ter Adnan Menderes pro­claimed: “The Turk­ish nation is a Mus­lim nation” and since then no leader, be that leader a sec­u­lar one, has con­tra­dict­ed this affirmation.

Fail­ing to replace the cur­rent­ly ou cur­rent ? episode of resti­tu­tion of Hagia Sophia to the Mus­lim cult amounts to a seri­ous error of appre­ci­a­tion con­cern­ing Turkey. West­ern­ers’ point of view see­ing in it “the only sec­u­lar Mus­lim coun­try” only proves that the Kemal­ist pro­pa­gan­da has worked mar­velous­ly well, with­out fail, since the 1920s.

His­tor­i­cal­ly speak­ing, Erdo­gan’s action con­cern­ing Hagia Sophia can­not be under­stood if one neglects the role of the cap­ture of Con­stan­tino­ple in 1453, as the foun­da­tion­al event in Tur­co-Mus­lim nation­al identity.

Dur­ing the peri­od when I stud­ied the school nar­ra­tive, as taught between 1931 and 1993, I iden­ti­fied five events as foun­da­tion­al for the nation, rec­og­niz­able in the nar­ra­tive thanks to eas­i­ly spot­ted seman­tic sig­nals. They defined an iden­ti­ty one could qual­i­fy as “Kemal­ist” and marked out the nar­ra­tive as it unfold­ed from East to West, as a long march of the Turks from Cen­tral Asia to Europe. They con­sist of1the migra­tion of the Turks out of Mon­go­lia2, the cul­ture relat­ed to the Ork­hon stone mon­u­ments (VII­Ith cen­tu­ry)3, The Tur­co-Mus­lim States in Tran­sox­i­ana (XI-XIIth cen­tu­ry)4, the bat­tle of Malaz­girt (or Manazkert,1071) which “opened Ana­to­lia to the Turks”, and5 the bat­tle of the Dar­d­anelles (1915) which lifts the cur­tain on the saga of mod­ern Turkey, under the com­mand of Mustafa Kemal, the future Atatürk. The nar­ra­tive in each one was accom­pa­nied by ref­er­ences to Atatürk, in order to clear­ly demon­strate that Turkey was pre­des­tined to become the coun­try of the Found­ing Father, a coun­try both repub­li­can and secular.

To this vision were lat­er added a series of remarks sprin­kled across the entire tale, mak­ing of the Turks a peo­ple hence­forth pre­des­tined to Islam. The Turks became “the shields and spear­heads” of Islam. They alleged­ly trans­formed a fos­silized Islam into a “tol­er­ant” one. I’m not invent­ing any­thing, nor is this Erdo­gan’s inven­tion. This Tur­co-Mus­lim char­ac­ter to the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive was intro­duced around 1988–1989. Erdo­gan is a prod­uct of this education.

In my the­sis in 1994, I raised a hypoth­e­sis I have not ceased devel­op­ing and updat­ing since in arti­cles, then in my blog: a sixth foun­da­tion­al event would be insert­ed among the oth­ers, that of the cap­ture of Con­stan­tino­ple and of its Hagia Sophia basil­i­ca, an event known as the “Fetih”, the lit­er­al mean­ing of which is “open­ing onto Islam”. This move­ment came into the open in 1953, dur­ing the fifth cen­ten­ni­al of the Fetih. Since then, Islamist demon­stra­tions in front of Hagia Sophia, demand­ing its resti­tu­tion to Mus­lim cult have been a recur­ring event. The short-lived Islamist gov­ern­ment of Necmet­tin Erbakan (1966–1997) had promised this resti­tu­tion, but he did not have enough time to fol­low through. Erdo­gan has done so. The sixth foun­da­tion­al event is now in place. In sev­er­al texts on my blog, I exam­ine how Erdo­gan has also trans­formed the mean­ing of that oth­er foun­da­tion­al event, the bat­tle of Malazgirt.

Mehmet the Con­queror and Hagia Sophia. Notice how Hagia Sophia has come down from its hill and that the minarets are already there even before the con­quest… (Nation­al-Islamist imagery).

I have said and writ­ten this often, I’m well aware of par­rot­ing myself. To assist in the under­stand­ing of the event, I per­mit myself the addi­tion below of a few excerpt from my the­sis, defend­ed in 1994, pub­lished by CNRS-Edi­tions in 1997 and 2000. These pages will allow you to under­stand what a Turk­ish pupil might have in mind. It is what Erdo­gan him­self learned in school

Here then, in their orig­i­nal for­mat, are these para­graphs writ­ten in 1994. My cur­rent addi­tions are in brackets.

The church of Hagia Sophia (Aya­so­fya), the very sym­bol of Con­stan­tino­ple, is close­ly linked to the his­to­ry of the city’s cap­ture; but it has also become a sym­bol of the Fetih through its imme­di­ate trans­for­ma­tion into a mosque; close to five cen­turies lat­er, it became a sym­bol of Kemal­ist sec­u­lar­ism through its con­ver­sion into a muse­um in 1935. These two his­tor­i­cal ges­tures frame the his­to­ry of Istan­bul as the cap­i­tal of the Ottoman Empire. Almost all cur­rent school man­u­als [i.e. in the begin­ning of the 1990s] evoke the first event con­cern­ing the church, often in an emphat­ic way, and all are silent about the sec­ond event. Even con­tem­po­rary his­to­ry man­u­als (Atatürkçülük man­u­als) [entire­ly devot­ed to Atatürk], in their chap­ters deal­ing with the imple­men­ta­tion of Kemal­ist prin­ci­ples, are mute con­cern­ing the mat­ter of Hagia Sophia6.

From a Kemal­ist point of view, this is sur­pris­ing; just as the sim­i­lar­i­ty in the dates of the bat­tle of Malaz­girt and of the Great Offen­sive of 1922 offered a gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty for an allu­sion to Atatürk, the two mod­i­fi­ca­tions in Hagia Sophi­a’s sta­tus should also have allowed for a con­nec­tion and a Kemal­ist ref­er­ence [anachro­nis­tic allu­sions to Atatürk in the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive] for instance, at the clos­ing of the chap­ter on the Fetih, an evo­ca­tion as in oth­er occa­sions, of the sec­u­lar­iz­ing will of the Gazi [the Vic­tor: one of Atatürk’s titles]. This notice­able with­hold­ing reveals the exis­tence of a tabu sur­round­ing the ques­tion of Hagia Sophia and, through it, con­cern­ing the cap­ture of Con­stan­tino­ple 2. In devout Mus­lim cir­cles in Turkey, there exists a strong cur­rent in favor of re-estab­lish­ing Hagia Sophia as a mosque. This demand was one made by the Mil­lî Selâmet Par­tisi (right-wing reli­gious par­ty, now become the Refah Par­tisi) pri­or to the coup d’é­tat in 1980. It was strong­ly reac­ti­vat­ed by the win­ning of the munic­i­pal elec­tions in Istan­bul by the Refah – often described as a Fetih, in fact — dur­ing the munic­i­pal elec­tions in March 1994) (the new may­or was Recep Tayyip Erdo­gan). This stream uses a hadith (a say­ing) by the Prophet as its slo­gan :
“Con­stan­tino­ple will be tak­en, of course. What a brave com­man­der is he, the one who will take the town ! What brave sol­diers, those under his orders!”

It’s con­fis­ca­tion by a polit­i­cal ten­den­cy turns it into a high­ly con­not­ed reli­gious speech 3; yet it has recent­ly been intro­duced into the school discourse.

All appear­ances notwith­stand­ing, the very name Aya­so­fya is a sym­bol of Islamism for a num­ber of Turks who no longer per­ceive any Chris­t­ian ref­er­ence in it. Turks liv­ing in Europe freely dare to do what they can only hope to achieve in Turkey, by bap­tiz­ing some of their mosques with the para­dox­i­cal name of Aya­so­fya Camii (Saint Sophia Mosque)7. One can see in this both the effect and the cause of a loss of mean­ing, or of a rad­i­cal change in mean­ing, in itself very sig­nif­i­cant, of the locu­tion Aya­so­fya, which is, more­over, for­mu­lat­ed in Greek. Fur­ther still in a process that aims to recon­sti­tute in Europe an envi­ron­ment rem­i­nis­cent of Turkey, a great num­ber of mosques are bap­tized Fatih [The Con­queror, the one who accom­plished a fetih], a denom­i­na­tion that can only refer back to the vic­tor of Con­stan­tino­ple (Mehmet the Con­queror) but also evoca­tive, beyond the event itself, of the vic­to­ry of Islam8.

Should one see in this per­cep­tion of the church of Hagia Sophia the con­ti­nu­ity of Turk­ish tra­di­tions as ana­lyzed by Stéphane Yerasi­mos9? It is claimed in the Réc­it de l’his­toire de Con­stan­tino­ple depuis le com­mence­ment jusqu’à la fin (Tale of the His­to­ry of Con­stan­tino­ple from the begin­ning to the end) that:
“The Sec­ond Her­a­clius obtained from Mohammed the recon­struc­tion of the dome of Hagia Sophia, which had col­lapsed on the night of his birth. And the Prophet only grants his autho­riza­tion because, as stat­ed in the Durr-i-mek­nun, his faith­ful will pray there one day.” Hagia Sophia is thus con­sid­ered in the leg­end as a “tem­ple of God, removed from the Empire and returned to the com­mu­ni­ty of faith­ful“10.

One can only observe that the Prophet’s famous hadith, the leg­end and the inter­pre­ta­tion from the cur­rent reli­gious par­ties con­verge and make of the cap­ture of Con­stan­tino­ple and the trans­for­ma­tion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque a pre­des­tined event; in such a per­spec­tive, the sec­u­lar­iza­tion of the build­ing is a true sacrilege.

All this indi­cates that the cap­ture of Con­stan­tino­ple is an event ven­er­at­ed by the reli­gious and by the right-wing; besides, the anniver­sary of the Fetih does not give rise to an offi­cial com­mem­o­ra­tion [this has now been achieved under Erdo­gan]11. Reli­gious par­ties and the extreme right-wing com­mem­o­rate it, even in Euro­pean Turk­ish envi­ron­ments12. Con­verse­ly, one notes that offi­cial Kemal­ist cir­cles do not dare express an opin­ion on the reli­gious dimen­sion of the Fetih in his­to­ry man­u­als, with the men­tion of the sec­u­lar­iza­tion of Hagia Sophia in 1935 being quite rare. All this tends toward the belief that Kemal­ism is also aware of the sac­ri­le­gious aspect of this move, which would explain why it is hard­ly ever men­tioned in its own writings.

As a con­clu­sion to this evo­ca­tion of the sym­bols ascribed to the town and the church, we must also add that Hagia Sophia has a spe­cial place in the Greek affect; the pro­ject­ed return of the church to the Mus­lim cult by Turk­ish reli­gious cir­cles, espe­cial­ly since the Refah car­ried off city hall in Istan­bul, has pro­voked out­raged reac­tions in Greece. Here is an excerpt from the news­pa­per O Typos of April 30 1994 (trans­lat­ed in French by Cather­ine Aslani­dis);
“Over here, we main­tain and embell­ish the mosques and the Ottoman baths and they want to turn Hagia Sophia…into a mosque!!! We are speak­ing of the Turks, of course. Do you know how many mosques we main­tain in Greece out of the funds devot­ed to Greek mon­u­ments? Forty-one, if you please!!! Besides which we main­tain 17 hamams, 4 bazaars, 3 funer­ary mon­u­ments, 4 for­ti­fied con­struc­tions, 8 aque­ducts and 5 state­ly manors!

They are not the ones who are wrong, we are, for not hav­ing let the mosques fall into ruins so as to rid our­selves of their audac­i­ty13.

This brief exam­i­na­tion of the emo­tion­al charge linked to the town and the church was an indis­pens­able pre­am­ble in order to approach an exam­i­na­tion of the ped­a­gog­i­cal dis­course con­cern­ing the cap­ture of Con­stan­tino­ple. The Fetih is not linked to the present through an evo­ca­tion of dates, as is the case for Malaz­girt; on the con­trary, it is the oppor­tu­ni­ty for a return to the past: from a strict­ly Turk­ish point of view, it is the accom­plish­ment of the vic­to­ry of Malaz­girt (1071), a final­iza­tion of the ter­ri­to­r­i­al con­quest; where­as from the Mus­lim point of view, it is the real­iza­tion of a prophe­cy. The Fetih is not an event in which the Kemal­ist present is root­ed, but rather an act of faith that must inspire oth­er fetih, oth­er jihads, in which the Turks must con­tin­ue show­ing they are fight­ing at the head of Islam.

The com­plete chap­ter of my the­sis con­cern­ing the cap­ture of Con­stan­tino­ple is acces­si­ble in French through this link

Slight­ly abridged, my the­sis was edit­ed under the fol­low­ing ref­er­ence:
Espaces et temps de la nation turque. Analyse d’une his­to­ri­ogra­phie nation­al­iste, 1931–1993, Paris, CNRS-Edi­tions, 1997
As well as under Une Vision turque du monde, à tra­vers les cartes, Paris, CNRS-Edi­tions, 2000

Both of these works have long been out of print. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the pub­lish­er has nev­er accept­ed to pro­ceed to reprints.

Illus­tra­tion: Mehmet the Con­queror and Hagia Sophia (Islamo-nation­al imagery)

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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