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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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