Closing of the Secular World

Why the repurposing of the Hagia Sophia is more than just a rebrand

There is perhaps no building more reflective of a country’s diverse and tumultuous history than the Hagia Sophia. Originally constructed in 537 AD as a church, it became an Ottoman mosque in 1453. Since the middle of the twentieth century, and following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the building has been a museum: mirroring the neutral, secular and religiously tolerant Republic of Turkey. President Erdogan’s recent decision to repurpose the Hagia Sophia as a mosque is not only representative of a new political age in Turkey’s history, but symbolic of the diminishing position of secularism worldwide.

Secularism has guided the separation of religion and state, from the founding of the United States Constitution, through to the promulgation of the 1905 French Law of laïcité. The creation of what Ran Hirschl, professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, categorises as the ‘assertively secular’ Kemalist Republic of Turkey in 1923, and the 42nd Amendment to the Indian Constitution in 1976, which asserted the secular nature of India, were the next steps in the ‘inevitable’ secularising of the world that had been postulated by thinkers from Karl Marx to Émile Durkheim.

The post-World War 2 consensus facilitated a period of secularisation, epitomised by the formation of the United Nations and human rights instruments. However, the anticipated demise of religiosity has failed to materialise. The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has stated that we are living in the post-secular’ age: a period when the emancipatory power of modernity has seemingly collapsed.

The Iranian Revolution in 1979 was the first great symbol of secularism’s precarious position in the modern world. The shunning of secularism for a theocratic Islamic Republic by Ayatollah Khomeini led to the imposition of the death penalty for homosexuality and adultery, and the lowering of the age of consent to 13.

The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia is the next potent reminder of how far the secular consensus has fallen. Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel Prize winning writer, has spoken of the pride that many Turkish citizens feel in residing in a diverse and secular - yet predominantly Muslim – Republic.

Despite this, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have repeatedly sought to renege on the secular tradition. By invoking conservative Islam into the public sphere, Erdogan has moved Turkey away from modern secularism and towards neo-Ottomanism. Erdogan has made it difficult for non-Muslims to obtain citizenship rights, for example, and the state has used education funding for the creation of over 1,500 Islamic Imam Hatip schools since 2002. Perhaps most regressively, Erdogan has sought to move women back into the private sphere, leading to a sharp rise in femicide and diminished female presence in the public space.

A similar trend has arisen in India. Prime Minister Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party have repeatedly promoted a Hindutva (‘Hindu-ness’) agenda contrary to India’s constitutional secularism. This form of Hindu nationalism poses an existential threat to roughly 182 million Indian-Muslims. In December, the Modi-led government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act which allowed immigrants from neighbouring countries a path to citizenship – if they were not Muslim. Moreover, anti-conversion laws have been enforced across India to limit the spread of minority religions, many Hindutva activists have used such laws as a pretext for violence against non-Hindus. Under Modi, India is distancing itself from the diverse Republic that was the dream of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, not more than a century ago.

History has shown that when a state drifts from secularism, secular values are replaced by authoritarian tropes which oppress minorities, restrict women’s rights, and threaten basic civil liberties. In 2008, the Indian political theorist Rajeev Bhargava described secularism as a ‘beleaguered doctrine’; Erdogan’s conversion of the Hagia Sophia highlights what is increasingly apparent: that secularism’s opponents have perhaps finally breached its defences and damaging repercussions are set to come.

Jamie Dunkerley has just completed his Law degree at the University of Bristol and is hoping to undertake a Masters in Public International Law. He particularly enjoys writing about international politics and human rights around the world.

He tweets at @JamieDunkerley

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