Ethics of Selective Outrage – On Converting Mosques and Museums: Aejaz Ahmad and Irshad Rashid


What does turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque mean for global political practice? 

In an unusally brazen move Turkey’s top court recently ruled in favour of transforming Hagia Sophia, a museum of global tourist attraction, into a mosque. Originally a cathedral built in pre-Islamic Turkey but converted into a mosque when Ottomans invaded Constantinople in 1453, with the liquidation of the Ottoman Empire, Attaturk transformed it into a museum in 1934 as a secular gesture to herald what is called modern secular Turkey. This was more recently followed by  transforming another historic Chora Church, that went exactly through the same iteration, into yet another mosque.

Now, the decision to transform them into mosques is received differently in different quarters. It appeals to Muslim sentiments attuned to their faith, but largely angers Christians across the world. Secular sections are also offended – Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk called it a “blow to Turkey’s secular pride”. In the backdrop of contesting claims, we would like to step aside and look at this issue from the standpoint of political ethics. In other words, what could be the political ethical implications of religious symbolic transformations such as Hagia Sophia in multicultural times? In early 2017, Basharat Peer’s book  A Question of Order: India, Turkey and the Return of Strongmen drew a comparison of sorts between the emerging populist leaders in India and Turkey and insightfully noted the decimating of liberal traditions in favour of parochial and religious orthodoxy. Back then, we had strong reservations on Peer’s views on Turkey. However, Peer’s apprehensions seem vindicated today.

First, let’s talk a bit about the biography of nation-states to understand their romance with cultural and religious differences. Much of today’s world consists of essentially multicultural states and how they emerged in their present form is itself a painful journey. Two aspects are important here. Earliest states that came to be labelled ‘nation-states’ have had to go through what Asish Nandy calls a “totalizing and homogenising process” which often meant the extermination of “misfit cultures”. Such political ‘revolutions’ produced what we today call modern states. Latter forms of (postcolonial) states emerged in the backdrop of decolonization. They invoked constitutional schemes and political arrangements aimed at recognizing the heterogeneity of cultures and religiosities. Yogendra Yadav et al call such types as state-nations. Globalization and global migration added more complexity to the spectrum of modern states, and political philosophers attended to such processes through politics of difference and recognition. As such, many states sought to recognize their multicultural character. This meant greater cultural and religious freedoms. Some examples include Canada’s recognition of Quebec and India’s decision to form a secular state on the eve of independence. Unilateral attempts by particular states, in the name of exercising their sovereign rights, as Erdogan is doing, will likely trigger a domino effect in other states and each such transformation adds tacit legitimacy to similar attempts elsewhere. It is difficult to imagine a reversal of ‘liberal constitutional democracy’ that sustains multicultural policies in many parts of the world including Turkey and India.

From today’s vantage point, what does it mean to transform a particular religious symbol or structure (hitherto appealing to one category of people) into another? To understand such transformations and their possible implications, let us draw an analytical comparison between two sets of  cases of  transformations – one replacing Babri Masjid with the Ram temple in India, and second – converting Hagia Sophia and the Kariya Museum (being a church orginally) into Mosques in Turkey. Undoubtedly, India’s case has been extreme and involved overt violence, which we did not see in Turkey. But it is not difficult to discern a similar modus operandi in both cases. In both countries, transformations of Babri Masjid and Hagia Sophia and now the Kariya Museum have been longstanding demands; both populist leaders (Modi & Erdogan) sought to appease the majoritarian emotions to the detriment of their respective minorities; and both leaders pushed the final decisions to the judiciaries to lend legitimacy to their populist acts. In early November last year, when the apex court of India finally ruled in favour of Ram Mandir, various sections of people condemned the verdict. It was seen a political point scored by BJP with the help of judiciary. Muslims in India and elsewhere were deeply pained by this act. In the wake of Turkey’s political gambit, wouldn’t Turkey’s Christian minorities feel the same pain that minorities felt in the case of Babri Masjid in India?

It is an ethical question of whether we must adopt a similar ethical approach to both cases. If it is so, which we believe it is, then we must entertain ‘legitimate emotions’ rather than invoking parochial emotions devoid of ethical content. Selective outrage is ethically unpalatable but ordinarily ‘comforting’ and ‘suitable’. It is for us to choose between an ethical side and a partisan approach. One doesn’t have to be irreligious to oppose a move that could intimidate the minorities. Secularism doesn’t need to be an indifferent attitude towards religious symbolism; it can be a positive lived experience in which we make ethical choices that shun discriminatory acts.

Further, such acts will likely open a Pandora’s box of claims and counterclaims especially in fractured societies or multi-religious societies. It is more so in societies such as India, Pakistan, Turkey and Bangladesh where liberal constitutional values often succumb to religious demands. Each claim and counterclaim is made on parochial historical readings, and academic histories are avoided which, of course, won’t fit easily in any single narrative. Our “post-truth condition” provides more windows to such parochial readings aimed at political objectives often suitable for majoritarian voices. The liberal democratic fabric must not be allowed to slip away in the face of whatsoever historical truths we will discover, because that would entail a regressive political churning to the despotic times we have long left behind with immense human and economic costs.

Such transformations lead to a flare-up of majoritarian sentiments that actually and potentially undermine democratic values. Examples abound in South Asia itself. Sinhala sentiments against Tamils in Srilanka, Hindu extremist sentiments against Muslims in India, Muslim extremist sentiments against Shias, Ahmadis and Hindus in Pakistan, and Buddhist bigots against Muslims in Myanmar, all cases throw up experiences wherein political stability has been undermined by majoritarian sentiments.

Now those Muslims who have sought to justify this transformation with the lame argument that these conversions were quite logical because they had been  mosques earlier (converted into museums under western-backed secular regime) fail to understand the logical extension of their own claim. The only logical corollary, then, would have been to restore them back to their earlier status which is a cathedral and a church; for their earlier transformation into  museums was itself a result of violations of minority rights and of political expediency. When you engage in such undemocratic acts, they inescapably open up the memories of earlier historical wrongs. Instead of aiming to right those wrongs,or at least allowing the victims to recuperate from them, opening the old wounds like this only further otherizes them and excludes them from the democratic process. Furthermore, choosing to settle on such an arbitrary point (of them being mosques earlier) in an attempt to rationalize these decisions only underscores a variant of a monstrously ridiculous irrendentism that such Muslims espouse.

Such highly provocative and arbitrary decisions thus have the potential to scratch the historical wounds of affected minorities perhaps long-forgotten by them. It is important to note  that these despotic acts aren’t wrong  merely because Muslims themselves could face similar threats—as they already have in the case of Babri Masjid in India—but they are intrinsically wrong. The rights of religious minorities in modern liberal states aren’t disposable. They can’t be so outrageously done away with or thought to be readily available for appropriation for narrow political agenda of any authoritarian government as and when it suits them. They are the permanent, indispensable and settled feature of any liberal constitutional regime worthy of the name. To tamper with them in this way tantamount  to resorting to the “medieval  form of unreason” in dealing with minority groups. That kind of unreason was marked by a suffocatingly intolerant attitude towards the rights of religious minorities.

As George Bernard Shaw aptly quips “if history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experiences?” Political leaders seek immediate political goals but long term costs are always borne by common people.

Aejaz Ahmad is an Independent Researcher; Irshad Rashid is a PhD in political Science.

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