Istanbul’s iconic place of worship, Hagia Sophia, has created political resonance in Kerala too. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML)’s open declaration of support to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to convert the museum into a mosque has been a point of discussion in the southern state.
There have been mixed responses from among Muslim thinkers and organisations as well. However, the IUML’s praise for Erdogan on this issue is being viewed as uncharacteristic of the party that had refused to make a statement when the Babri Masjid was demolished. The Left, as well as Muslim liberals, are critical of the League for the position taken by the party in favour of converting the museum into a mosque.
Built in sixth century, Hagia Sophia was the largest Christian church of the Eastern Roman Empire for about 900 years, till the emergence of the Ottoman Empire in 15th century. Then it was turned into a mosque, which existed as one for another 500 years, till 1934, when the then secular government converted the iconic monument into a museum.
The recent decision by Erdogan, who runs the Islamist government of Turkey, to convert the structure into a mosque is being viewed by the liberal world as a departure from the principles of secularism.
Panakkad Sayyid Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal, the state committee member and Malappuram district president of IUML, in an article in the party’s mouthpiece Chandrika Daily, favoured Erdogan’s decision, citing a set of reasons that the freedom to practice Islam is restricted in many European countries, which went against Erdogan for his controversial move.
“Their school of secularism is hollow. They are the same people who converted around 350 mosques in Europe into Churches and Theaters,” he argued in his article. He said Erdogan’s government provides freedom of worshipping to all religions, and not only to Islam.
Meanwhile, the CPI(M) has taken a stand against the IUML, alleging that this is a clear case of departure from the party’s secular identity. CPI(M) secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, in a Facebook post, slammed Thangal for his article, and alleged that this is a sign of an unholy nexus between the Jamaat-e-Islami and Muslim League, aiming to form a larger coalition against the Left.
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Citing the Ayodhya issue, he accused the IUML of having a double standard. “If they are against the BJP for demolishing Babri Masjid and constructing Ram temple, how can they support Erdogan for a similar kind of action – converting a monument into mosque which was originally a Catholic church?” he questioned.
Interestingly, the Jamaat-e-Islami itself does not approve of Erdogan’s move. An editorial written by Ejaz Ahmad Islam, a member of the Shura Council of Jamaat-e-Islami, in their mouthpiece Radiance Views Weekly, argues that Islam does not approve converting places of worship of one religion to that of Islam. A section of Mujahid leaders in Kerala also do not approve the conversion of the historical monument into a mosque.
“IUML’s views on the conversion of the Hagia Sophia is a complete reversal of its position on such matters in India,” says Dr P.K. Yasser Arafath, historian and assistant professor at the University of Delhi.
“Apparently, Thangal’s conclusions are drawn from an expanding hyper identitarian consciousness in south Asian Islam, which is becoming increasingly exclusionary due to the various political developments in the region. Founding his arguments on selective pain and ‘invented facts’, Thangal seems to be closing the gaps with Islamist organisations in Kerala, making a significant dent in the secular preserve of IUML,” he adds.