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HomeOpinionErdogan's Turkey is on Pakistan-Indonesia track. Mixing military greed and radical Islam

Erdogan’s Turkey is on Pakistan-Indonesia track. Mixing military greed and radical Islam

By changing Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Recep Erdogan is overturning the brute modernity imposed under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's rule.

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A friend recently complained why I had not very vocally shed tears for Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to convert the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque. I had cried my tears years ago on observing the inevitable – the slow rise of Islamism in Turkey as a reaction to military authoritarianism of decades.

I had observed in 2007, while writing the first draft of my book Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, that the three Muslim countries with rampant military authoritarianism — Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia – were also nations where religious zealotry had gradually increased. The three militaries had built big financial empires, which was not about the armed forces making profit but about gaining autonomy that encouraged greater authoritarianism and led to strange reactions from the society. Religious radicalism was certainly one of the visible impacts.

Also read: How Erdogan’s Hagia Sophia mosque move erases Ataturk’s stamp on Turkey

Ataturk laid the foundation

At the end of the day, the conversion, destruction, or rebuilding of places of worship all around the world are mostly driven by petty political interests of leaders who gain from religious radicalism. What they do with buildings that are places of worship is just an indicator of what they have already done to the societies.

To understand what Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done with Hagia Sophia today, we have to have the courage to admit what Mustafa Kemal Ataturk imposed on Turkish society nearly a century ago, which most secular-minded people don’t complain about.

The rise of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, the AKP, which is the nub of the issue complicated by its increasing need to demonstrate its Islamism, is attributable to Turkey’s experience with years of civil-military authoritarianism that goes back to Ataturk himself. Notwithstanding people’s fascination with the founder of ‘secular Turkey’, there is no denying that a new cultural construct was forced on the country’s citizens in as crude a fashion as Erdogan’s effort is to turn it around. Both the founder of modern Turkey and the one bringing religious nationalism crucified people’s cultural identity in their own ways. 

Ataturk certainly saved Turkey, or whatever remained of the Ottoman empire, from being further sliced and created a new state. It was then important for him to abolish the Caliphate, which he did after getting rid of the Sultanate. Reading H.C. Armstrong’s biography of Ataturk, published in 1932, one realises that Ataturk was initially cautious against scrapping the Caliphate because of people’s attachment with it. Later, its abolishment was justified on the ground that it posed danger to Turkish State and its nationhood. The people went along. It was later that Ataturk secularised the State and enforced Kemalism on people who were not prepared for it.

Ataturk had promised to “tear religion from Turkey as one might tear the throttling ivy away to save a young tree”. In the process, though, he enforced a new culture that made people abandon what had been theirs for centuries. From enforcing the wearing of the fez with the Western hat, which men had to scramble to find only to end up wearing women’s hats, to changing the script – he brought a shift in the cultural values by conquering the system but without being able to ‘conquer the people’, which was his one gripe. 

A Pakistani friend, who had visited Turkey during the 1980s, told me about the longing in the eyes of ordinary Turks for their traditional script. As he was reading a book in Urdu, many Turks around him requested him to write their names for them in a script that was snatched from them. This was brute modernity imposed by an authoritarian military, which had been entrusted with the task of protecting Ataturk’s cultural revolution.

Also read: If the Supreme Court of India was deciding on Hagia Sophia, this is what it would have said

Power grab by the military

After Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’ death, the Turkish Armed Forces became the guardian of both the Turkish Republic and the leader’s principles, which convoluted the entire secularisation process. Like all powerful military bureaucracies, over the years, the attention drifted away from the principles towards securing institutional power. The principles, in fact, became the justification for greater military influence.

The first coup of 1960 resulted in the execution of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. The military inserted itself further into the civilian structure by establishing the National Security Council in 1961. Interestingly, since the failed 1980 coup to assassinate then-President Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s armed forces have struggled to establish a similar council to further integrate themselves into formal State power. The Indonesian military, on the other hand, formalised its role of protecting the State with endorsements in the constitution of 1945, the Pancasila (the state ideology), and Sapta Marga, the code of honour of the armed forces.

Turkey witnessed another coup in 1971, but the military intervention in 1980 by General Kenan Evren had a greater influence in turning the society towards its current form. There was massive State violence and use of force against student unions and Left groups in the country. Interestingly, Pakistan’s Zia ul-Haq had visited Turkey during this period and inquired about the military’s ways to deal with the campus unrest, according to Pakistani journalist-turned-politician Mushahid Hussain. There were lessons to be learnt by both the militaries that used brutality to their heart’s content. They certainly learned from each other. For example, Turkish military followed Pakistani model in setting up its military business foundation. 

But more importantly, a common measure adopted by both Zia ul-Haq and Kenan Evren was infiltrating university campuses with Islamists. Sources with whom I discussed this history talked about how radical religious values were encouraged in Turkey to push back any resistance from the Left, similar to how the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has already entered into many educational institutions in Pakistan, have been further encouraged.

Also read: Turkey’s shift towards authoritarianism, economic slowdown under President Erdogan

Mix of military greed with religious radicalism

While Pakistan military’s goal was never to protect secularism or Islamism, it had a major role in creating and then protecting religious nationalism, which I call Pak-Islamism. Similarly, the Turkish military, during the 1980s, was no longer the guardian of secularism but its own power. Furthermore, the partnership with the US to fight the Communist Soviet Union made it more important to encourage religious politics in both countries. The 1980s is a critical decade in pushing religious radicalism at a faster pace in both Pakistan and Turkey, driven by their militaries’ ambitions rather than society’s instincts.

The intertwining of religious radicalism with the military’s greed for power made religion the natural space for political dialogue. Erdogan’s AKP grew out of that very space, which it is trying to claim further by its questionable move to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque. In Turkey, the military and Ataturk produced an authoritarianism that eventually devoured it. Erdogan is simply a new replacement. In Pakistan, where the military is both the beneficiary and producer of a different historical experience, it’s an overall radicalism that grew instead of one particular religious party getting strengthened.

A sadder conclusion is that while public attention is focused on the fate of one monument, much more has been lost in Turkey. The decision on Hagia Sophia will not change perhaps for decades. One can complain but also lament about the tears that were never shed while Turkey was pushed in this direction by State authoritarianism.

Ayesha Siddiqa is research associate at SOAS, London and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.

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  1. Based on what do you say Indonesia is like Turkey and Pakistan which are controlled by Muslim extremists and the military. ? If Indonesia has Muslim extremists like you, is it possible that currently there are 5 religions there? and all respect each other. this person is writing an opinion without any research and data. this is foolishness and foolishness.

  2. Its all about one’s own perception. Writing article without being biased is almost impossible. I feel sorry for the tears you shedded few years back. May almighty help you in seeking truths and facts rather than pushing your own thoughts on readers.

  3. It was a church for a few hundreds of years before it was converted into a mosque by the invading Ottomans.

  4. ha magar waha logo ko mara nahi gaya jaise India me musalmano ka hatya ki gai jo yaha bjp ne karwaya court ko aur kanoon ko kharid kar dara dhamkaya aur faisla apne haq me kiya waha aisa nahi hua turkey me logo ki killing nahi tari faisla liya gaya hai jourlist ho puri tarah khoj karo faltu tital de ke trp mat badhao GODI MEDiA ki tarah

  5. This is how you weaponize opinion and present as facts that are fickle as a bunch of old leaves. This so called expert is definitely playing in the hands of enemies of Islam willfully and that is so so sad to see and the the extent of capitulation of muslim minds in favor of people who want to do us immense harm. You are a traitor, plan and simple.

    • Lol..islamist getting agitated when their khalifa is being called out. Hypocricy reeka out of muslims when it comes to their ummah leader

  6. I feel pity for our oppressed muslim brothers\sisters around the globe after reading the name who wrote this untrue and biased article.
    Clearly you have disregarded the great religion which reflects in your name indeed, and adopted a suedo culture and utter bullshit called ‘humanity’.
    Being a muslims requires much more than being just a human!
    Dont you sell your blasphemy by targeting brave ones who are trying to put an end to this western tricks.
    May allah give us powerful and wise writer and journalist.
    SadakAllah hul azeem.

  7. it was a mosque for 600 years before the jewish ataturk turned it into a museum, Alhamdulillah it is a mosque again najis kafirs can die in their rage.

  8. Yes there was such vaccume to be filled with this kind of tantalizing news who wants facts when anyone can weave stories of such talent?

  9. Very good decision by Mr Erdogan. COWARDS people have only problem when you build mosque but when you destroyed like Babri mosque in they become quite.

  10. I can only say this was the worse essay i read and really have a look around the world and plz do some homework on history before you talk abt sultan of usman ny way no thx just read abt our history and i m sure u like it

  11. Erdoğan is reviving peace method, by helping the oppressed and opposing the tyrant and he is thankfully seemingly successful

  12. Hagia sophia was purchased by Al-fateh for ur kind information doucments are available ….so that was nothing wrong in changing from museum to mosque…..
    Don’t show erdogan as unjust ruler unlike other rulers he is best example of umar(r.a)
    And other rulers should follow him and appreciate his wisdom…..

  13. Ms Siddiqua conveniently forgets Egyptian Military , Myanmar Military and Iranian IRGC. At one time Korean Military could also be in there. But the author has an axe to grind and these examples would counter her narrative.

  14. What petty marketing strategy of framing a religion
    To attract viewers,what is “radical islam”, why framing those two words together!. Only to attract Islamophobes to quench their longing for damaging material on religion, and you are providing. Btw I have read your article its fine, but then who the fuck reads whole thing when headline states twisting plot for the body.
    Pls don’t do these kind of things!

  15. Another Hypocrite Journalist. Shame on you girl.. shame on that father and mother who gave birth to you. Definately your destination is hell if you don’t see the truth. I am 100 % sure that you didn’t speak about Ayodhya issue . Hell is hungry for Hypocrites like you. Repent unless it’s too late and you’re not worthy of dignity and honour of your tribe. Name doesn’t show anything,

  16. Look who is talking! Instead of shedding your tears about Hagia Sophia, you should lament on the destruction of Babri Mosque and building of Ram Temple in its place and the religious bigotry prevalent in your country.

  17. According to the writter, to show the modernity start to move without clothes.
    To make the west happy oppose your own national interest.

  18. It is ironical that this essay is featured so prominently on a webzine which is clearly a crypto-rightwing rag. The irony comes from the context of this essay, the reversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque, a simple conversion mind you, not utter destruction or anything like that… and, the hindu rightwing enabled destruction of the Babri Masjid. Can both of them be compared?

    From her writings, this woman appears to be the Pakistani equivalent of Taslima Nasrin. They even look vaguely like sisters.

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