Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a sucker for conquest symbolism. As Covid-19 restrictions were being eased this year, he ensured that mosques reopened on 29 May to coincide with the 567th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. The Turkish president has now gone on to sign a decree converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque, just in time for the fourth anniversary of the failed coup against him, which symbolises his own conquest over Turkey’s military and judiciary.
For Erdogan, the conversion of Hagia Sophia – which he has described as a ‘souvenir’ from the Ottoman conquest – has been a lifelong aspiration. As a member of the Islamist Welfare Party (RP) in the 80s and 90s, and as mayor of Istanbul, his religionist ambitions have long included Hagia Sophia’s transformation.
But it wasn’t until March 2019, following the anti-Muslim terror attack in Christchurch, and his own party’s poor showing in the polls ahead of local elections, that Erdogan made the conversion of Hagia Sophia a political rallying cry.
As well as envisioning himself as the leader of the Muslim world – a modern day, pan-Islamist, Ottoman Sultan – Erdogan has also been waging a war on ‘Islamophobia’. Over the past couple of years, he has been joined in this particular battle by the prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan. The pair even launched an ‘anti-Islamophobia’ channel last year.
But while both Erdogan and Khan are quick to lecture the West on the plight of Muslim minorities, the voices of non-Muslim communities are often drowned out in both Turkey and Pakistan.
While Erdogan was finalising the verdict on Hagia Sophia, Khan was busy succumbing to Islamist pressure, as the construction of Pakistan’s fist Hindu temple in Islamabad was halted in the courts. Those leading the Islamist uproar against the temple have included government affiliated clerics and those in Khan’s ruling coalition. An influential member of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), who are Khan’s political allies, cited Prophet Muhammad’s demolition of idols during the Conquest of Makkah to suggest that the Hindu temple’s construction would be blasphemy against the ‘Medina state’ – where Sharia laws are upheld.
Khan, whose rhetoric often focuses on the creation of a ‘Medina welfare state’ in Pakistan, has now asked the Council of Islamic Ideology to decide whether or not Islam tolerates the construction of non-Muslim places of worship. Meanwhile, over 95 per cent of pre-Partition Hindu temples reportedly no longer exist in Pakistan. Khan’s actions are reminiscent of Erdogan’s own anti-Christian power grab. For years, Turkish authorities have continued to seize churches and convert them into mosques.
The two states have plenty in common. Erdogan’s Turkey continues to deny its anti-Christian Armenian genocide, while Khan leads a Pakistan that has never acknowledged its genocide against Bengalis. Just as Pakistan historically viewed its Hindu population – especially in former East Pakistan – as Indian sympathisers, much of Turkey’s hostility to Christians is rooted in its antagonism with neighbouring Greece and Cyprus.
Khan, who has repeatedly vowed to create an Islamic state, uses ‘Hindu nationalism’ as a slur to condemn the Indian ruling party, and questions India’s secularism, while leading a country where the S-word is taboo. Erdogan, meanwhile, has repeatedly accused Israel of destroying Jerusalem’s Islamic heritage while working to erase his own country’s Christian past.
As they call out ‘Islamophobia’, their unflinching quest to ‘set the record straight’ on Islam also unites Erdogan and Khan. And Turkey and Pakistan’s religious minorities are losing out as a result.