KT edit: Interfaith harmony is vital in these troubled times

Hagia Sophia will remain a global icon, a testament to the human spirit of peace and harmony

Published: Mon 13 Jul 2020, 11:14 AM

Last updated: Mon 13 Jul 2020, 1:18 PM

Interfaith harmony is more important for global peace now than ever before. The pandemic is testing our faith and putting a strain on human values. Now is the time to unite, not divide on the basis of religion and ideology. While the UAE has become a beacon for justice and tolerance, some governments are stoking divisions that arouse suspicions between people and communities. While the world is waging war against the coronavirus, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to polarise and divide with his narrow depiction of history, a distorted view that has sown fresh tensions between the West and the East. Why now, why destroy human bonds by changing the status of a monument, one may wonder. For centuries, Hagia Sophia has been a symbol of religious tolerance in Turkey. Its preservation as a museum burnished Turkey's secular credentials and allowed people from all faiths access to a place that breathes history. Erdogan's decision to turn it into a mosque following a court ruling disregards the cultural importance of the monument. For many observers, the move did not come as a surprise as the president seeks to stamp his mark on modern history with his grandiose plans of reviving Ottoman expansionism. Hagia Sophia, for centuries, has been close to the hearts of Muslims and Christians alike. This was their shared history, which needed to be cultivated and preserved for future generations. A secular culture was the result and Turkey was lauded for its practice. Turkey's brand of secularism made it secure and respected with the country straddling the West and the East with ease as it made a mark on the world stage. Will those decades of harmony come crashing down with this decision? History will judge Erdogan.
Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 as the main cathedral under the Byzantine empire until the Ottoman rulers conquered Istanbul in the 15th century and converted it into a mosque. Modern Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk reconverted it into a museum in 1934 as the country experimented with secular principles, hoping to anchor itself in the western world. But, with the Erdogan coming to power, the country has seen a nationalistic revival. Secularism has been questioned as the country seeks to find it feet in Ottoman history, a retracing of steps into the past that has put it in the crosshairs of history. So, Erdogan is now imposing his ideological agenda in the country and flexing its muscles regionally with its military adventurism in Syria and Libya to shore up his waning popularity and consolidate votes for his party. But, Erdogan would do well to pause, reflect, and realise that revisionism will only lead to strife and confrontation when there is urgent need for global cooperation. Noura bint Mohamed Al Kaabi, UAE Minister of Culture and Youth, and Chairperson of the National Committee for Education, Culture and Science, said that cultural heritage is a human legacy that must be preserved. Hagia Sophia is a World Heritage under the Unesco. Such sites are the "common heritage of all peoples and cultures," the UAE minister said. The past should guide us, not destroy what people and nations have built over centuries. Hagia Sophia will remain a global icon, a testament to the human spirit of peace and harmony. No political decision can change its status for eternity.

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