Hagia Sophia, Freedom Of Religion And Fallacies Inherent In ‘One-True-God’ Obsession

R Jagannathan

Jul 22, 2020, 02:34 PM | Updated 02:34 PM IST

The Hagia Sophia mosque.
The Hagia Sophia mosque.
  • By converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Erdogan is creating his own Mecca to burnish his claims to leadership of the Muslim world.
  • In one line, both church and mosque are as much about projecting power as religiosity.
  • In July 2020, Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced that the historic Hagia Sophia, the erstwhile power hub of the Byzantine empire and the Greek Orthodox Church, would be converted as a mosque and Friday prayers offered from the 24th of the month.

    Built first in the fourth century by Emperor Constantius, the church, which then had a wooden roof, was burnt down in the first decade of the fifth century in politically-induced rioting. It was burnt down again a century later during the reign of Justinian I, who ruled from CE 527-565. The old church was demolished and rebuilt with renowned architects by Justinian, and it is this church that stands tall even today (read the Hagia’s chequered history here).

    When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 and renamed it as Istanbul, the church was converted to a mosque, even though the previous structure and mosaics remained. The new rulers, with Islam as their faith, renovated the church to look like a mosque, with original Christian themes being replaced with Islamic calligraphy.

    In the secular Turkey established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after the First World War, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum in the 1930s. Now, with a Turkish High Court annulling the Ataturk decision, Hagia Sophia is back to being a mosque, with its former Christian mosaics being relegated to remain behind curtains or staying unlit during Friday prayers.

    The Pope has said he was “very distressed” with Erdogan’s decision, and the World Council of Churches has written to the latter expressing their “grief and dismay”. Erdogan, who is trying to paint himself as the new leader of the Islamic world, has rubbished such protests, indirectly calling it Islamophobia. Al Jazeera quotes him as saying, “Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries ... attack Turkey's will to use its sovereign rights.”

    The two points to note are these: the two main Abrahamic religions have a binary approach to religion. If one exists, the other must not. When Christianity rose to prominence, pagan places of worship were systematically demolished. It is worth noting that even in India, the Portuguese Christian Inquisition in Goa led to similar demolitions of temples and reprisals against Hindus who refused to convert. (Read Anant Kakba Priolkar’s well-documented work, The Goa Inquisition: The Terrible Tribunal for The East).

    For Islam’s depredations in India, you can do no better than to read Sita Ram Goel’s monumental documentation of temple destruction in two volumes, Hindu Temples: What Happened To Them. More recently, mediaeval historian Meenakshi Jain has added to this literature of Abrahamic iconoclasm and destruction in Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples: Episodes from Indian History.

    In the Abrahamic tradition, it is either zero or one.

    Secondly, the church and the mosque are symbols of political power and not just monuments to religiosity. This is why wherever these religions seek to expand, size and scale are all-important.

    In many Indian cities, you will see the Christian Cross tower over the skyline even in places with few true church-goers. The idea is to herald the power of Christian belief.

    Erdogan’s need to make the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is linked to his ambition to lead the Islamic world. The Saudis have Mecca and Medina. Shia Iran, while continuing to see these two holy sites as central to their own version of Islam, has built the largest mosque in the world at Mashhad, which is Iran’s main pilgrimage city. It houses the tomb and shrine of the eighth Shia Imam, Imam Reza.

    By converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Erdogan is creating his own Mecca to burnish his claims to leadership of the Muslim world, as was the case under the Ottoman Turks. He will be expecting Muslims from all over to head to Istanbul, giving it the same power as Mecca, Medina and Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.

    In one line, both church and mosque are as much about projecting power as religiosity. When you project power, you get to set the terms of debate, discussion and even the meanings of commonsense terms like “freedom”.

    In a global conversation defined more by existing power equations, cultural hegemony and hypocrisy, it is easy to rubbish the civilisational-state of Hindu Rashtra as inimical to the idea of freedom of religion, free speech, and fair treatment to all citizens. How much of free speech is hate speech when the limits of neither have been defined by common consensus?

    In the US, microblogging site Twitter hid a tweet of US President Donald Trump saying it glorified violence. It flagged another tweet for violating its policies. By that standard, holy books calling for killing infidels too should be hidden from public view. Today hate speech is not defined by normative definitions, but by the power elites, aka 'liberals'.

    When it comes to freedom of religion, the question is whose freedom are we trying to protect? Are we talking about the rights of the individual to pursue any, all, or parts of some religion that he likes, or the rights of multi-billion dollar evangelical corporations and conversion merchants who seek to sell religion like soap, by fair means or foul?

    Everyone acknowledges that no freedom is absolute, and there can be reasonable restraints imposed by the state. If Article 19 in the Indian Constitution prescribes limits to free speech and expression, similar restraints on freedom of religion can hardly be considered as inimical to the idea of religious freedom.

    The free speech argument was tested in the US, and upheld by a narrow majority in the Supreme Court. It generated much anger among Democrats because it equalised the rights of unequals. The judgement revolved around a literal interpretation of the first amendment to the US Constitution which guarantees almost total freedom of speech and religion. The first amendment reads:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

    The US Supreme Court, through a 5:4 majority judgement delivered in 2010, essentially held that corporations had the same political rights to free speech as individuals. In a case involving Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission, the court held that restrictions on corporations and unions from spending money to back or oppose political candidates violated the US first amendment’s right to free speech.

    Citizens United, a conservative NGO, had sought to air an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary just before the primaries in 2008 – a political act barred by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act which prohibits such campaign expenditures for a specific time before a primary of general election.

    The majority judgement was written by Judge Anthony Kennedy, and the minority one by associate judge John Paul Stevens, who pointed out that the court’s ruling essentially rejected the “common sense of the American public, who have recognised a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government.”

    The majority judgement overturned the bipartisan law which prohibited corporations and unions from using their general funds for electioneering purposes, especially to elect or defeat candidates.

    Barack Obama, who was president at the time of the Supreme Court judgement, blasted the judgement. He told Congress in his State of the Union address, that the court had “reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections, I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems."

    Clearly, the majority judgement is not the last word in the battle over free speech, but the logic of the much better argued minority judgement should apply to freedom of religion too: is it about the individual’s right to follow a religion or religious practices of his choice, or the right of well-funded conversion outfits to induce people to shift religious loyalties?

    America is clearly split on the issue, but evangelical organisations clearly believe that freedom of religion includes the right to deploy any and every method to convert people to worship “the one true god” as opposed to the “false gods” of other religions.

    This, at least, is what underlies the creation of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which periodically rants against India and other non-Christian countries for curtailing religious freedoms, especially by (ineffectually) enforcing anti-conversion laws.

    That the US first amendment specifically bars the state from interfering in matters of religion did not stop Congress from adopting a bipartisan law to establish USCIRF to police “freedom of religion” in areas outside the US.

    In fact, the commission is barred from investigating the issue within the US, possibly in order to technically stay on the right side of the first amendment.

    The USCIRF website makes this clear, and says that “USCIRF monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad — not in the United States — using international standards to do so, and makes policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and Congressional leaders of both political parties. While USCIRF is separate from the State Department, the Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom is a non-voting ex officio Commissioner.”

    In short, Uncle Sam, despite separating state from religion, actually appoints members to the USCIRF, and one nominee of the state department is even a member — non-voting one though it may be. Reading between the lines, one cannot but point out the hypocrisy of the state not intervening in religion, and then mandating one of its own creations to do so in other countries.

    Jakob De Roover, faculty member at Ghent University on Comparative Science of Cultures, emphasises that USCIRF is about enforcing a Protestant view of “freedom of religion” on the world rather than real freedom of religion in its common sense meanings.

    In an article in Firstpost.com, he wrote:

    “The USCIRF’s annual reports reflect (the) deep-seated religious concerns of Protestant Christianity. Take its vehement rejection of anti-conversion legislation in India as a violation of religious freedom. This derives from the Christian belief that every individual should be free to turn towards the true God at all times and that this can be done only by converting from false to true religion. For the US commission, this freedom to follow one’s own conscience always overrides other concerns – say, for instance, the worry often voiced in India that Christian missionary activity constitutes aggression upon the traditions, sensitivities, and harmony of a community.

    “Why? Well, protecting individual religious freedom has to do with safeguarding the right of every person to follow the will of the true God, which supersedes any issue that is merely human, such as the peace or stability of some social group. Hence, the fact that missionary work involves abusing the Hindu traditions as ‘false religion’ or their devas and devis as ‘false gods’ is considered much less problematic than putting restrictions on conversion. The fact that converts often insult the traditions to which they previously belonged is irrelevant when compared to the individual’s freedom of religion. The fact that family and community life are severely disrupted because of proselytisation is a trivial detail in the face of the eternal human choice between true and false religion, between God and the devil.”

    Contrast this with the wording of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which includes the right to freedom of religion and conscience. The key article 18 on religious freedom runs thus: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

    The only marginally problematic word from a non-proselytising Hindu perspective is “teaching”, which in the Indian Constitution appears as the right to propagate a religion. Article 25 guarantees citizens the right to “Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion,” but does not define the word propagation. Some court judgments, however, has sought to do just that, but the discourse around conversion has not changed.

    In Rev Stainislaus vs State Of Madhya Pradesh & Ors (January 1977) the Supreme Court held that the word “propagate” in Article 25 means the right to teach the tenets of one’s religion, but not the right to convert.

    “What the article grants is not the right to convert another person to one's own religion, but to transmit or spread one's religion by an exposition of its tenets. It has to be remembered that Article 25 (1) guarantees ‘freedom of conscience’ to every citizen, and not merely to the followers of one particular religion, and that, in turn, postulates that there is no fundamental right to convert another person to one's own religion because if a person purposely undertakes the conversion of another person to his religion, as distinguished from his effort to transmit or spread the tenets of his religion, that would impinge on the ‘freedom of conscience’ guaranteed to all the citizens of the country alike.”

    Few people would have any problems with allowing anyone to practise his religion or talk about its tenets unless these violate an individual’s personal human rights (like the practice of female genital mutilation, triple talaq in one sitting, or practising untouchability in the name of upholding Hindu dharma).

    The issue really is about propagation and its limits. If one were to take the minority view in the Citizens United judgement in the US, which is about freedom of speech, rights are about real individuals, not artificial persons like corporations or unions, or, for that matter, churches or mosques. The rights of the latter must always remain limited in democracies. Else money power will trump the human spirit.

    On the other hand, there is the even more important issue of retaining the world’s diversities.

    Freedom to convert people from pagan and other religions to the world’s main monotheisms cannot by any stretch of imagination be called an attempt to maintain diversity.

    Christian universalism and the determination to convert all people to believe in the one true god destroyed Hellenism in the ancient world, and African cultures in the modern world. (Read more about how colonial Christianity damaged Africans the most here).

    The more evangelical the brand of Christianity, the more damaging it is to diversity and culture (read about it here). Today, even the World Council of Churches sees some merit in the argument that colonial Christian missionaries did enormous damage in Africa.

    But despite some attempt at introspection, the fundamental problem with ‘one-true-god’ religions is that they are inherently against diversity in matters of faith. They may be okay with integrating and 'digesting' or appropriating some of the good aspects of rival religions and cultures, but the bottomline is “my god is the only true god”.

    It is interesting that the Rg Veda, the oldest scared text of the Sindhu-Saraswati civilisation, talks of many tribal and other conflicts over territory and resources, but the redeeming feature is that the gods of the defeated tribes were seldom dishonoured. In fact, the very last verse of the Rg Veda, hymn 191 in the 10th mandala, has this to say seeking unity (verse translated from Ralph TH Griffith).

    THOU, mighty Agni, gatherest up all that is precious for thy friend.
    Bring us all treasures as thou art enkindled in libation's place
    Assemble, speak together: let your minds be all of one accord,
    As ancient Gods unanimous sit down to their appointed share.
    The place is common, common the assembly, common the mind, so be their thought united.
    A common purpose do I lay before you, and worship with your general oblation.
    One and the same be your resolve, and be your minds of one accord.
    United be the thoughts of all that all may happily agree.

    The emphasis here is the search for unity in diversity, and fundamental to this is the underlying idea that all gods are valid sources of spiritual and religious respect.

    So, if one were to expand on the core credo of Hindu Rashtra, it would be this simple one, that all gods are created equal, and there can be no discrimination against one or the other.

    A corollary would be that religions that have a binary approach to god (my god or the highway), will be allowed to practise and preach, but not propagate their doctrines with the idea of conversion.

    Philosopher Karl Popper’s paradox asks a basic question: can a tolerant society be tolerant of the intolerant?

    His answer is not that a tolerant society must silence the intolerant, but that it must have the power to do so. If not, the intolerant will destroy the tolerant.

    The only limit on the proselytising religions in a Hindu Rashtra would be their ability to preach intolerance and supremacist ideas about the only true god, and demonisation of the rest, including agnostics and atheists.

    This was what the Calcutta Quran petition of the mid-1980s sought to invoke by pointing out that several passages in the holy book demanded violence against non-believers. But as Muslim organisations went on the warpath, both the courts and the central and state governments quickly junked the petition and erased its existence by never talking about it. (You can read the details of the petition and the furore it created in the late Sita Ram Goel’s tract here).

    The petition is important not for what it demanded – the withdrawal of the offending paragraphs in the Quran – but for what it confirmed about the Popper Paradox: the intolerant often tend to win such arguments.

    It is worth re-emphasising that in India, various religious and ethical ideas have been established, contested and reformed all through history. No religion originating in India sought to deny the possibility of embracing other ideas, or even deny the very need for religion.

    Conversions were about imbibing ideas, not changing identities. Mahatma Gandhi is one such example. He was greatly inspired by Jesus Christ’s Sermon on The Mount, and made it his life’s guiding principle even while always maintaining that he was a Sanatani Hindu.

    That’s conversion through the power of an idea which does not result in a damaging schizophrenia about one’s personal identity. Gandhi did not have to become George in order to draw inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount.

    So, if one were to ask how a future Hindu Rashtra would define freedom of religion, and what kind of restraints it may place on conversions, the answer would run something like this: religious freedom would be an individual right and not available to corporate bodies, even if they are non-profits. There could also be limitations or bans on inflows of foreign funds to such organisations.

    It is worth noting that, in addition to the freedoms enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, there is a separate UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the general assembly on 13 September 2007.

    The first paragraphs of the declaration are worth quoting. They affirm that “indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples” and recognise “the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such.”

    It also affirms that “all peoples contribute to the diversity and richness of civilisations and cultures, which constitute the common heritage of humankind”, and “that all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating (the) superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.” (Italics mine)

    It further reaffirms that “indigenous peoples, in the exercise of their rights, should be free from discrimination of any kind” since they have “suffered from historic injustices as a result of, inter alia, their colonisation and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, thus preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests.” (Italics mine)

    The Abrahamic religions claim explicit superiority of their faith over the rest, and Indic faiths have been repressed periodically during Islamic and colonial rule. Even today, state control of temples prevents Hindus from exercising “their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests”.

    One could ask whether the various sects and sampradayas of Hinduism constitute “indigenous peoples” and whether their rights have the same importance as those tribal and pagan faiths that are smaller and localised in size. But the declaration makes no reference to the size of any indigenous culture or its own internal diversity.

    This implies that all tribal, natural and animist faiths that developed in the Indian sub-continent, including those now calling themselves Hindu, have the right to be called indigenous.

    Hindu Rashtra should be about protecting the world’s diversity and the rights of India’s indigenous religions and people from Abrahamic standardisation and homogenisation through conversions.

    (This is the fourth article in the series on Hindu Rashtra. The three earlier parts of this series on Hindu Rashtra can be found here, here, and here.)

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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