Turkiga: Leader of the Muslim World once again

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After failed Sacuudi and other Khaliij policies in the Muslim world, it is only Turkiga who stands strongly now to lead the Daarul Islaam, especially the Sunni Islaam. I hope the new Cismaaniyiinta bring Indonesia and Malaysia into this new Muslim isbaheysi as they did with Bakistaan, Liibiya, Yeman and Soomaaliya.


Turkey may have reclaimed the leadership of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia


The Hagia Sofia Grand Mosque was opened for public worship last Friday for the first time in 86 years following a top court’s ruling that the historic building, originally a church, had been converted into a museum illegally by the founder of modern Turkey’s secular state. I had expected a favourable result before the landmark ruling was officially announced earlier this month and decided to witness the historic event unfold.

The last time I visited the Hagia Sophia was about 10 years ago when it was a museum. This time, approximately 350,000 people joined me, most of them within the vicinity of the mosque, while about 1,000 prayed inside. The congregation included President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was greeted with resounding applause as he was shown entering the mosque on a large outdoor screen. I managed to enter the mosque myself a couple days later, as it was open to visitors, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

While the wearing of facemasks was mandatory due to the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing at the momentous event last Friday was practically non-existent; this was unsurprising given the sheer number of people there, including many foreigners like myself. It is safe to say that for the first time in many a long year, Istanbul’s iconic Blue Mosque was overshadowed by the neighbouring building, upon which all Ottoman era mosques were modelled.

The reversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque, a role it fulfilled for almost five hundred years, is the latest development as Erdogan reasserts Turkey’s status as a regional power. Some believe it is an attempt to establish a neo-Ottoman empire, while turning away from the West and the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who founded the secular Turkish Republic following the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. On 24 July of that year, the Treaty of Lausanne resulted in the Western powers and their allies recognising modern Turkey’s borders. Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque’s re-opening was the 97th anniversary of the treaty’s signing.

Such no doubt deliberate symbolism also permeated last Friday’s sermon. The head of Turkey’s highest religious authority, the Diyanet, Ali Erbas carried an Ottoman sword as he ascended the pulpit instead of the more commonly used wooden staff. Imam Erbas later explained his use of a sword to journalists: “This is a tradition in mosques that are a symbol of conquest. For 481 years without interruption, [imams] went with a sword [to the minbar]. Insha’Allah [God Willing], we will continue this tradition from now on.”

In the build up to the sermon, the Qur’an was recited, as were salutations towards Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), his family and companions, reminiscent of a popular nasheed from the early 2000s by Sami Yusuf. As they echoed melodiously both inside and outside the mosque, it struck me that this would never happen in Saudi Arabia, where a puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam, often referred to as Wahhabism, is the state religion and practices deemed to be “innovations” are shunned.

The Saudis fought against the Ottomans and have been vying for leadership of the Sunni Islamic world ever since the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The Ottoman interpretation of Islam was on the other end of the religious spectrum, with Sufism playing a big role in Ottoman society, despite a conservative religious establishment.

Over these few days in Turkey I got the impression that the 300-year struggle for the leadership of Sunni Islam appears to be edging back in Turkey’s favour, with the Hagia Sophia move being the latest projection of Ankara’s soft power. It was as if last Friday’s sermon announced Turkey as a serious leadership contender, as fractured as Sunni Islam may be. While Riyadh’s devastating five-year war on Yemen has tarnished its image among Muslims, Ankara’s military interventions in Syria and Libya appear to have the support of many in non-Turkish Muslim circles.

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How Istanbul won back its crown as heart of the Muslim world

A ruined yalı, or Bosphorus mansion, is still standing on the shore of the largest island of the Istanbul archipelago. The roof is long gone and the once manicured gardens have colonised its insides, but in better days it was the magnificent homeof Leon Trotsky, who fled to Constantinople after his exile from the Soviet Union in 1929.

Trotsky arrived during the turbulent birth of modern Turkey. While the new republic sought to rid itself of Armenians, Greeks and other “undesirable” populations, at the same time Istanbul was opening its arms to White Russians, disillusioned Bolsheviks and African American jazz musicians. Later in the 20th century, intellectuals and dissidents from Germany and the Balkans would add to the diversity of a city that has always stood at the world’s crossroads.

A similar dynamic is playing out in Turkey today. On the one hand, domestic opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is met with disproportionate force, and journalists, human rights activists and Kurdish politicians languish in prison on terrorism charges. Yet on the other, Istanbul has become a beacon of safety for persecuted people across the Muslim world. Here, Uighur refugees practise their faith freely; young Saudis and Iranians dance the night away; and Arab activists displaced by the Arab Spring still raise their voices against the regimes they fled at home.

“Turkey is increasingly looking eastward, away from its Nato partners, to its old sphere of influence during the Ottoman Empire,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “Its cultural influence can be seen all over the Middle East today: there are new Arabic translations of Turkish poets, and novels about the city coming out in Arabic. Over the last two decades we’ve seen a strong cultural bridge form.”

While the Arab world used to centre around the cultural output of Cairo in the 1950s and Beirut in the 1970s, today most look to Istanbul’s screen stars. When Ramadan begins on Thursday, people across the Middle East are looking forward to a month of reruns of beloved Turkish television shows – dramatic tales of sultans and harem girls and soapy modern love stories.

The old political fervour of Cairo and Beirut has relocated to Istanbul, too. The city of 17 million people is now home to an estimated 2 million Arabs, who have opened coffee shops, book stores, theatre and media companies, and joined the staff of universities. Thanks to Turkey’s generous visa system and location as a transport hub, it is easier for families scattered across the world to meet in Istanbul than elsewhere.

The Arab Media Association of Istanbul numbers 850 journalists, including Yemeni Nobelpeace prize winner Tawakkol Karman and Egyptian Ayman Nour, a former politician who fled after the 2013 coup that bought President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to power. Both now run opposition television stations.

“Istanbul revitalised the Arab Spring in a way no other place could,” said Labib al-Nahhas, a senior member of the Syrian political opposition. “The city has provided Arabs and Muslims the opportunity to meet face to face and freely share their experiences, hopes and visions.”

Welcoming Muslim exiles – in particular those with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood – is a high priority for Erdoğan’s government, which likes to showcase its particular flavour of political Islam.

“Istanbul is certainly now the Muslim Brotherhood hub, but there are also so many other Arab political streams present in the city,” said Hage Ali. “In fact, the exposure to other types of thinking and the experience of a cosmopolitan city means people sometimes end up leaving the Brotherhood and becoming more liberal.”

Istanbul’s beauty and the city’s palpable sense of history have long inspired writers across the Islamic world. For Yasmine Seale, a French-Syrian writer and translator, there is no better place: “Seeing the Bosphorus every day. Hearing Arabic. The persistence of small trades and slow crafts. The generosity and humanity of neighbourhood life. Anglosphere literary scenes seem self-absorbed at this remove,” she said. “It’s good to let the world in.”

Yet adapting to Turkish life can pose challenges: foreigners often find the fiercely patriotic national identity inaccessible, and racism against Arabs is widespread. Many people in Istanbul’s diaspora population prefer to see themselves as exiles, rather than immigrants.

Ahmed Hassan, a cinematographer who worked on The Square, an acclaimed documentary about Egypt’s 2011 revolution, moved to Istanbul from Cairo two years ago, but has found the racism and barriers to journalistic work hard to deal with. “I think of Istanbul like a beautiful watermelon,” he said. “It’s lovely and green, and on the inside a beautiful dark red. But when you bite, it has no taste. I’m still waiting to taste the sugar.”

Turkey’s internal instability and financial woes, as well as the murders of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and Iranian dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani last year, are also reminders for diaspora populations that Istanbul is not always as safe as it seems.

In a unique example of Istanbullu juxtaposition, across the water from the ruins of Trotsky’s mansion on Büyükada, Abdullah Öcalan, one of the founders of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), is serving life as the only prisoner on İmralı island. Seen as a terrorist by Turkey, the UK and other western nations, he is still championed by many as a revolutionary.

“Istanbul’s cultural and political melting pot is a novel experiment, and while Turkish cultural influence is a good thing for the Turkish state, they only have so much control over it,” said Hage Ali. “We will have to wait and see the impact the ‘Istanbul effect’ will have on the region.”


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