Sunday July 14, 2024

For a second culture

By Syed Ali Zafar
July 22, 2020

Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, a scholar and a diplomat, in his publication ‘World Order’ has commented that the “unity of things lies beneath the surface; it depends upon balanced reaction between opposites. The goal of our era must be to achieve that equilibrium and we have to do so among the rushing stream of history.”

Henry Kissinger is emphasizing that it is time to move away from divisions that plague society to a “second culture” in which “harmony” is achieved both, nationally and internationally.

A new debate is raging in Pakistan, one relating to change in the status of Hagia Sophia, Turkish Ayasofya, from that of a museum to a mosque. The other issue, though different in context but intertwined with the first, is the decision of our government to finance a mandir in Sohawa, a village close to Islamabad. Both matters have to be understood in the context of this concept of a “second culture”.

The opinion in different newspapers on the change of status of Hagia Sophia reads as ‘two steps back’ or ‘Islamists’ dream come true’. Many argue that Turkey should not have done this.

Some of the readers may not be fully aware of actual reasons in the mind of the Turkish president and establishment which may have led to them taking this step.

Hagia Sophia was built as a cathedral and converted into a mosque and remained so for hundreds of years until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, by virtue of a decree of 1934 turned Hagia Sophia’s majestic structure into a museum. During all this time, for centuries it has been the object of a fierce civilizational rivalry between the Ottoman and orthodox world.

After the death of Kemal Ataturk, when his influence was gradually waning, a campaign emerged against Western modernity and the conversion of Hagia Sophia was treated as a symbol of shame. Necip Fazil Kisakurek, a populist poet of the time, said that the decision to convert the structure into a museum was to “put the Turks’ essential spirit inside a museum.” Another well-known Turkish writer, Nihal Atsiz, who advocated a pan-Turkic identity, considered Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum a “humiliation”. Yet another great poet of socialists, Nazim Hikmet, devoted stanzas to Hagia Sophia’s spirit of Turkish sovereignty.

Keeping this background in view, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cited Kisakurek and other poets and writers, he wanted the entire nation, not just Islamists, to make this spiritual journey with him, a resurrection of the Turkish spirit. The first prayer at Hagia Sophia mosque will take place on July 24, coinciding with the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, signed between Allied powers and Turkey. At the time of Muslim prayers, mosaics in Istanbul’s ancient Hagia Sophia will be covered by curtains or lasers. Erdogan wants the Western world especially to watch the ceremony because he considers it to be the “reclamation of Turkish sovereignty from its clutches.”

As Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said, “Turkey is sensitive about protecting its historic character.” Turkish foreign ministry’s spokesman, Hami Aksoy, has also emphasized that “Hagia Sophia will continue to embrace everyone with its own status preserving the common cultural heritage of humanity.” Thus Hagia Sophia will be used by Muslims at prayer times, while visitors who used to visit Hagia Sophia when it was a museum will continue to visit it in other times.

Is Turkey seeking to achieve the “second culture” as recommended by Henry Kissinger?

The issue of building a mandir near Islamabad similarly examines the state’s role in promoting inclusion. Its brief history is that land for the site of mandir was given by Nawaz Sharif’s government and now the funds are reported to have been provided by the PTI government. The matter of whether a government in an Islamic state should provide finances for the construction of a mandir was furiously debated and now it has been referred to the Council of Islamic Ideology. It is likely that their recommendation will come up before parliament for the final decision.

I am not an expert nor do I claim to be one to comment on how Shariah views the provision of aid to a Hindu minority to build a place of worship of its own. Nor do I intend to comment on what the CII should decide. I am sure they will come to some conclusion by using their right to Ijtehad.

However, it is important to notice that Pakistan was created not by an act of occupation or a war but by mutual consent between three powers – Great Britain, Congress India and the All India Muslim League. The partition of Punjab was affected by the margin of one vote which was cast by a minority member. Again there is an historic and generally forgotten pact between Liaqat Ali Khan and Nehru known as the ‘Liaquat-Nehru Pact’ or the ‘Delhi Pact’. The pact mainly addressed promoting communal peace, curtailing the fear of religious minorities and building a cooperating atmosphere in both countries for each other.

The question that comes to my mind is that when the opinion of the CII comes before parliament, will our members rise to create a second culture of harmony and equilibrium between all sections of society, particularly by the majority showing a big heart for the minority?

It is only when one takes pride in one’s own traditions while also respecting diversity that true political and social balance can be achieved.

The writer is a Supreme Court advocate, former federal minister for law and former president of the SCBA.