The fate of Hagia Sophia and the Aqsa Mosque
by Raymond Ibrahim
Previous to Pope Benedict XVI’s November 30th visit to the Hagia Sophia complex in Constantinople, Muslims and Turks expressed fear, apprehension, and rage. Turkey’s independent paper Vatan expressed it thus: “The risk is that Benedict will send Turkey’s Muslims and much of the Islamic world into paroxysms of fury if there is any perception that the Pope is trying to re-appropriate a Christian center that fell to Muslims.” Apparently praying, making the sign of the cross or any other gesture of Christian worship in Hagia Sophia constitutes an attempt to “re-appropriate a Christian center that fell to Muslims.”
Built in Constantinople in the 6th century, Hagia Sophia — Greek for “Holy Wisdom” — was Christendom’s greatest and most celebrated church. After parrying centuries of jihadi thrusts from Arabs, Constantinople was finally sacked by Turks in the jihad of 1453. Its crosses desecrated and icons defaced, this millennium-old church — as well as thousands of other churches in the then Byzantine Empire — was immediately converted into a mosque, the tall minarets of Islam surrounding it in triumph. (Ironically, when Benedict quoted a Byzantine emperor saying that Islam was spread by the sword, Muslims worldwide were outraged, more churches were desecrated and a nun was shot in the back.) As part of reformer Ataturk’s drive to modernize Turkey, Hagia Sophia was secularized and transformed into a museum in 1935.
In protestation of Benedict’s visit, a gang of Turks stormed and occupied Hagia Sophia on November 22nd, exclaiming “Allahu Akbar!” and warning “Pope! don’t make a mistake; don’t wear out our patience.” On the day of the Pope’s visit, another throng of Islamists waved banners saying “Pope get out of Turkey” while chanting “Aya Sofya [Hagia Sophia] is Turkish and will remain Turkish.” And of course al Qaeda in Iraq got in on the action by denouncing Benedict’s visit on an Internet statement. (Meanwhile, one of the Pope’s expressed purposes for visiting Turkey was to promote inter-religious dialogue and denounce violence in the name of God.)
Contrast such Islamic intolerance with the tolerance granted Muslims in regards to their Aqsa mosque. Just as with emperor Justinian’s Hagia Sophia annexed by Islam, the Aqsa Mosque is a Muslim site annexed by Judaism. But unlike the permanent Muslim desecration of Hagia Sophia, one of Christendom’s holiest sites, after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, the Jews did not deface or convert the Muslim mosque into a Jewish synagogue or temple — even though the Aqsa mosque is deliberately built atop the remains of the Temple Mount, the most important site in Judaeo-Christian eschatology.
Moreover, since reclaiming the Temple Mount, Israel has granted Muslims control over the Aqsa mosque (except during times of crises). And under Muslim control, Christians and Jews are barred from freely worshipping anywhere near the mosque. Despite such concessions, jihad has been declared on Israel, while Muslims worldwide are simultaneously demanding “justice” from the world body.
All this illustrates well the privileged status many Muslims have come to expect for themselves in the international arena: when Muslims conquer non-Muslim territories, such as Constantinople — through fire and steel, with all the attendant human suffering and misery — those whom they conquered are not to expect any “apologies,” let alone political or territorial concessions. Indeed, Turkey has yet to even recognize its genocide against its Armenian population in 1917.
Herein lies the conundrum. When Islamists wage jihad — past, present, and future — conquering and consolidating non-Muslim territories and centers in the name of Islam, never once considering to cede them back to their rightful owners, they ultimately demonstrate that they live by the age-old adage that “might makes right.” That’s fine; many peoples agree with this Hobbesian view. But there must be consistency. In other words, if we live in a world where the strong rule and the weak submit, why is it that whenever Muslim regions are conquered, such as in the case of Palestine, the same Islamists who would never concede one inch of Islam’s conquests resort to the United Nations demanding “justice,” “restitutions,” “rights,” and so forth?
Put another way, when Muslims beat infidels, it’s just too bad for the latter: they must submit to their overlords’ rules, that is, Islamic — not international or humanitarian — law, with all the attendant discrimination and humiliation mandated for non-Muslims. History unflinchingly proves this to the present day. Yet when Islam is beaten, demands for unprecedented apologies and concessions both humanitarian and secular are expected from the infidel world at large.
Double standards do not make for international justice. Either territorial conquests are always unjust and should therefore be ameliorated through concessions, or else they are not; they are merely manifestations of the natural order of things in which survival goes to the fittest. The excuse that the Islamic conquests are an expression of Allah’s will and an altruistic service to infidels obviously must fail in the international arena. Conquests are conquests. Nor does the passage of time exonerate crime. The fact that Turkey conquered Constantinople over 500 years ago does not prevent the Turkish government from returning Hagia Sophia to Christendom today — which would undoubtedly be a great gesture. But of course that can never be. The Muslim world would undergo a “paroxysm of fury” if a Christian pope dare pray in the conquered church; what would the Muslim world do if Hagia Sophia were actually converted back to a church?
Islam does not have — or at least should not be granted — a monopoly over the dispensation of war and peace, conquests and concessions. There is nothing out of the ordinary if some Muslims wish to wage eternal jihad until Islam dominates the globe; in fact, by so doing, they are only being true to Islam and its doctrines. However, in such a setting — where the world is divided into two warring camps, Islam and Infidelity, or, in Islamic terms, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War — how can Muslims expect any concessions from the international community? The natural conclusion of the view that “might makes right” is “to the victor go the spoils.”
But of course, Muslims cannot be blamed for expecting special treatment for themselves, as well as believing that jihad is righteous and decreed by the Almighty. The West constantly goes out of its way to confirm such convictions. By constantly criticizing itself, apologizing and offering concessions — things the Islamic world has yet to do — the West reaffirms Islam’s privileged status in the world.
A minor but revealing example: no Muslim map contains the word “Israel,” only “Palestine.” Yet almost every Western map has the word “Istanbul” where “Constantinople” used to be. The implication is clear: the West fully acknowledges Islam’s conquests of its own lands whereas Islam refuses to acknowledge its conquered state in Israel.
At any rate, what did the Pope do in his controversial visit to Hagia Sophia? He caved in, refrained from any gesture that could be misconstrued as Christian worship and instead worshipped in a mosque like a true dhimmi — a subdued non-Muslim living under Islamic law — and acknowledging Islamic superiority.
And therein is the final lesson. Muslim zeal for their holy places and lands is not intrinsically blameworthy. Indeed, there’s something to be said about being passionate and protective of one’s own. Here the secular West — Christendom’s prodigal son and true usurper — can learn something from Islam. For whenever and wherever the West concedes — ideologically, politically, and especially spiritually — Islam will be sure to conquer. If might does not make right, zeal apparently does.
Raymond Ibrahim is a research librarian at the Library of Congress. His new book, The Al Qaeda Reader, which translates Osama bin Laden’s communiqués, will be available in April 2007.