“There are some artifacts that are symbols of nations and states. One of these symbols is the Ayasofya,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan on July 13, 2020. This followed the declaration that the world famous Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) in Istanbul would revert to being a mosque after having been a museum since 1934. Less than a month later on August 5, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at the groundbreaking ritual for a temple to be built on the site of the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya that was destroyed in 1992. He asserted that the soon to be built Ram temple “will epitomize our national feeling. …This temple will be the emblem of the collective will power of [millions] of people.” By claiming that these contested sacred spaces are manifestations of the nation, each leader tied their country’s identity to the status of the structures. These moments were the culminations of long, arduous processes of ontologically linking sacred space to the state, processes that require a great deal of labor to maintain. In both the Turkish and Indian cases, this work goes back decades, even centuries, revealing important features of how sacred spaces in secular states are reconfigured to conform with the imperatives of religious nationalism.
It takes work to claim a contested monument. The arguments in both India and Turkey were built incrementally over time. Religio-political agents have tested the proverbial waters in various ways (pilgrimage, prayer, violence, the conversion or destruction of less prominent structures identified with the minority, etc.), experimenting with the popularity and palatability of different strategies. These efforts involve the use of judicial and legislative processes, the production of social memory through ritualization and narrativization, countering minority theological claims with majority apologetics, and appealing to pride, patriotism, and populism.
Here I sketch out two key strategies within these multilayered arguments: the delinking of secularism from minority religious protections and pluralist principles, and the systematic relinking of secularism to mean the defense of majoritarian religious sentiment in the interest of promoting national unity. Both Erdoğan and Modi center monumental sacred spaces in their discourse, presenting the sites as manifestations of the national will and themselves as their champions.
Though the foundational regimes in twentieth-century India and Turkey both espoused some form of constitutional secularism, successful political parties later emerged in each country espousing majoritarian religious visions. Central to these ideologies are narratives of decline and salvation as leaders declared that their society, their way of life, their pride, and their dignity was under attack by a global hegemony. A key element of this globalist oppression is the imposition of an alien secular ideology that discriminates against the religious majority and gives preferential treatment to religious minorities at the majority’s expense. In this view, a political revolution grounded in spiritual revival is required to reverse this process, restore the nation, and pave the way for a future in which politics and the state operate in service of an exclusivist religious vision.
Promoting majoritarian worship in monumental sacred spaces serves to perform and define the nation itself by mobilizing and moving bodies and seeking to control the interpretive possibilities available to the populace. In India, this process is accompanied by systematic efforts to marginalize Muslim Indians and erase them from the history of the nation—an effort with both violent and nonviolent dimensions. In Turkey, where state-based homogenization efforts have been underway for almost a century and the non-Muslim religious minority is smaller, state violence is largely directed towards other groups, such as the Kurds. Local Christians are not a political or demographic threat, though real and perceived anti-Christian discrimination continues to undermine international relations with NATO and European Union nations, especially Greece.
One element in the AKP (Justice and Development Party) process of claiming the nation for majoritarian religious politics is the redefinition of secularism itself to protect religious sentiments. Article 2.1 of the AKP party platform rejects “the interpretation and distortion of secularism as enmity against religion” and considers “the attitudes and practices which disturb pious people, and which discriminate them due to their religious lives and preferences, as anti-democratic and in contradiction to human rights and freedoms.” These declarations frame attitudes and practices which disturb pious people as insulting, discriminatory, anti-democratic, and violating human rights. This interpretation of the Constitution lays the groundwork for restricting potentially disturbing practices and protecting religious sensibilities. Such efforts have resulted in regulations restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol in the vicinity of mosques and a temporary total ban during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. More recently, Erdoğan has campaigned on the perennial issue of wearing the headscarf in public institutions. As past legislation to allow hijab in all public buildings was rejected by the courts in 2008, Erdoǧan proposes a national referendum on the matter ahead of 2023 elections. In addition to the conversion of the Ayasofya to a mosque from a museum, these efforts combine to present the AKP as defenders of religious liberty and protectors of pious Muslim sensibilities.
In India, the form of secularism established by the Indian Constitution (especially Articles 15, 25-30) that protects religious freedom and minority rights is portrayed by the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) as distorted, political pandering, separatist, and corrosive to a sense of national identity. As early as 1980, an essay, “India at the Crossroads,” by former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee included a section on “Positive Secularism.” He declares that “it is a matter of regret that over the years Congress policies have distorted the concept of Secularism. It has come to be identified simply with protection of interests of religious minorities. Indeed, very often Secularism becomes only a respectable garb for appeasement of narrow communal or sectional interests.” The 1993 “BJP’s White Paper on Ayodhya and the Ram Temple Movement” claimed that “the theory and practice of secularism … resulted in greater erosion of our national identity and national consciousness than even under the rule of the invaders.”
In this same white paper, the BJP claimed that the sacred sites built by Muslims and Christians in the subcontinent during centuries of outsider rule produced a “provocative ocular effect.” As provocative ocular effects, they therefore must be erased to allow for “the vindication of our cultural heritage and national self-respect” following decades that saw the “erosion of our national identity and national consciousness.” Evoking similar themes of humiliation and shame over the loss of national pride and integrity after allowing the mosque to become a museum, Erdoğan claimed in his speech after the conversion that “this is the kind of embarrassment from which Turkey saved itself today,” with the reversion to a mosque. In both the Indian and Turkish cases, the status of sacred space is directly linked to national sovereignty, honor, and pride. The defense of that sovereignty in each context demands that ocular effects be transformed, whether through destruction or reversion, into symbols of a unified collective identity conforming to an exclusivist vision.
The process of resignification also requires social and cultural, as well as political, labor. In both India and Turkey, rituals of majoritarian grievance have been performed and witnessed for years. The most spectacular example from India was a 1990 cross-country procession (rath yatra) led by BJP leader L.K. Advani that ended at the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. Along the way, additional ritual engagements involved the broader public in what had been a more local issue. They brought water from sacred rivers all over India and collected bricks to be used in the construction of the future temple. These efforts continued after the demolition in 1992, with kar sevaks (volunteer workers) coming to help the building effort and sending supplies in anticipation of the moment the building project would be approved. Similar actions occurred in Turkey, including a steady increase in rituals aimed at public resignification of the Ayasofya. In 1991, a prayer space within one of the areas inaccessible from the museum was opened and renovated in the 2010s. Periodically, people objecting to the museum status would pray in the building. Annually, on the May 31 anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul, ever-larger crowds gathered on the plaza in front of the Ayasofya for collective prayer and calls for the liberation of the mosque.
For religious minorities, the identities of these high-profile sites are indices of their status, and the transformations of the buildings send a clear message. Legal recourses are limited or exhausted, international objections are framed as evidence of minorities as fundamentally alien, and they are reminded once again of their own precarity and dependence. Complicated by the pandemic, efforts to forge robust counter movements have yet to gain momentum. The option for preserving the Babri Masjid as a valued part of India’s heritage is simply gone. The 2019 Indian Supreme Court decision cleared the path for the bhumi pujan (ground blessing ceremony) and the construction of the temple. For the Ayasofya, more possibilities remain as the building is structurally unchanged (though there are some reports of damage to the marble floors by carpets, crowds, and cleaners). In both cases, only massive groundswells of popular support and political change could possibly alter the future lives of these spaces, and neither seems immediately likely.
Yet these sites are not just “provocative ocular effects” that recall histories of minority rule, as the 1993 BJP white paper put it, but also material and spiritual reminders of more complex histories of interreligious civic life that was not always characterized by conflict. Even in the midst of these controversies, Muslim Turks still visit churches and Hindu Indians still attend Muslim shrines to pray for healing and seek spiritual comfort, just as they have for centuries in both societies. These alternative realities lived by Turks and Indians today challenge the exclusivist claims forwarded at the national level. They remind us that it requires enormous investments of energy to limit the ritual and interpretive possibilities available to the population. Monuments shape and are shaped by the social systems that continually produce, inherit, reconfigure, and control them. But controlling the meaning of a monument is always unfolding and incomplete, even in cases of state-sponsored destruction or total renovation. Making the argument for altering a mosque or a temple demands constant effort and becomes tantamount to making the argument for a vision of the nation.