(This is part three of Prof. Trifkovic’s three-part series, “Reflections on the Tragedy of the Hagia Sophia.” Read part two here.)
In a speech at Blackheath in 1876, Britain's former Prime Minister William Gladstone told the Ottomans, “You shall retain your titular sovereignty, your empire shall not be invaded, but never again, as the years roll in their course, so far as it is in our power to determine, never again shall the hand of violence be raised by you, never again shall the flood gates of lust be opened to you.”
This was not to be. Regular slaughters of Armenians in Bayazid (1877), Alashgerd (1879), Sassoun (1894), Constantinople (1896), Adana (1909), and Armenia itself (1895–1896) claimed a total of 200,000 lives, but they were only rehearsals for the horrors of 1915.
In the awful annals of the 20th century, two instances of genocide stand out. One of them, the Jewish Holocaust of 1942–1945, has spawned an enormous amount of literature. The other, the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915, had been virtually ignored for decades by everyone except the Armenians themselves. The irony is that their fate was almost a prototype of the mass murder of Jews in Europe. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler asked members of his inner circle. Along the route to Adana and beyond, Turkish women were given the dagger (hanjar) to give the final stab to dying Armenians in order to gain credit in the eyes of Allah. Survivors of the massacre ended up scattered throughout the Middle East and in other parts of the world.
Further south, the slaughter of Christians in Alexandria in 1881 was only a rehearsal for the artificial famine induced by the Turks in 1915–1916 that killed over 100,000 Maronite Christians in Lebanon and Syria. So imminent and ever-present was the peril, and so fresh the memory of these events in the minds of the non-Muslims, that illiterate Christian mothers dated events as so many years before or after “such and such a massacre.” Across the Middle East, the bloodshed of 1915–1922 finally destroyed ancient Christian communities and cultures that had survived since Roman times—groups like the Jacobites, Nestorians, and Chaldaeans. The carnage peaked after World War I ended, culminating in the tragedy of Smyrna.
All over the Muslim world following the end of World War I, and notably in the newly independent or semi-dependent Arab states, European presence meant that it was no longer possible to enforce more drastic forms of discriminatory practices against the surviving Christian population. But this was merely a temporary improvement, not a permanent solution of their position. With the installation of nominally “pro-Western” governments in many Muslim countries fashioned from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, the West seems to have convinced itself of the existence of benign Islam.
It is remarkable that in this age of rampant victimology, the persecution of Christians by Muslims has become a taboo subject in the Western academe. A complex web of myths, outright lies, and deliberately imposed silence dominates it. Fourteen centuries of religious discrimination, causing suffering and death of countless millions, have been covered by the myth of Islamic “tolerance” that is as hurtful to the few descendants of the victims as it is useless as a means of appeasing latter-day jihadists. The silence and lies, perpetrated by the Western academy and media class, facilitates the perpetuation of religious discrimination and persecution even today.
We are, nevertheless, often told by contemporary apologists for Islam that the usual modus operandi of the early Muslims—attacking other people’s lands, pillaging, raping, robbing, and extorting—should be judged in its “context,” that this was normal behavior at the time.
This is the true meaning of the Hagia Sophia becoming a mosque again. The same understanding is not extended towards those Europeans who attempted to turn the tables and take the battle back into the enemy camp under the banner of the Cross, and whose actions those same Western friends of Islam so sternly condemn. The emerging sense from the language is that the militant expansion of the Ottoman Muslims was appropriate and understandable in 1453, but defeats that were inflicted on them by their rivals were not, and the truth about the life of non-Muslims under Islam remains censored. Such postmodern attitudes are tiresomely present all over the Western world at one level or another, but this does not really go to the heart of the matter. For the heart of the matter is a matter of the heart—more precisely, a matter of a schism in the soul of modern Western man, which has separated the mind from the heart.
Although it has managed to hold onto a small piece of Europe’s southeastern corner in the aftermath of the Balkan wars, its recent history validates Samuel Huntington’s verdict that modern Turkey is a torn country. To the discomfort of its Westernized elite, it stubbornly remains Asian and Muslim, not only in the bulk of its land mass but more importantly in its common people’s culture, religion, and way of life. Some empires produced cultures capable of outliving them, notably in the eastern Mediterranean after Alexander the Great, and in today’s English-speaking India. They facilitated efficient economies and functioning bureaucracies. They commanded personal loyalties. They built impressive capital cities.
The Ottoman Empire was different. Its capital—one of the most magnificent cities the world has known—was not built by the Turks. It was seized ready-made in 1453, its Christian inhabitants massacred or enslaved, and it was eventually reduced to a chaotic, unsanitary shantytown. The Ottomans’ greatest architectural achievement, the Blue Mosque, is but an inferior copy of the Hagia Sophia. An “Ottoman culture,” defined by Constantinople and largely limited to its walls, did eventually emerge through the reluctant mixing of Turkish, Greek, Slavic, Jewish, and other Levantine lifestyles and practices, each at its worst. The mix was impermanent, unable to forge identities or to command loyalties.
Atatürk hoped to impose a strictly secular concept of nationhood, but political Islam has reasserted itself. His dream had never penetrated beyond the military and a narrow stratum of the urban elite. Before Erdoğan, the near-impossible task facing Turkey’s Westernized intelligentsia was to break away from the lure of irredentism abroad, and at home to reform Islam into a matter of personal choice separated from the State and distinct from the society. Now, with the return of the Hagia Sophia to her pre-Kemalist status, we know that it could not be done.