The latest outbreak of “cancel culture” overshadows debates over President Trump’s Twitter feed and defacing statues of Confederate generals.
Turkey’s President Erdogan has turned the biggest tourist attraction in Turkey from a museum into a mosque. This is not just any museum; nor will it be just any mosque. It began in 537 as the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia. Its enormous dome, which appeared to float in mid-air and was decorated with glowing Christian mosaics, made it the most beautiful church in the world. Its stunning design changed the history of architecture.
But after the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II took Constantinople in 1453, it became the Great Mosque of Ayasofya. Those glorious mosaics were white-washed or destroyed. Four spectacular minarets were constructed nearby.
In 1935 there came another change. Turkey’s modernising president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, repurposed the building and turned it into a museum. This change has remained controversial in Turkey where devout Muslims deeply resented Atatürk’s secular reforms.
This architectural masterpiece is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and is admired by people of all cultures and faiths. Erdogan’s change was criticised by Pope Francis (“I am very pained”). Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (“a threat to the entire Christian civilization”), Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (a source of “controversy and conflict”), Saudi journalist Wafa Al-Rasheed (“you are playing with fire”), US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (diminishing a unique legacy). In short, just about everyone.
Turkey has a legal right to make the building revert to the mosque it was for nearly 500 years. But as the head of UNESCO pointed out, this decision involves all of humanity. As a church, mosque and museum, it is a more than art and architecture; it is emblematic of Turkey’s rich past as a highway between east and west, Islam and Christianity.
“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.”
What Erdogan has done is to abruptly “cancel” this history and slam a door shut on dialogue. Once again the splendid mosaics will be whitewashed as if they had never existed.
Is Erdogan taking a leaf from woke warriors in the West who topple statues of Churchill and Robert E. Lee? Of course not. But this melancholy event shows how much supporters of radical Islam and social justice wokery have in common.
Both are trying to erase the past. The Taliban blew up the 2500-yar-old Buddhas of Bamyan. The Islamic State dynamited and bulldozed ancient mosques, shrines, churches and monasteries. It destroyed Nimrud, an Assyrian city from the 13th century BC.
Woke warriors using Twitter and spray-paint may be less violent but they are no less fanatical in their zeal to discredit and erase figures as significant as Winston Churchill or David Hume.
Both are trying to erase a Christian past. Erdogan is merely giving a history lesson, but the Islamic State actually killed hundreds, if not thousands of Christians. Jihadists are still slaughtering Christians in Nigeria – 620 so far this year.
The woke warriors view Christianity and Christian morality as oppressive. Opposing homosexuality, same sex marriage or abortion can get you sacked. Christian evangelisation is denounced as oppressive, as the vandalism of Junipero Serra statues in California shows. Tweets like “the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been,” sound outlandish at the moment, but they are increasing.
And both believe that violence, physical or moral, is an option in their struggle to achieve justice. Although the vast majority of Muslims are men and women of peace, extremists are ready to slaughter innocents in the name of their God. Vandalism, riots and Twitter-mobbing are a far cry from beheadings, but they are evidence of the potential for violence amongst the woke warriors. Setting up a guillotine outside the Washington DC home of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was just a stunt — but a sinister one.
The similarity is far from coincidental. Both Islamic extremists and woke warriors believe that power, not reason, is fundamental – the will of Allah for Islamists and the power of privilege for critical race theorists. And this is the key point: both spurn truth attained through rational discourse as the ultimate goal of human striving.
Lest this sound like a lot of fluffy metaphysics, here is Exhibit 1, a tweet from Ezra Klein, the founder and editor-at-large of Vox, an influential online magazine – woke but intelligent, ambitious, perceptive, hard-working and eloquent. He was commenting on a letter signed by about 150 “progressive” writers and academics complaining that woke activism is stifling free speech.
Let me rephrase this: There’s a lot of power in in being able to claim, and hold, the mantle of telling the truth. And this is seriously bad.
We all should take a deep breath here. There is something truly deranged going on when brainy people believe that truth is a perverse imposition of an oppressive power structure. All of their woke energy will be directed towards resisting the truth. That augers ill for a civilization built on rational discourse.
In one of his best speeches, at Regensburg in 2006, Benedict XVI commented on a forgotten dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian. He wrote it only a few decades before Constantinople was conquered and Hagia Sophia became a mosque dedicated to the worship of Allah. In the most controversial section, Benedict quoted the emperor’s critique of violent conversion.
“Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… [the emperor wrote]. To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”.
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature…. For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality…. [The Muslim philosopher] Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
Benedict’s target, really, was not the metaphysics of Islam but his own Western culture. From the time of the Enlightenment it has been seduced by an impoverished view of reason which restricts it to empirical realities. This leads, he said, to an “aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality”. It, too, he suggested, was moving towards a conception of being as power, not as rationality.
That day seems to have arrived sooner than he imagined.
The re-Islamisation of Turkey’s most famous museum is a symbol of the increasing irrationality of public debate around the world. Under the Byzantines, it was known as Haga Sophia, the church of Holy Wisdom. And wisdom is precisely what is slipping through the fingers of the West.