Friday, March 8, 2013

Ayasofya Controversies

At the end of January, a surprising story emerged in the press about Lego's 2012 Jabba's Palace set. The Lego set is based on Jabba the Hutt's digs on Tatooine in the Star Wars universe, but according to a Turkish cultural group in Austria, the set is actually meant to look like the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) in Istanbul. And because Jabba is a "terrorist" who "likes to smoke hookah and have his victims killed," using this building as a basis for a villain's abode is offensive. (The quotes are from the Turkish Cultural Community's website, which is in German, so I'll have to take the Daily Mail's word that this is what it says.) The article goes on to say that the group is planning legal action in Germany, Austria and Turkey, though there's been no further word about any of it since the initial reports. [Update 4/16/13: Lego recently announced that the set would not be available after 2013. According to the linked article, the Turkish cultural group believes this came as a result of their meeting with Lego, but Lego said that is a misinterpretation.]

Interestingly, the Daily Mail story refers to the Hagia Sophia as a mosque -- not once, but six times, from my quick count. The Austrian group is offended because they feel the Lego set is insulting a famous mosque. But you know what? Ayasofya is not a mosque. Let me say it again:  AYASOFYA IS NOT A MOSQUE. Whew, that feels better. This isn't a prickly Christian thing, either. The present building -- which was constructed by Emperor Justinian as a basilica in the 500s and converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks in 1453 -- was secularized and turned into a museum in the 1930s. (If you want me to get prickly, I would start by pointing out that the building was built as a church and served as a church twice as long as it was a mosque, so if anyone should be offended, it's Christians.)

Hagia Sophia mosaic of the Virgin and child next to Empress Eirene

Yes, kids, today the Ayasofya is a non-religious building. It's not a mosque or a church. But things being what they are in Turkey today, there's a group petitioning parliament to change that. According to a Daily Hurriyet article in February, three citizens in Kocaeli (a town outside of Istanbul known for being incredibly religious) are asking that the Ayasofya be converted back into a mosque and reopened for Muslim worship.  There was also, apparently, a mass prayer rally last year involving 3,000 worshipers in front of the church. Apparently, the issue is being taken "under consideration."

Istanbul's Ayasofya

Now, you'd think the government would just dismiss all of this, right? People can petition for whatever they like, but that doesn't make their demands logical or reasonable, as I'm sure Piers Morgan would agree. It's never a good idea to give in to the wishes of a society's more radical members, whoever they may be. Plus, the Ayasofya has been a museum for the last 78 years, without incident, and there's a perfectly lovely and equally famous mosque to pray at just a stone's throw away. I'll be blunt: Turning the Ayasofya back into a mosque would be nothing more than a blatant f-you to Turkey's secular and non-Muslim populations. Can you imagine the uproar if Europeans started turning mosques or former mosques into churches? And yet, it wouldn't shock me in the least if they end up converting Ayasofya back into a mosque. In November 2011, the Hagia Sophia museum in Iznik was suddenly converted into a mosque -- Iznik was once known as Nicaea, and the church hosted some of the important Christian Ecumenical councils (think Nicene Creed). The government is also allegedly planning to convert the Hagia Sophia in Trabzon into a mosque.

According to a Washington Times blog post, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said last year, "The Hagia Sophia Mosque in Trabzon has, unfortunately and for no good reason, been used as a museum until now. This sort of thing won't happen as long as we are in power. Mosques are for worshipping Allah. No law can ever change its original purpose." Do I even need to point out that the building's "original purpose" was as a church?

P.S. If you thought the Lego story was crazy, go read this story about the nine Turkish army officers charged with "insulting Turkishness" for showing Game of Thrones because the show depicts Turks as "a barbarian tribe with perverted religious rituals." You remember the Turkish characters in Game of Thrones, right? :)

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