Got news? Did Erdogan lead prayers in Hagia Sophia or not?

Eastern Orthodox Christians who follow events in the ancient homelands of the Eastern church have had May 29th marked on their calendars for several weeks now.

Why is that? Because of the following news, or potential news (this particular story is care of a mainstream news site in Finland). Note the time element at the end of this passage:

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government plans to turn Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia Basilica into a mosque in the afternoon and evening and a museum in the morning.

The historical monument, which draws millions of tourists every year, will have the Byzantine frescoes covering its walls cast into shadow by “dark light” so as to avoid offending Islam. The government would thus like to turn what is today seen as a symbol of Christianity back into a place of worship for Muslims, as it was after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Confirmation of the plan came … from the Turkish pro-government daily Yeni Safak, after press leaks … reported the prime minister’s intention to pray in the Byzantine basilica prior to the August presidential elections, possibly as early as May 29.

The date is a highly symbolic one, as it marks the 561st anniversary of the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Ottomans. A few days later the basilica became a mosque on the orders of Mehmet II the Conqueror ad remained so until 1934, when on the decision of the father of the modern Turkish “secular” Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk it was made into a museum.

Of course, for millions of traditional Muslims it is impossible for a building — once it has been used for Islamic worship — to cease being a mosque. This is another one of those issues that leads to debate INSIDE Islam, as can be seen by this debate in Turkey.

At the same time, however, Hagia Sophia is one of the most important Christian holy sites in the world, especially for Eastern Orthodox believers. It contains remnants of Christian frescos that are priceless and of great historical importance, over and above their importance as iconography. The building as a whole, of course, is one of the wonders of the world (click here for a YouTube overview) and for many represents the heart of what remains of Byzantine culture.

So, did Erdogan lead prayers there yesterday or not? If he didn’t carry through on that goal, why not?

I had hoped for coverage from Reuters, at the very least, after previous stories, such as this recent offering:

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Hurrah: CNN names some of the ghosts in Gezi Park

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The coverage of events in Turkey roll on and on and the mainstream press continues to treat this as a simple clash between the moderate Islamic stance (whatever that means) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a hip, young, urban secular vision of at Turkey looking toward Europe and the future.

If only things were that simply.

The other day I dug into a very religion-free report in The Los Angeles Times (click here for a refresher).

The Times of the West followed that with a very similar piece that — once again — used a wide variety of labels, often attached to the undefined word “Islamist,” without offering much information about the symbolism of the very battlefield on which this drama is unfolding. Here is one chunk of that second story that captures the flavor:

Erdogan is still very much in control, and few would venture that the crisis will bring him down, but the protests have hurt him politically and exposed misgivings within his party. Tear gas and water cannons have damaged Turkey’s international image, upsetting the stock market and giving investors pause at a time when the once hyper-speed economy has slowed to about 3% annual growth.

The unrest also suggests that his blend of Islam and democracy is too restrictive for secularists, artists, activists and even working-class mothers who have turned out in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. Like Egypt’s Tahrir Square two years ago, it has been transformed into an iconic, scorched patch of rebellion.

“Erdogan’s vulnerability now is the secular middle classes that have risen against AKP governance. And that genie will not go back into the bottle,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is a new dynamic in Turkish politics and this will challenge him on his urban renewal and foreign policy programs. So far, he has had an easy ride.”

All the usual camps are mentioned. The big themes are all rooted in the present, with constant attempts to hook events to the other uprisings in the Arab Spring. But wait, the Arab Spring revolts have all pushed against corruption and in favor of a rising sense of Islamic identity. Is that what is happening here? Does the history of Turkey fit that template?

Wait, Turkey has a unique history?

So what is missing from this story?

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Secular and religious symbols lost in many Turkey reports

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I have been reading the mainstream coverage of the events unfolding in Turkey from the get go, in large part because of my interest — after two visits to Istanbul — in the nation’s complex blend of European secularism (think France) and a variety of approaches to Islam. In the midst of all that, religious minorities have not fared well at all, including the tiny remnant of Eastern Orthodox believers who huddle in what was once the New Rome.

Is it just me, or are way too many mainstream reporters either (a) ignoring the historic and religious themes in this story altogether or (b) trying to boil this complex drama down into another Arab Spring showdown between heroic young people clashing with the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that leans toward a “moderate” Islamist stance, whatever that combination of labels means?

Yes, believe it or not, there are newsrooms ignoring the religious themes altogether. Surprise, surprise. For example, check out this new piece from The Los Angeles Times. After the usual description of the riots, and police response, there is this background material:

The unrest began as a peaceful sit-in to protest plans to destroy the adjoining Gezi Park to make way for redevelopment, but it quickly swelled into nationwide demonstrations when police attempted to clear the park of demonstrators. Violence has also flared in other cities, notably in Izmir and the capital, Ankara. At least three people have died, including a police officer, and thousands have been injured, according to a doctors union.

The protesters are made up mostly of middle-class youths largely unaffiliated with any political party. Instead, they represent a fiercely nationalistic and secular current and feel threatened by what they see as Erdogan’s authoritarianism and the ruling party’s increasing focus on Islamic strictures.

Parts of the full equation can be seen in this chunk of the story. You need to read the whole thing to see how truly tone-deaf it is to the religious themes in these vents.

Even in this passage, it really would have helped to have mentioned that the planned redevelopment would have included symbolic elements of both parts of Erdogan’s power base — a mixture of big business and a new mosque, built on sacred ground for Turkish secularists.

Thus, it also helps to know something about secularism in Turkey, which has roots far deeper than the interests of a pack of young students and coffee-shop intellectuals. In addition to modern secularism, Turkey has its own legacy of a secularized, modernized brand if Islam — backed by the military. The key is a fusion of European secularism, Turkish culture and military control.

Erdogan has stressed a turn back toward Islamic law and traditions, such as women covering their heads and even wearing traditional forms if Islamic attire. His actions have infuriated those loyal to the old Young Turks, while not going far enough for the full-tilt Islamists. Did you note at least three forms of Islam in that statement?

So what’s up with this park? Look at this background material from BBC and see if you spot any important facts about Gezi Park, a strategic piece of real estate in the highly modern and secular city of Istanbul.

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