Once again, the Hagia Sophia is a Grand Mosque. Credit: Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

August 12, 2020   5 mins

Last week, on 5 August, the Prime Minister of India laid a foundation stone and helped bury a distinctive period in global history. Narendra Modi had travelled to Ayodhya, a city long identified by Hindus with one of their most beloved gods. Lord Rama — avatar of Vishnu and hero of the Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana — was said to have ruled within its walls as the very model of those who uphold truth and justice. Like Camelot, the court of Rama glimmers tantalisingly in the imaginings of those who fall beneath its spell: the reminder of a vanished golden age, the hope that it might come again.

In recent decades, the mingled regret and yearning that the memory of Rama’s capital can inspire among Hindus had come to be focused on one particular location in the modern city of Ayodhya: the Ram Janmabhoomi, the ‘birthplace of Rama’. At the moment, nothing serves to mark the sacred spot. But soon enough that will change. A great complex of buildings will rise. As Modi, officially declaring the process of construction begun, put it: “A great temple will now be built for our Lord Rama.”

A fortnight earlier, the President of Turkey had celebrated a similar reconsecration. In 1453, when the Christian capital of Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, its most stupefying building, the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia, had been converted into a mosque, and duly served for almost half a millennium as a monument to the triumph of Islam over a defeated and superceded order. Then, in 1935, a decade and more after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its replacement within its heartlands by a Turkish republic, the mosque of Ayasofya was turned into a museum. So, for decades, it remained. Then, this summer, the museum once again became a mosque. On 24 July, Hagia Sophia opened for Friday prayers. “It is breaking away from its chains of captivity,” President Erdogan declared rhapsodically. “It was the greatest dream of our youth. It was the yearning of our people and it has been accomplished.”

The synchronicity between Modi’s trip to Ayodhya and Erdogan’s to Hagia Sophia is striking, and only flimsily obscured by the fact that the Prime Minister of India is trampling the legacy of an Islamic empire much as the President of Turkey has trampled the legacy of a Christian one. In the early sixteenth century, shortly after the Moghul conquest of the lands that once, so Hindus believed, had constituted the Ram Rajya, the ‘realm of Rama’, a mosque was built in Ayodhya. By the twentieth century, large numbers of Hindus had come to believe that this same mosque, the Babri Masjid, stood directly on the site of the Ram Janmabhoomi. In the 1980s, the BJP — the party to which Modi belongs — began a campaign to demolish it. In 1992 a mob duly tore it down. Communal riots exploded. Thousands died.

Last November, even as the site was formally granted to Hindus, the Supreme Court of India condemned the demolition of the mosque as a crime. But a crime by whose standards? Not, it would seem, by Modi’s. Just as Erdogan justified the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque by “right of conquest”, so the Prime Minister of India, hailing the opportunity to build a temple on the site where the Babri Masjid had stood, invoked the ancient traditions of his country. It was, he declared, “a unique gift from law-abiding India to truth, non-violence, faith and sacrifice.” History as well as justice stood on his side.

That both developments — the building of the temple and the reconsecration of the mosque — have provoked very similar expressions of alarm from secularists illustrates the degree to which the Hindu prime minister and the Muslim president, despite their many differences, are at war with a common enemy.

Modi, in his speech at Ayodhya last week, made a telling comparison between India’s freedom struggle and what he described as the “centuries-old penance, sacrifices and resolve” of those who had campaigned to raise a temple to Lord Rama on the site of the god’s birth. The comment infuriated India’s secularists — as well it might have done. Modi, in effect, was accusing them of collaboration. The British Raj might be gone, but not so its pernicious legacy. The founding fathers of independent India, who had constituted the country as a secular republic, had betrayed its primordial characteristic of Hindutva: the qualities that for millennia had defined it as Hindu through and through.

In like manner, Erdogan’s real target was not Byzantium, nor the Orthodox Church, nor even Greece, but the secular status of the country which he rules as president. Just as Justinian, the emperor who originally built Hagia Sophia back in the sixth century, had claimed to have vanquished Solomon, so might Erdogan, by abolishing its status as a museum, have claimed to have vanquished AtatĂŒrk. The father of Turkish secularism, whose contempt for Islam had been matched only by his admiration for the model of modernity provided by Europe, had consciously sought to wrest his country from the hold of its history. Now, no less consciously, Erdogan is engaged in a mighty effort to redeem Turkey from secularism, and restore it to the embrace of its Islamic past.

All of which should serve as a wake-up call to the West that it is not only its financial, economic and military muscle that is currently atrophying. So too is its ability to market its culturally conditioned assumptions as universal. The concept of the secular is not, as many in West like to think, a neutral one. Quite the opposite. As the very word betrays, it derives from the distinctive theology and history of Latin Christendom: for ‘saeculum’, the word given by the Romans to the endless flux of things, was counterpointed by St Augustine and his heirs to the religio, the ‘bond’, that, so Augustine had taught, joined the pilgrim Church on its journey through the centuries to the radiant eternity of the City of God.

Over time, these two words had evolved to become words in the language that the British had then exported to India, and around the world. That there existed things called ‘religions’ — ‘Hinduism’, ‘Islam’, ‘Judaism’ ­— and that these functioned in a dimension distinct from entire spheres of human activity — spheres called ‘secular’ in English — was not a conviction native to anywhere except for Western Europe. None of which had prevented it from proving an astoundingly successful export: no less influential in AtatĂŒrk’s Turkey than in Nehru’s India. Long after the collapse of Europe’s empires, its colonisation of elites around the world endured.

Yet if the West, over the duration of its global hegemony, had proven itself skilled in the art of repackaging Christian concepts for non-Christian audiences, then the spread of secularism inevitably depended for its success upon the care with which it covered its tracks. Those tracks, as the era of Western hegemony slips away, are becoming ever more evident. Modi and Erdogan have certainly spotted them. The summer of 2020, notable as it already is, will surely be remembered by historians of the future as a key waystop on what is likely to prove perhaps the key narrative of the 21st century: the decline of the West and the rise of a multi-polar world. The temple of Lord Rama and the mosque of Ayasofya will stand as monuments to a changing of the global guard.

Tom Holland is a writer, popular historian and cricketer. He is not an actor. His most recent book is PAX