In the days before Pope Benedict XVI’s visit on Nov. 30 to the Hagia Sophia complex in Istanbul , Muslims and Turks expressed fear, apprehension and rage. “The risk,” according to Turkey’s independent newspaper Vatan, “is that Benedict will send Turkey’s Muslims and much of the Islamic world into paroxysms of fury if there is any perception that the pope is trying to re-appropriate a Christian center that fell to Muslims.” Apparently making the sign of the cross or any other gesture of Christian worship in Hagia Sophia constitutes such a sacrilege.
Built in the sixth century, Hagia Sophia — Greek for “Holy Wisdom” — was Christendom‘s greatest and most celebrated church. After parrying centuries of jihadi thrusts from Arabs, Constantinople — now Istanbul — was finally sacked by Turks in 1453, and Hagia Sophia’s crosses were desecrated, its icons defaced. Along with thousands of other churches in the Byzantine Empire, it was immediately converted into a mosque, the tall minarets of Islam surrounding it in triumph. Nearly 500 years later, in 1935, as part of reformer Kemal Ataturk’s drive to modernize Turkey, Hagia Sophia was secularized and transformed into a museum.
Protests aimed at keeping the pope out of Hagia Sophia rocked Istanbul right up to the morning of his visit to the site. Contrast that intolerance with the tolerance granted Muslims in regard to the Al Aqsa mosque — this time, an Islamic site in Jerusalem annexed by Judaism. Unlike the permanent Muslim desecration of Hagia Sophia, after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, the Jews did not deface or convert the mosque into a Jewish synagogue or temple, even though the Al Aqsa mosque is deliberately built atop the remains of the Temple Mount, the holiest site of Judaism and, by extension, an important site for Christians. Moreover, since reclaiming the Temple Mount, Israel has granted Muslims control over the Al Aqsa mosque (except during times of crises).
All this illustrates the privileged status that many Muslims expect in the international arena. When Muslims conquer non-Muslim territories — such as Constantinople, not to mention all of North Africa, Spain and southwest Asia — those whom they have conquered as well as their descendants are not to expect any apologies, let alone political or territorial concessions.
Herein lies the conundrum. When Islamists wage jihad — past, present and future — conquering and consolidating non-Muslim territories and centers in the name of Islam, never once considering to cede them back to their previous owners, they ultimately demonstrate that they live by the age-old adage “might makes right.” That’s fine; many people agree with this Hobbesian view.
But if we live in a world where the strong rule and the weak submit, why is it that whenever Muslim regions are conquered, such as in the case of Palestine, the same Islamists who would never concede one inch of Islam’s conquests resort to the United Nations and the court of public opinion, demanding justice, restitutions, rights and so forth?
Put another way, when Muslims beat infidels, it’s just too bad for the latter; they must submit to their new overlords’ rules with all the attendant discrimination and humiliation mandated for non-Muslims. Yet when Islam is beaten, demands for apologies and concessions are expected from the infidel world at large.
Double standards do not make for international justice. Either territorial conquests are always unjust and should therefore be ameliorated through concessions, or else they are merely a manifestation of the natural order of things — that is, survival of the fittest.
If some Muslims wish to wage eternal jihad until Islam dominates the globe, they are only being true to Islam and its doctrines as they understand it. However, in that case, where the world is divided into two warring camps, Islam and Infidelity — or, in Islamic terms, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War — how can these Muslims expect any concessions from the international community? The natural conclusion of the view that “might makes right” is “to the victor go the spoils.”
The fact that Turkey conquered Constantinople more than 500 years ago does not prevent the Turkish government from returning Hagia Sophia to Christendom today, which would undoubtedly be a great gesture. But of course that can never be. The Muslim world would undergo a “paroxysm of fury” if a Christian pope dares pray in the conquered church; what would the Muslim world do if Hagia Sophia were actually converted back to a church?
But perhaps Muslims cannot be blamed for expecting special treatment, as well as believing that jihad is righteous and decreed by the Almighty. The West constantly goes out of its way to confirm such convictions. By criticizing itself, apologizing and offering concessions — all things the Islamic world has yet to do — the West reaffirms that Islam has a privileged status in the world.
And what did the pope do in his controversial visit to Hagia Sophia? He refrained from any gesture that could be misconstrued as Christian worship and merely took in the sights of the museum. Moreover, when he was invited into the Blue Mosque nearby, he respectfully took off his shoes and prayed, eyes downcast, standing next to the the grand mufti of Istanbul like a true “dhimmi” — a subdued non-Muslim living under Islamic law and acknowledging Islamic superiority.
And therein is the final lesson. Muslims’ zeal for their holy places and lands is not intrinsically blameworthy. Indeed, there’s something to be said about being passionate and protective of one’s own. Here the secular West — Christendom’s prodigal son and true usurper — can learn something from Islam. For whenever and wherever the West concedes ideologically, politically and especially spiritually, Islam will be sure to conquer. If might does not make right, zeal apparently does.
Ibrahim is a research librarian at the Library of Congress.