Ram Madhav
July 23, 2020

Soft Power Struggles

Statues, Church, Mosque and a Temple – How underlying cultural tensions are leading to liberal dilemmas and geo-political conflicts.

Joseph Nye, the American liberal political scientist, proposed his soft power theory in the 1980s believing that culture would be a non-coercive power to influence nations. Coming ten years after him, Samuel Huntington, a conservative political philosopher, had a different take. ‘To understand current and future conflict, cultural rifts must be understood, and culture—rather than the State—must be accepted as the reason for war. Thus, Western nations will lose predominance if they fail to recognise the irreconcilable nature of cultural tensions’, warned the Clash of Civilisations author.

The statue pulling spree in America following the gruesome killing of George Floyd, which spread to countries like the UK, is symptomatic of those tensions. Not just the statues of the Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis and Robert Lee, but even those of the US President during the First World War and the founder of the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson and the 15th Century sea-farer and explorer, Christopher Columbus came under attack in America, while the two-time Prime Minister of England and the hero of the Second World War, Winston Churchill became a hated figure to many in the UK, along with the slave trader Edward Colston. 

Renowned academic institutions also jumped into these conflicts about history and culture. The University of Texas has removed the statue of Woodrow Wilson along with that of Jefferson Davis, while Princeton University has announced the removal of Wilson’s name from its prestigious Woodrow Wilson School for Public Policy.

These actions have aroused much controversy. Pulling down of the statues of Christopher Columbus has offended Italian-Americans who faced oppression in the 19th century. Similarly, the defacement of the statue of Winston Churchill in London has anguished many of his admirers who insist that Churchill was ‘a child of the Edwardian age and spoke the language of it’, while those opposed to him cite his demeaning words and attitude towards American Indians, Blacks, Arabs and Indians during his heyday.

Soft power symbols are increasingly becoming sources of conflict negating Nye’s perspective and upholding Huntington’s view. The Shintoist Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, built by the Meiji emperor in 1869 dedicated to soldiers dead at war, became a symbol of conflict between Japan and China a few years ago. The Confucius Institutes that China has established and its penetration of western academe are increasingly becoming subjects of heated debate in the west. Nepal too is in search of its own Ram hinting at the political charge and significance of these cultural conflicts.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey, has taken the ‘clash of civilisations’ to a new high by converting the 6th century Byzantine Greek Orthodox cathedral of Hagia Sophia into a functioning mosque. A century after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, ended the Ottoman fundamentalism and declared through Article 2 of the Constitution that Turkey would be a ‘democratic, secular and social state’, Erdogan wants a return to the Ottoman times. 

The Ottoman Empire was a communal and theocratic polity under which minorities like the Jews and Christians were forced into dhimmitude and subjected to a humiliating protection tax called the Jizya. That was extended to Zoroastrians in Iran and to Hindus in India too. When the Ottoman regime came to an end after the First World War, Mustafa Kemal launched fundamental reforms in Turkey on the basis of six principles – Republicanism, Pluralism, Secularism, Reformism, Nationalism, and Statism. He introduced the Gregorian calendar and restored the primacy of the Turkish language over Arabic. While the creation of the Turkish republic entailed the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey – 1.5 million Greeks left Turkish territories and 0.5 million Turks vacated Greek territories – Kamal Pasha ensured that the migration wouldn’t affect the secular character of the modern Turkey that he was building.

Hagia Sophia, then converted to a mosque, was one such symbol that Mustafa Kemal wanted to preserve as part of Turkey’s civilisational legacy and secular character. He ended the Islamist claims over it in 1934. Later, the UN had declared it a world heritage site. 

Hagia Sophia was the largest church built by the Romans in Constantinople in the middle of the 6th century AD. Throughout the Byzantine period, it served as the basilica of the imperial capital. Things changed when the iconoclastic Ottoman sultans conquered the city in the early 15th century. It was later renamed Istanbul. Like Babur and the subsequent Moghul rulers in India, the first thing that the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II had done after conquering Istanbul was to enter Hagia Sophia and offer namaz there. Thus began the conflict for control over this millennium-old Christian shrine. The Ottoman period saw the destruction of parts of the cathedral, and in recent decades there have been repeated claims for control by the Islamists.

Turkey is witnessing the rise of neo-Ottomans under Erdogan today. Starting this month, Friday prayers will be offered in the cathedral, the first of which, on 24 July, will be led by Erdogan himself. The rich murals on the walls will be ‘covered’ during the prayers. Greeks are naturally angry over Erdogan’s decision, so are many Christians. Some commentators in Athens are talking about an impending war between Turkey and Greece, catalysed by Hagia Sophia’s new Islamisation but also as a result of the geopolitical tensions in the Mediterranean. 

“I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened,” Pope Francis bemoaned. Expressing its ‘dismay’, the World Council of Churches in Geneva called on Erdogan to ‘reverse his decision’. Erdogan has dismissed all criticism insisting that it was his country’s ‘sovereign right’ and Turkey has the ‘will to use’ it.

Secular Liberals are stuck. They wanted to zealously preserve the Babri structure and keep the name of Aurangzeb Road. But their peers are on a demolition spree in America and Britain. They can’t very well protest Hagia Sophia’s reconversion to a mosque or demand for the restoration of its original Christian character, because then they can no longer logically oppose the restoration of Ram Janmabhumi at Ayodhya.

Cultures are the soul of nations. But conflicts between cultures are not. Not soft power, nor hard power, but ‘smart power’ is what we need to prevent those conflicts.

(The article was originally published at Chintan – India Foundation Blogs on July 23, 2020. Views expressed are personal. )

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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