Previous to Pope Benedict XVI’s November 30 visit to the Hagia Sophia complex in Constantinople, Muslims and Turks variously expressed apprehension and rage. Turkey’s independent paper Vatan put it thus: “The risk 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.” A sign of the cross, apparently, would be interpreted as a signal for a crusade.
Built in Constantinople in the sixth century, the Hagia Sophia — Greek for “Holy Wisdom” — was Christendom’s greatest and most celebrated church. After parrying centuries of jihadi thrusts from Arabs, Constantinople was finally sacked by Turks in the jihad of 1453. Its crosses desecrated and icons defaced, this millennium-old church — as well as thousands of other churches in the then Byzantine Empire — was immediately converted into a mosque, the tall minarets of Islam surrounding it in triumph. As part of Ataturk’s reforms aimed at modernizing Turkey, the Hagia Sophia was secularized and transformed into a museum in 1935.
In protestation of Benedict’s visit, a gang of Turks stormed and occupied Hagia Sophia on November 22, exclaiming “Allahu Akbar!” and warning “Pope! don’t make a mistake; don’t wear out our patience.” On the day of the pope’s visit, another throng of Islamists waved banners saying “Pope get out of Turkey” while chanting “Aya Sofya [Hagia Sophia] is Turkish and will remain Turkish.” And of course, al Qaeda in Iraq got in on the action by denouncing Benedict’s visit in an Internet statement. One of the pope’s expressed purposes for visiting Turkey was to promote inter-religious dialogue and denounce violence in the name of God.
To the intolerance of Muslims, the West responds with tolerance. Consider, for instance, the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The Muslim site, annexed by Israel after its victory in the 1967 war, was not defaced by the Jews or converted into a Jewish synagogue or temple — even though the mosque is deliberately built atop the remains of the Temple Mount, the most important site in Judaeo-Christian eschatology. Moreover, since reclaiming the Temple Mount, Israel has granted Muslims control over the complex (except during times of crises). And under Muslim control, Christians and Jews are barred from freely worshipping there.
Despite such concessions, jihad has been declared on Israel, while Muslims worldwide are simultaneously demanding “justice” from the international community. It is an illustration of the privileged status many Muslims have come to expect for themselves in the international arena: When Muslims conquer non-Muslim territories, such as Constantinople — through fire and steel, with all the attendant human suffering and misery — those whom they conquer are not to expect any “apologies,” let alone political or territorial concessions. Indeed, Turkey has yet even to recognize its genocide against its Armenian population in 1917. Yet Muslims constantly demand and expect apologies and concessions from the West — and they receive them.
When Islamists wage jihad — past, present, and future — conquering and consolidating non-Muslim territories and centers in the name of Islam, never once considering ceding them back to their rightful owners, they demonstrate that they live by the age-old adage that “might makes right.” Yet, 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 demanding “justice,” “restitutions,” “rights,” and so forth?
What such actions lack in intellectual consistency, they make up for in practical success. Muslims cannot be blamed for expecting special treatment for themselves, 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 incessantly criticizing itself, apologizing, and offering concessions — things the Islamic world has yet to do — the West reaffirms that Islam has a privileged status in the world.
It is obvious enough that some Muslims wish to wage eternal jihad until Islam dominates the globe. But why should those who divide the world into two warring camps — Islam and Infidelity, or, in Islamic terms, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War — expect any concessions from the international community? It is impossible to meet with toleration the demands of those who reject the principles upon which the Western value of tolerance is based; attempts at doing so are nothing more than the appeasement of aggressors.
When the pope visited Hagia Sophia, he refrained from any gesture that could be misconstrued as Christian worship. And therein is the final lesson. Muslim zeal for their holy places and lands is not intrinsically blameworthy. Indeed, there’s something to be said about being passionate about and protective of one’s faith and heritage. 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. Where might does not make right, zeal apparently does.
– Raymond Ibrahim is editor of the upcoming The Al Qaeda Reader.