As a geographic location, the territories now occupied by the Republic of Turkey are no stranger to bouts of iconoclasm and wanton destruction of works of art. In the days before Turks ever tread on the soil of Anatolia and Islam had become the law of the land, the Byzantine Empire (to use that time-worn 19th-century coinage) went through a number of turbulent phases in its religious life. Phases in experiencing religiosity that were connected to the use and/or abuse of images, when believers were either iconodules or iconoclasts, loving or loathing icons or depictions of the deity and other holy figures. As such, in Byzantine history two bouts of image-breaking fervour occurred: the “First Iconoclasm”, lasting from approximately 730 till the year 787 and the “Second Iconoclasm”, between 814 and 842. The then-hotly debated issue was whether the worship of the deity through icons constituted idolatry or was a legitimate means of approaching the godhead. Of more recent memory and enjoying large international exposure is of course the Taliban demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in the course of March 2001, an act of gratuitous iconoclasm based on a strict interpretation of Islamic precepts practised by the Taliban and their Wahhabi sponsors. In fact, the Saudis themselves have also committed their share of wilful destruction of cultural heritage. Early in 2002, they destroyed an 18th-century Ottoman-era fortress, al-Ajyad, overlooking a mosque in Mecca for the sake of progress, in order to erect 11 high-rise towers, consisting of apartments, a twin-tower five-star hotel, restaurants and a sacrosanct shopping mall in the holy city (at a cost of $533m), the latter ensuring that pilgrims and local contribute to the city’s economy by means of worshipping consumerism. At the time, the Turkish government “lodged a complaint with UNESCO, arguing that the Saudi move was a crime against humanity’s shared heritage and no different from the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of two massive Buddhist statues inAfghanistan”, as worded by the travel writer Michael Wise. Then-Turkish parliament speaker Murat Sökmenoğlu (member of the Turco-Islamist MHP), declared that a “Muslim country’s destruction of another Muslim country’s historic heritage on holy soil is a sinful behaviour in breach of the moral values of Islam, religious brotherhood and common sense”.
Now that Turkey is living in the grip of the AKP, one of the successors of the recently deceased Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Partisi (RP), one would think that such Muslim sentiment reigns supreme. Currently, a symbolically-charged statue is being demolished as a result of Recep Tayyib Erdoğan’s statement in January 2011 that a “freak” had been erected in the vicinity of the tomb of Hasan al-Haraqani (963-1033). The Prime Minister was referring to the gigantic and as yet incomplete ‘Monument to Humanity’ (İnsanlık Anıtı), set up in 2008 by the sculptor Mehmet Aksoy. At the time of Erdoğan’s effusion, the Wall Street Journal’s Marc Champion opined that these words signaled “the depth of a freeze in efforts to reopen the border and improve relations between the two neighbors” of Armenia and Turkey. And now, following another round of 24-April trepidations, destruction work has commenced at full force, with the hope that work will be finished in ten days.
But what did Mehmet Aksoy’s gigantic sculpture attempt to do? It is a really huge human figure that is torn in two, with an equally enormous hand reaching out into the distance. The message seems rather obvious: Turks, or should we say Muslims?, and Armenians once lived side by side on these lands. They used to be one body. As a result of a brutal exercise of ethnic cleansing that once-unified social structure became ruptured. Yet, now as neighbour – the sovereign states of Turkey and Armenia– attempts should be made to overcome the legacy of the Great War (1914-18), hence the reaching out of an empty hand looking for friendship. But now, on account of government-sponsored iconoclasm, such feelings of solidarity and attempts at coming to term with one’s past no longer have a physical reminder in a region o f Turkey once heavily populated by Armenians.
And what would the dead saint, ostensibly at the centre of this affair, Hasan al-Haraqani, have said about all these things? After all, his final resting place seems to have provided the pretext for the current bout of iconoclasm in the geographic location of the Republic of Turkey. This saintly figure’s presence in Anatolia predated the Battle of Manazgirt (1077), which ushered in the Turkification and Islamification of Anatolia. Born in Khorasan, he left his home and came to Anatolia following the death of his Mürşid (spiritual teacher) Bâyazid Bistamî. Haraqani was known as a man who cared for the downtrodden and rejoiced in his love for God and mankind. His advice for reaching God was to practice generosity, and to be compassionate and contented. All in all, Hasan al-Haraqani would apparently not have approved of the wanton destruction of a symbol meant to bring people together and bring an end to a century of enmity. In fact, Turkey’s current favourite saint, Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumî, better knowns as just Rumi in the rest of the world, also wrote favourably about him. As a mystic who saw himself as a conduit to God for ordinary people, Haraqani’s life and teachings could serve as a cautionary tale for today’s policy-makers and business-leaders in Turkey trying to come to grips with the annually recurring 24-April crisis and the growing Islamophobia in this post-9/11 world of ours.
What lies behind the present destruction of the ‘Monument to Humanity’? Why did Erdoğan use the word “freak” (‘ucube’) in connection with Mehmet Aksoy’s sculpture? The Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu added that the modernist (or is it post-modernist?) sculpture clashes with the Seljuk and Ottoman heritage of the city of Kars, that it clashes with the architectural aesthetic present in the city. On the other hand, the upcoming elections should not be discounted either. Located on a spot that affords a view of the Republic of Armenia, removing the sculpture might send a message of Turkish determination in the face of Armenian desperation to have the G-word finally officially engraved on the history of 20th-century Turkey, from its Unionist beginnings, over its Kemalist heyday, and into its current post-Kemalist and pro-Islamic phase. Is the Prime Minister merely trying to have the AKP replace the MHP in the hearts and minds of Turkish nationalists by means of removing a symbolic gesture towards Armenia and its on-going struggle to come to terms with the past?