Erdogan: the modern colonialist

By Tareq Shahwan

It is time to call Islamist colonialism what it is. Erdogan’s recent conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque removes any speck of doubt that Islamist powers are still guilty of cultural genocide today.

One of my earliest memories as a child in the Middle East is arguing with my 7th grade history teacher about the Ummayed conquests of Hispania, which took place from 711 to 788. At issue was the teacher’s use of the term ‘Futuhat’ to describe these conquests, which is an Arabic word that means ‘liberation’ or ‘opening’, a term meant to white-wash and legitimize the atrocities resulting from these series of military conquests that established the Ummayed Islamic caliphate until the creation of the Ottoman empire, conquests that lasted more than a thousand years.

Even though I was only a 12 year-old boy, I was quite aware of the oppression that my people were suffering due to the Israeli occupation. After all, I was born during the first Intifada, and spent my childhood eating and drinking politics in every social circle to which I belonged.  At the time of my quarrel with the history teacher, I was going through my first cognitive dissonance, as everyone around me was very critical of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands and its related colonial past, while my history teachers were glorifying the history of the Muslim conquests of various territories by branding them with terms such as ‘liberation’  or ‘opening’ of ‘foreign’ lands that were in dire need to be conquered or subjugated- thus turning a blind eye to the rich local cultures that existed before these conquests. This political branding was meant to invoke a certain ontological view of history:  The conquered lands were impatiently waiting these military conquests in order to meet their inevitable holy destiny. This destiny will civilize and cleanse them from their sinful past, as if history was frozen before the arrival of these Muslim forces. This has been eloquently described by the historian Bernard Lewis in his famous book “The political language of Islam” in the part where he attempted to explain the idea of ‘Futuh’ in classic Islamic thought:

‘  … Underlying this usage[Futuh word], clearly, is a concept of the essential rightfulness or legitimacy of the Muslim advance and the subsequent illegitimacy of Muslim retreat before infidel conquest… The advance of Muslim power is thus an opening or a liberation, to give free scope to this divinely implanted propensity’

This divine entitlement to the political and military domination of foreign lands and territories resulted in massive cultural genocide to the local populations. For example, The Muslim conquest of Egypt, which took place in 639 and 646 AD, converted the vast majority of Egyptians  (who were either Coptic or Greek at the time) to Muslims through a heavy system of taxes (Jizya) burdened on those who refused to convert to Islam. [1] This solicited backlash from the local Egyptian population, sometimes in the form of armed rebellions, which were instantly quashed by the Muslim caliphate, such as the Bashmurian revolt in the Delta[2]. This cultural genocide pales in comparison with one suffered by the Amazigh (Berber) in North Africa after the arrival of the Muslim forces in the 8th century (which happened in three stages)[3] resulting in complete ‘Arabization’ and Islamization of  a whole population, while depriving their members from their local languages, customs and traditions[4]. The current skirmishes[5] between Arabs and the few Berber tribes left in Algeria and Morocco are indicative of a long-entrenched vendetta brewing from the times of ‘Futuh’.  The likes of these cultural genocides exist in almost all the lands where the Muslim forces had conquered.

This Islamist narrow view of legitimacy and divine entitlement is shockingly similar to the doctrines of the discovery and Terra nullius that sprung into existence in the 1400s, which endowed the Europeans a fictitious legal and divine right to conquer the Americas, and most importantly to justify their superiority and domination over the local indigenous population. As a result, indigenous people in these territories have lost control over their own lands, and were subjected to multiple genocidal experiments, such as the residential schools in Canada, to completely transform their culture to a one close to the European culture.

The conceptual contours of the similarity between the ‘Futuh’ and the doctrine of ‘discovery’ lie in its ontological view of history: one dimensional and linear understanding of existence; one that is immoral, sinful and unrecognizable, which is assigned to the era before the arrival of the Muslim forces from the Arabic peninsula, and one that is legitimate, divine and legal after the European arrival to the Americas. This similarity shed the light on the universality of the colonialist understanding of history, be it the Muslim one in the Middle east or the European one in the Americas, and its attempts to anthropomorphize history and project onto it human ideals of sin and morality, in a binary existence of time.

This historical foreword is imperative to recognizing the pattern that is emerging from the conversion of the Museum of Hagia Sophia to a mosque. What stands out from the decision of Erdogan of conversion is its conceptual conformance to the classical colonialist line of thought: History, before the arrival of the colonialist forces, is neither recognizable nor sufficiently legal. Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th Century as an Eastern Roman cathedral in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), and remained like this until the fall of the city in 1453[6] AD to the Islamist Ottoman forces; it was then converted to a mosque and remained as such until the secularization of Turkey in 1931.

Erdogan is not willing to recognize the history of Hagia Sophia before the arrival of the colonialist Ottoman forces; on the contrary, he wants to revive the colonialist heritage of the Ottoman empire, by asserting that the moment when the Ottomans took a decision to convert a central Christian symbol of the Byzantine empire into a mosque, is when the valid and moral history of this structure started. This blatant erasure of history is reminiscent of European destruction and conversion of indigenous cultural and religious structures in the Americas, which started in the 15th century, ironically overlapping with the era of the aforementioned Ottoman’s decision.

An inclusive, non colonialist approach to the Hagia Sophia issue would be to recognize all of its history since its beginning.  This can be achieved through keeping it as a museum, one that teaches about its history in a way that reveals objectively to the world its colonial past, so it can be used as a cautionary tale for the newly formed Islamist factions in the Middle East (such as ISIS), who are bent on reviving their colonial and dominant past.


[1] Charles, Robert H (1913). The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu: Translated from Zotenberg’s Ethiopic Text, Chapter CXX: paragraph 32

[2] Dunn, Michael Collins (1975). The Struggle for ʿAbbāsid Egypt (PhD diss.). Georgetown University.


[4] Mohammed Arkoun, Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers (1994)



Tareq Shahwan is an ex- Engineer (M.Eng) and a law student (BCL/JD candidate) at McGill University (Montreal) focusing on international law and human rights, and also a published political writer.

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