The latest edition of The World This Week covers: Erdogan converts Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Trump doubts the second round of trade talks with China, and the ruling party wins the elections in Singapore again | Contributors to this edition are: Sourina Bej, Harini Madhusudan, Aparupa Bhattacherjee and Rashmi BR
Erdogan converts the iconic Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, reversing Turkey’s secular outlook
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on 10 July that Istanbul’s iconic museum Hagia Sophia would now become a mosque once again, thereby reversing a legacy of the country’s modern founder, who converted the site to a museum more than eight decades ago. In a televised address, Erdogan said that prayers would start at the compound in two weeks and that Hagia Sophia, originally a Byzantine Christian cathedral and later an Ottoman mosque, would remain open and accessible to visitors from all over the world.
What is the background?
First, Hagia Sophia as the universal symbol of all faiths. As Erdogan seeks to restore Hagia Sophia as a mosque, it is important to remember that the architecture represents a merging of several historical periods and two primary religious faiths. The building, commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and designed by architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, was inaugurated in 537 and for centuries was the largest church for the orthodox Christian community. When it was converted into a mosque in 1453, as the Ottomans conquered Istanbul, minarets were placed around its perimeter by whitewashing the Byzantine mosaics. As Turkey became a republic under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, he brought the Byzantine Christian and the Ottoman Islamic past together as a collection of memory to coexist within a museum in 1934.
Second, Erdogan’s return to the Ottoman past is a political act. The President’s focus on the reversal of Hagia Sophia to the status of the mosque indicates the continuation of his neo-Ottoman policy of projecting Turkey as a Muslim majority country. With this step, he has attempted to whip up political support that has been waning. An attempt to swing the Turkish electorate behind the AKP also brings with it a dangerous precedent of galvanizing a religious-nationalist sentiment among the populace.
What does it mean?
First, Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque is not a unique or isolated incident under President Erdogan. Erdogan has previously converted three other Byzantine church museums as mosques. While establishing places of worship is an essential step towards recognizing the freedom to practice one’s own faith, but eliminating museums in order to do so indicates an active political impulse in rewriting the cultural reverence of coexistence that the structure symbolizes. The political message by Erdogan has been clear with this reversal of Ataturk’s most symbolic steps, and it will sideline the minorities under this religious majoritarian garb.
Second, the step is likely to mark a return of fresh tensions with Greek. When Greece protested the planned change last month, urging Turkey to act as a neutral custodian of a site that was once the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, Erdogan snapped back with a telling that Hagia Sophia should be left to Turkey to decide. This adds to the series of tensions that have been brewing between Athens and Ankara over refugees influx, energy rights in the eastern Mediterranean waters and territorial rights over the Aegean sea.
Trump rules out Phase-two trade talks with China
On 10 July, the US President Donald Trump ended hopes of a phase-2 trade negotiation with China, during a press conference on his way to Florida aboard Air Force One. He said, “I don’t think about it now,” and referred to the soured relationship between the two countries which has turned worse due to the pandemic. “The relationship with China has been severely damaged, they could have stopped the plague, they didn’t stop it,” the US President stated.
What is the background?
First, the failure of the phase-one trade negotiations. The trade dispute that began in March 2018 led to the imposition of tariffs and counter-tariffs by both countries. The phase-one deal was signed in early January 2020, after almost two years of trade negotiations between the US and China. In phase-one deal, China had pledged to purchase 200 billion dollars of the US goods, including soybeans and pork. The deal in itself was unrealistic, and the commitments were not met mainly due to the pandemic that led to the disruption in global trade.
Second, deterioration of the Sino-American relations during the pandemic. The bilateral tensions between the US and China that started over trade has now expanded. Several factors that have contributed to the increase in tensions have been the protests in Hong Kong, human rights violations of the Uyghurs, the support to Taiwan and the election climate in the US. The coronavirus outbreak in China and the spread of the pandemic to the various parts of the world added fuel to the confrontation with Washington accusing Beijing of not doing enough to contain the spread.
What does it mean?
First, these uncertainties surrounding the US-China relations will deepen further in the post-pandemic time. Diplomatic negotiations at various levels have been halted, but the two sides have continued to raise suspicions against each other, leading to more tensions. Further, the statement by Donald Trump comes when the number of cases in the US is the highest at 3.24 million. In all likelihood, the statement by Trump is a passing comment, but that does not sway away from the fears of the decoupling of the two economies when the pandemic ends.
Second, though China has been the first to offer the channel for negotiations in the past years, the current statement might test Beijing’s patience in the US-China trade negotiations. At the same time, the statement also brings out Trump’s weariness, including a fickleness in dealing with China.
Singapore’s ruling party wins general election again, but with a lesser margin
The People’s Action Party (PAP) in Singapore has won the elections again. It has been voted back to power for another tenure in the general election that took place on 10 July. The PAP won 83 of the 93 parliamentary seats in comparison to the 10 seats won by the opposition, Workers Party (WP). Singapore is the third country after South Korea and Serbia to hold the election amid the ongoing pandemic.
What is the background?
First, the PAP has been winning since independence. The party has been in power since independence in 1965; it has been dependent on the promise of economic change that was lived up to by Lee Kuan Yew, the cofounder of the party. The party has provided stability to Singapore over the decades and has been the engine of Singapore’s economic and political growth. From a small city-State into a global power centre in Southeast Asia – the party has played a strong role. This has been one of the reasons for the support to the party from its people.
Second, there have been criticisms during recent years. Despite the above positive role by the party, there have been criticisms as well on media censorship, tight government control, use of oppressive laws and civil lawsuits against rebels, discriminations against the ethnic minorities and migrant labourers etc. PAP’s lack of attention to the deteriorating living condition for the migrant labourers was cited as a reason for the pandemic spread in these clusters. Similarly, failure to address the differential treatments towards ethnic minorities has been one of the major criticisms of the party.
Third, there has been a decline in the number of votes for PAP. Although PAP won a clear majority, there has been a decline in its vote share. The 61 per cent of the vote for PAP is considerably low compared to its previous record. The 10 per cent of seats by the opposition is remarkable in Singaporean political history. The reduced numbers of votes for PAP has been a trend noticed since 2011 elections, whereby although they secured 81 seats of total 87 seats but lost of the important Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (the leader’s constituency) to WP. Similarly, they lost 6 seats to WP in 2015, winning only 83 seats of the total 89 seats.
What does it mean?
First, economic advancement and political stability promised by the PAP remain the priority for the majority of the voters, as could be seen from the electoral support. However, there is growing anxiety among the voters regarding the job cuts and inflation due to the impact of COVID-19. This will be the greatest challenge that the PAP and Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong will have to address along with meeting the needs of the young voters.
Second, the government also has to address the ethnic disparity and the criticism on the freedom of expression. This was evident when a young candidate from the WP, Raeesah Khan, had to apologize for her comments on social media accusing the police of harsher treatment towards ethnic minorities and migrant workers. However, she won from her constituency.
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South Korean court rules in favour of former POWs in a case against Kim Jong Un
A South Korean court ruled that two former prisoners must be compensated in monetary terms for the damages caused while they were detained in North Korea for decades. Kim Jong Un was held liable and has been asked to pay the POWs. This is the first time that a South Korean court has held a North Korean leader liable. The ruling might help conclude other cases against Pyongyang.
India moves to include Australia in Malabar exercise
India will formally invite Australia into the Malabar naval exercise, that is jointly conducted by India, Japan and the US. Australia’s inclusion is seen as a boost to the QUAD and the larger strategic objectives of these countries in the Indo-Pacific region. This could not materialize earlier due to Australia’s hesitance and its close economic ties with China. However, since the pandemic took a toll on the supply chains across Australia and the world, the regime has upped its ante against China.
Denmark clears the path for Nord Stream 2
Denmark gave its nod to laying the final leg of the Nord Stream 2, the pipeline carrying Russian natural gas to Europe. It covers 120 kilometres in Danish waters. The project got delayed because of the political opposition in Ukraine and Poland, countries through which the pipeline passes before reaching western Europe. The US was opposed to the project, as it feared increased west-European dependence on Russia.
As the US imposes sanctions on Chinese officials over abuse of Uighurs, the UK sanctions Myanmar’s military chief over abuse of Rohingyas
Washington has imposed sanctions on three senior Chinese officials of the Chinese Communist Party over abuse of Uighurs. Secretary of State Pompeo said that the “US will not stand idly”, as China continues to carry out “human rights abuses targeting Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang.” Seen as a new low in China-US relationship, this is part of the series of actions taken by the Trump administration to corner China. In a similar stance against Myanmar, the UK imposed sanctions on the Commander-in-chief of the army and his deputy for human rights abuses against the Rohingyas. The British foreign secretary said that the officers were involved in “systematic and brutal violence against the Rohingya people and other ethnic minorities.”
UN expert pronounces that killing of Gen Soleimani was unlawful
The drone strike that killed Gen Soleimani was unlawful, according to the report by the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard. As per the report, the US had not provided any evidence of threat, that can justify the strike. The US, however, strongly opposed her remarks and accused her of “giving a pass to terrorists”.
Criticisms against Israel and Sweden over handling of pandemic
Israel is grappling with a new wave of COVID-19 after the restrictions were gradually lifted. The country’s top public health official resigned from her post, stating the failure of the government in handling the pandemic, and moving far from its initial achievement to keep COVID-19 in check. Similar criticisms have been levelled against Sweden’s ‘herd immunity’ strategy, though there were appreciations from some quarters in the beginning. With more than 5400 deaths, it has the highest fatalities among the Scandinavian countries.
Brazilian President Bolsonaro tests positive for COVID-19
Brazilian President Bolsonaro tested positive for COVID-19 this week. He is said to be taking hydroxychloroquine as part of the treatment. Bolsonaro came under severe criticism for removing the mask while announcing that he has tested positive. The Brazilian press association has said that they would sue him for not being sensitive to the reporters’ health during the press conference.
Australia, Canada suspends extradition treaty with Hong Kong
Australia and Canada suspended their extradition treaties with Hong Kong. Along with suspending the treaty, Australia extended visas for Hong Kong citizens by five years and issued travel warnings. Canada’s PM Trudeau stated that his country would stand up for Hong Kong and would soon announce measures regarding immigration. As the region adjusts to the changes in Hong Kong, China was seen converting a hotel into its new national security office in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay. It may be noted that Causeway Bay was one of the places where first arrests were made under the new law.
Taliban gives a new list of prisoners to be released
Taliban handed over a new list of 592 prisoners, to be released by the Afghan government. Sources say that this is a replacement list for the 592 prisoners who were initially rejected by the government for release. The government has released 4,019 prisoners, whereas the Taliban has released 737 prisoners so far.
Harini Madhusudan, Aparupa Bhattacherjee, and Rashmi B R are PhD scholars at School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. Sourina Bej is a Project Associate at NIAS.