Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently come under fire for statements he made on the role of Muslims in history that have been widely construed as blatant – even clumsy – revisionism. On November 15, at a conference with Latin American politicians and scholars, Erdogan claimed that “Muslim seafarers” had discovered the Americas three centuries before Italian explorer Christopher Columbus had done.
He added: “Columbus recalls seeing a mosque at the top of a hill [on] the shores of Cuba in his memoirs… A mosque will be fitting for that hill today. All we need is permission. Islam had developed and spread on the continent even before Columbus arrived.”
Erdogan has always enjoyed challenging common narratives. In doing so, he appeals to Muslim public opinion both domestically and internationally. Despite recent setbacks, he still believes that he represents the Muslim world. In Turkey, his remarks were widely discussed in the pro-Erdogan media where some overzealous journalists even tried to substantiate his claims. Aksam newspaper, for instance, went further by detailing “evidence” of the presence of Islam in the Americas well before Columbus. As for the average man on the street, he certainly relished the idea of a Muslim at the forefront of American history – as revised by Erdogan.
Stands by his claim
A few days later, following a flood of sarcastic commentaries in media outlets across the globe, Erdogan – rather than retract, spin or clarify his bizarre assertion – insisted he was right.
“I told them that Muslims discovered the American continent 300 years before Columbus. This is no new assumption; it was mentioned in the books of [Turkish] professor Fuat Sezgin who lives in Germany, as well as in other academic works. As for the proofs, several scientists have already produced them. And something interesting happened: Before the foreigners, our own youngsters have started to challenge this fact. Even grownups: We have columnists writing, cartoonists drawing against [this assertion]. Why? Because they don’t believe a Muslim can achieve such a deed… This is lack of self-confidence,” he told journalists, adding that he instructed the Ministry of Education to revise history textbooks accordingly.
And with these words, Erdogan defied the critics and satirists, and stood by his assertion that the Americas were discovered by Muslims in the 12th century.
What a conversion for a politician who, in 2005, was the initiator, together with then Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, of the so-called Alliance of Civilisations as an interfaith initiative to counter Samuel Huntington’s theory on the “Clash of Civilisations” in the post-September 11 era. At the time, relations between Muslims and Christians – as well as Jews – were tense. Erdogan was the thriving prime minister of a Turkey that was touted as the model of nascent “Muslim democracy”. He was negotiating with the European Union for full membership.
What country other than Turkey could have been the architect of such an initiative? The project was later adopted by the United Nations as a UN initiative called the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC). Within this framework, Erdogan and Zapatero co-sponsored several meetings around the world putting the emphasis on a common understanding between Islam and other religions on both humanitarian and social matters. Intercultural dialogue was the catchphrase of the hour.
Let’s fast forward to today: Erdogan is now president, but he appears to act more like a Muslim proselytiser, proposing to build mosques wherever he goes, boasting about achievements by Muslims in our day and in the past and adopting a style with patent religious undertones. As he puts it, he has become a kind of “missionary” of the Muslim world, constantly instilling confidence, but often at the expense of the facts and of the other faiths: “Our duty is to inform about the Almighty until our last dying breath and invite people to the path of Allah.”
This shift in Erdogan’s policy (and behaviour) has already been noticed by the successors of Zapatero, who left power in 2011, a date which also corresponds to the beginning of Erdogan’s openly authoritarian way of ruling domestically. The successor government in Spain has put on hold its participation in the UNAOC, while the project continues under UN auspices but with less and less impact, especially given the recent chaos and bloodshed in the Middle East.
With Erdogan’s recent shenanigans, international public opinion received a confirmation of this shift as extensively reported by Spanish media along with other media outlets in Europe and the Americas. It is highly significant that a respected Spanish newspaper like El Pais has bluntly challenged his views by writing that Erdogan was a leader cut off from reality and recalling his recommendations to the Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen during a visit there on the need for Finnish families to have at least three children as he recommends the Turks.
The Washington Post also challenges Erdogan’s interpretation of history: “Most scholars insist the ‘mosque’ mentioned was a metaphorical allusion to a striking land feature. There have been no archaeological discoveries of Islamic structures pre-dating Columbus’ arrival in the New World.”
Rewriting history according to one’s own religious beliefs, no matter the new narrative, is a highly controversial and perilous enterprise, particularly when the very politician is already under suspicion for his sectarian policies at home and abroad. Erdogan would have done better to recall the anti-Islamic zeal of Spanish conquerors of America when they considered the indigenous people on par with the Moors that they chased out during the Reconquista in Spain.
Cengiz Aktar is Senior Scholar at Istanbul Policy Center. As a former director at the United Nations where he spent 22 years of his professional life, Aktar is one of the leading advocates of Turkey’s integration into the EU.