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Why Does Turkey's President Think Muslims Discovered America?

  • Coilin O'Connor

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sparked controversy at home and abroad by backing a widely disputed claim that Muslims reached America before Columbus. (file photo)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sparked controversy at home and abroad by backing a widely disputed claim that Muslims reached America before Columbus. (file photo)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no stranger to controversy but even many seasoned Turkey watchers were taken aback when he boldly claimed that "Muslims discovered America in 1178, not Christopher Columbus."

Speaking at an Istanbul summit with Latin American Muslim leaders on November 15, the conservative president attempted to bolster his claim by saying that when the Italian-born explorer Columbus arrived 300 years later he "mentioned the existence of a mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast." Erdogan then added that his government would be happy to build a new mosque at the site in Cuba.

Critics were quick to point out that Erdogan's remarks about the discovery of America were based on a 1996 article by Youssef Mroueh, a historian with somewhat dubious academic credentials who "The Washington Post" notes is "not listed as a historian at any institution of higher learning."

Mroueh's claims -- described by one investigative researcher as a "particularly fanciful" piece of "slipshod scholarship and fabricated quotations" -- relies heavily on a diary entry by Columbus mentioning a mosque in Cuba as proof that "the religion of Islam was widespread" in the New World.

Although most scholars believe Columbus was simply making a poetic allusion to the shape of the Cuban landscape, a small number of Islamist researchers like Mroueh have taken his words literally even though there is no archaeological evidence of Islamic structures or settlements in the Americas pre-dating the Genoan mariner's arrival.

While many Western observers have quickly dismissed Erdogan's comments as just another quirky outburst in a long list of whacky sound bites, some see the Turkish president's remarks as a further indication of his long-standing desire to reshape modern Turkey into a society based on traditionalist Islamic values.

Halil Karaveli, editor of "The Turkey Analyst," maintains that Erdogan's claims "reflect a certain rationality" in the conservative leader and pious Muslim who ruled the country as prime minister from 2003 before moving to his new post in August this year.

"Even though they may seem bizarre, almost insane, they are actually grounded in an ideological reality," he says. "And that reality is that Erdogan is very purposefully remaking Turkey in his own image into a more religiously dominated country, more Sunni Islamic, and he's more and more putting the emphasis on Islam. And, so in this endeavor to change Turkey -- to create what they call 'new Turkey' -- using the ideological instrument of Islam makes perfect sense."

For good measure, the Turkish president also used his speech to take a swipe at the Christian colonization of the New World in the centuries after Columbus's voyage there in 1492. "Converting people by force, by the sword, has never been a part of Islam. Our religion has never been a tool of exploitation," Erdogan said, adding that European Christians "colonialized America for its gold and Africa for its diamonds, [and] now do it in the Middle East for its oil with the same dirty plot."

WATCH: Erdogan claims Muslims reached America before Columbus.

While pro-government media in Turkey have backed the president to the hilt, saying Western sources on the discovery of America are wrong, many Erdogan critics at home were quick to pour scorn on the president's claims. In a sarcastic piece for the "Hurriyet" daily, one columnist even suggested that the Turkish leader would soon go on to "correct other assumptions misunderstood by the world," such as the fact that a Muslim, and not Isaac Newton, had discovered gravity.

Despite the criticism, Erdogan has stuck to his guns. On November 18, he insisted that "very respected scientists in Turkey and in the world" supported his claim.

He has since upped the ante and said that the supposed Muslim discovery of the Americas should be included in school curricula. "A big responsibility falls on the shoulders of the national education ministry and YOK [higher education board] on this issue," he said in televised comments. "If the history of science is written objectively, it will be seen that Islamic geography's contribution to science is much more than what's known."

Turkey analyst Halil Karaveli (click to enlarge)

Turkey analyst Halil Karaveli (click to enlarge)

According to Turkey-watcher Karaveli, Erdogan's defiant stance is consistent with the Islamist roots of his socially conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) and reflect the president's view of himself as a paternalistic leader and his desire to change society.

"Basically, he is creating a new ideological, historical narrative, which is changing the history of Turkey retroactively itself and at the same time -- together with the new narrative of Turkish history -- he is also fitting this into the broader historical ideological narrative of Islam. So in that sense it is a reflection of the very ideological nature of the Erdogan regime."

The danger in pushing a conservative, Islamic agenda, Karaveli warns, is that it could deepen divisions in a country that also has strong secular traditions dating back to the days of Kemal Ataturk.

Far from seeing it as an attempt to push an Islamist agenda, however, some of Erdogan's political opponents believe there are far more mundane reasons for the president's comments.

Devlet Bahceli, leader of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), said on November 18 that the controversy was a political maneuver devised by Erdogan to "cover up his faults," and to distract the public from damaging corruption allegations that have been dogging his presidency in recent months.

With reporting by AFP
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