Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is venturing into alternative history. Speaking to a summit of Latin American Islamic leaders in Istanbul, he said that:
“Contacts between Latin America and Islam date back to the 12th century. Muslims discovered America in 1178, not Christopher Columbus,” Erdogan said. “Muslim sailors arrived in America from 1178. Columbus mentioned the existence of a mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast.”
Most scholars believe that Columbus was describing a feature of the landscape as mosque-shaped, not pointing out an actual mosque. There is no archaeological evidence of any mosque in pre-Columbian America.As Mustafa Akyol points out in Al Monitor, as nutty as Erdogan’s remarks may sound to Western ears, this sort of historical revisionism has a history in Turkish politics. Indeed, Erdogan’s Islamic revisionism is comparable to Kemal Ataturk’s secular revisionism:
Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, followed an even bolder version of the same path during his all-powerful presidency between 1923-38. With the aim of countering the then-popular disparagement of Turks and other non-Western peoples in Europe, Ataturk promoted a new theory of history that redefined Turks and their historic homeland in Central Asia as “the cradle of civilization.” Accordingly, pre-historic Turks had built a magnificent civilization in Central Asia, only to disperse to different parts of the world, to become the Sumerians who developed the first alphabet or the Egyptians who built the pyramids. (Ataturk even considered Mu, the mythical lost continent, as the possible homeland of the Turks.) Some Turkish academics, personally promoted by Ataturk, developed these ideas into the “Sun Language Theory,” which is considered as a case pseudoscience. (See more on this matter here.)What Ataturk wanted to do with this radical historical revision was to boost the self-confidence of the new Turkish nation that he envisioned. In this narrative, pre-Islamic Turkish history was praised, whereas the era of Islam was depicted as backward and oppressive. It nicely fitted into Ataturk’s vision of secular Turkish nationalism.In comparison to Ataturk, Erdogan is not a secular Turkish nationalist. But arguably he is a Muslim nationalist, feeling strong solidarity with all fellow Muslims in the world and feeling proud of their common civilization. Therefore, the idea that Muslims discovered Columbus, or any theme that will refute the view that “our civilization is inferior to other civilizations,” nicely fits into his vision.
Akyol, however, is not so sanguine about the results of this Turkish pattern of reading history, which he feels ultimately cuts off the culture from needed intellectual curiosity and reform. We highly recommend you read the whole thing.