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Why Turkey’s Erdogan still insists Muslims reached America before Columbus

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by his wife, Emine Erdogan, at an event at a school in Ankara on Nov. 18. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)
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This weekend, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan courted controversy (and jeers) by declaring on television that there was evidence that Muslims had reached the Americas before Christopher Columbus. Speaking at a summit of Muslim leaders from Latin America, Erdogan said that Muslim sailors reached the New World about 300 years before Columbus and that the Italian explorer had even spied the ruins of a mosque on the Cuban coast. (WorldViews examined the dubious claim here.)

But rather than be chastened by the widespread derision sparked by his comments, the Turkish leader has rounded on his critics and doubled down on his insistence that the Islamic history of New World exploration has been ignored.

"An objective writing of history will show the contribution of the East, the Middle East and Islam to the science and arts," Erdogan said at an event at a school in Ankara on Nov. 18. "As the president of my country, I cannot accept that our civilization is inferior to other civilizations."

According to Hurriyet Daily News, Erdogan now wants Turkish educational institutions to highlight the Muslim world's contribution to world history, including, apparently, the supposed arrival of Muslim seafarers in the Americas.

To buttress his claims, Erdogan cited the work of Fuat Sezgin, a venerable Turkish scholar of the history of Islamic science and a professor emeritus at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.

In one of his books, Sezgin has a chapter on the possibility of Muslim seafarers reaching the New World. He first debunks some of the claims made by Gavin Menzies, a retired British submarine officer who has popularized the largely discredited theory that Chinese treasure fleets reached the Americas in the 1420s.

Sezgin then proceeds to do a survey of late-15th- and early-16th-century cartography, concluding that Columbus must have "embarked on his travels with a map of the Atlantic on which several meso-American islands were already drawn-in." Citing the poor charts produced by European explorers of the age, he extrapolates that their navigation must have been aided by the greater expertise and precision of Muslim voyagers who preceded them. "I do not see an alternative to assuming they were created by navigators from the Arabic-Islamic culture area, well versed in astronomy and geography," Sezgin writes.

This is clearly conjecture, and Sezgin's theories aren't widely shared by historians of cartography or backed by archaeological evidence. That doesn't mean he's totally wrong. As WorldViews discussed earlier, it's already established that Vikings reached the Americas centuries before Columbus's Spanish-sponsored expedition. And there are many reasons to believe that other pre-Columbian mariners also may have arrived at the continent's Atlantic and Pacific coasts — some of them, indeed, could very well have been Muslim.

Sezgin himself admits that these voyagers would have come across the New World "by chance rather than on purpose." The Muslim explorers Erdogan so keenly wants to celebrate would have been "hardly aware of the significance” of their supposed discovery, Sezgin suggests.

Moreover, nowhere in his work does Sezgin mention the ancient Cuban mosque that Erdogan cited as evidence. The Turkish president was probably quoting the flimsy research of an amateur historian who misread a metaphorical allusion, attributed to a now-lost passage in Columbus's diary, as a literal reference. Undeterred, Erdogan offered over the weekend to build a new mosque in Cuba.

In al-Monitor, Turkish writer and academic Pinar Tremblay has a comprehensive round-up of the backlash against Erdogan's historical revisionism, which includes a raft of cynical tweets and comments made by Turkish pundits and journalists. Erdogan was displeased.

Why do they not believe it, he asked of his critics on Tuesday. "Because they have never believed that a Muslim can do such a thing. They have never believed that their ancestors could manage to launch ships in the Golden Horn after transporting them across land.” He was referring to the tactic used by the Ottoman emperor Mehmet II to finally encircle the city of Constantinople, now Istanbul, and capture it in 1453.

"They have never believed that their ancestors ended the Dark Age and opened the New Age. That’s a lack of self-confidence," Erdogan opined. "Western sources shouldn't be believed as if they are sacred texts."

Erdogan's stubborn rhetoric here has a clear objective — to motivate his conservative base and demonize some of his political opponents. As Tremblay puts it:

Whenever the going gets tough, it has been Erdogan’s classic approach to stir up Islamic and Turkish identities at the same time. He has masterfully employed this tactic to motivate his base on a mission to protect the Muslim identity. With several embarrassing domestic and foreign policy failures on his doorstep, this debate allows Erdogan not only to muddy the waters, but also to generate support from his loyal core. He made it clear: If you do not believe that Muslims discovered America first before Columbus, you also fail to believe that Muslims can achieve success.

He may not be much of a historian, but Erdogan is ever the skilled politician.