On Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a controversial statement once again saying that Muslims discovered the Americas in the 12th century, almost three centuries before Christopher Columbus. In his speech given at the closing ceremony of the First Latin American Muslim Leaders Religious Summit in Istanbul, Erdogan claimed that “Contacts between Latin America and Islam date back to the 12th century. Muslims discovered America in 1178, not Christopher Columbus.”
ERDOGAN ALSO SAID that Columbus mentioned the existence of a mosque on a mountain in Cuba in his diary and Ankara is keen to build a mosque on top of the same mountain if the Cubans give permission. “I would like to talk about it to my Cuban brothers. A mosque would go perfectly on that mountain today, too” Erdogan said.1 Erdogan’s statement immediately became a very hot issue in Turkey, and even a joking matter, especially among social media users. His statement was also picked up by the BBC, Washington Post, Telegraph, etc.
In fact, Erdogan’s claims have no scientific basis. It is widely known that Erdogan’s speeches are written by his advisors. Erdogan’s advisors should have taken inspiration from an article, “Pre-Columbian Muslims in the Americas”, written by Mathematician Youssef Mroueh in the 1990s. Not surprisingly, Mroueh’s article is widely circulated on various Islamic websites. In his disputed article, he wrote: “Columbus admitted in his papers that on Monday, October 21, 1492 CE while his ship was sailing near Gibara on the north-east coast of Cuba, he saw a mosque on top of a beautiful mountain.” However, many scholars agree that Columbus’ reference was just metaphorical, describing an aspect of the mountain that resembled a dome of a mosque. Moreover, there is no archeological evidence for the presence of Muslims in America before 1492.
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"Erdogan’s claims have no scientific basis"
Peter Hulme, a professor from University of Essex, quoted from Columbus’ diary in his book Cuba’s Wild East: A Literary Geography of Oriente in which he recounted a literary history of modern Cuba. According to Hulme, Cuba played a special role within Columbus’s orientalising discourse, because Columbus thought that he reached the eastern shores of Asia, or the Orient, when he saw the island of Cuba. For this reason, he described Cuban houses as “made in the fashion of very large Moorish campaign tents”, (de alfaneques muy grandes), where alfaneque was a Spanish adaptation of a Berber term. And one of the mountains he saw had a further peak on top of it which he compared to “a pretty mosque” (una hermosa mezquita).
THIS IS NOT the first time Erdogan’s controversial statements found broader echo within Turkish society. There is no doubt that he is quite adept at changing the political agenda. But the claims on “Muslims discovered the Americas” showed that the President’s advisors are not careful enough while writing his speeches. Apparently, they use all the information found on the Internet without cross-checking. There is a popular expression which goes “there is no need to discover America again.” Validating information, however, is more important than ever before in this era where words spread quickly across the Internet.