I’ve read a great deal of criticism by a number of Arab writers of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for recently claiming during an Istanbul summit of Muslim leaders from Latin America that Muslim sailors, not Christopher Columbus, had discovered the Americas.
For me, and perhaps for many others, Erdoğan’s statement was highly entertaining. However, perhaps some others were likely to find it infuriating, if they suffer from inferiority complexes and blame Westerners or others for stealing everything, including the discoveries and accomplishments of Muslims! His statement may also subject him to the mockery of yet more groups, such as Arab intellectuals. Erdoğan was most probably addressing people at the level of their own intellectual capabilities by stripping all the positive characteristics of his rivals and ascribing them to himself.
Can dredging up the narrative of who discovered America change history? What’s certain is that it will not alter the present, as today there are certain nations at the forefront of our era, while others—such as ours—lag behind. What’s ironic is that as Erdoğan made that statement, the European Space Agency announced that their Rosetta spacecraft, which they launched 10 years ago, finally landed on a comet. The landing is the first of its kind. Imagine: a decade-long year journey to study a comet in the unknown reaches of space.
Can Erdoğan tell us what we were doing to ourselves in the past 10-year period? We saw the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the looting of dozens of cities, the murder of hundreds of thousands of people, and some dictators replaced by even worse ones.
By repeating the same kind of tales as Libya’s late Muammar Gaddafi, Erdoğan has gone from successfully overseeing a renaissance of his country’s fortunes to joining the ranks of political jesters and swindlers, all for the sake of satisfying an idle audience through taking credit for other people’s achievements. What Hazem Saghieh wrote in his article on political leaders’ confusion during disputes rings true in this case. Saghieh said these leaders tended to escalate political disputes by dragging in culture and history. Therefore, tactics are employed according to the needs of the moment.
Who discovered America? If by this we really mean to ask who were the first humans to set foot on the continent, then scientists will confirm that thousands of years ago there were neither Arabs nor Muslims there. If what is meant is an enquiry as to who conquered it, then Muslims may have arrived there later, just as other sailors who traversed the Atlantic Ocean arrived on its eastern shores—but this is of no consequence; no one is fighting over who discovered the rest of the Earth, because this is of no value and it’s nothing to take pride in. The United State is an extension of European civilization, which is the successor of previous civilizations.
Our false pride is not limited to history, making false claims about William Shakespeare’s origins, claiming to be the innovators of aviation, or aggrandizing our contributions in the fields of chemistry, physics and medicine, but also extends to PhD holders and researchers. Our reality will not change and we will continue to go backwards if we cling to a mentality that does not appreciate education and the sciences, and which takes pride in flaunting degrees and holding governmental posts.
Boasting about the past as Erdoğan is doing, and remaining static as religious fundamentalists do, is to exploit people’s frustrations and their inability to escape the rut they have been living in for centuries.
Erdoğan has the Turkish experiment, meaning he has the recent present to draw examples from instead of borrowing myths from the past. Where is the value in Muslims arriving on a hill in a land that is today known as Cuba if they had no role in its development?
Muslims’ relationship with America is symbolized by the lines they stand in to attain a visa from American consulates in order to escape their countries and governments and find a safe haven for their children, a job to make a living, hospitals to treat their illnesses, and universities to get an education. That is the modern reality.