Date: 09/07/2020
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Why the Turkish President Claims that Muslims Discovered America

Last month, the Turkish government hosted a group of Latin American Muslim leaders at a summit in Istanbul. On the closing day of the summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a televised speech, where he told the assembled delegates that, “The introduction of Islam into the American continent dates back to the 12th century.”

According to Erdogan, “314 years before Columbus, in 1178, Muslim sailors reached the American continent. Indeed, in Columbus’ diaries there is a reference to a mosque on a hill near the sea shore. We can have a talk with my Cuban brother here.… A mosque would suit well on that hill today, if they allow it.”

Any serious historian of the Americas, including representatives of North American indigenous groups, cannot endorse Erdogan’s speech. Commenting on similar ahistorical claims made by the Arab World Studies Notebook — a project that tries to inject like-minded fabrications into the American school curriculum — Peter de Gangi, the director of Canada’s Algonquin Nation Secretariat, dismissed these kinds of claims out-of-hand.

Let us take a brief look at the document upon which Erdogan based his speech. It was written by Youssef Mroueh in 1996. It starts off innocuously with the title, “Precolumbian Muslims in the Americas.” However, on the next line, the immediate bias of the piece is revealed, for the article was written for “the Preparatory Committee for International Festivals to celebrate the millennium of the Muslims arrival to the Americas (996-1996).”

Upon reading the article, there seems to be some evidence that Muslim sailors may have sailed west from Spain and North Africa into what they then called the “ocean of darkness and fog” and brought back interesting things. We know from more reliable historical sources that they visited the Canary Islands and they may even have reached the Caribbean. This is within the range of anthropological possibility, but then the claims of the article become totally unsupportable.

Here is just one example from Mroueh’s article:

“Dr. Barry Fell (Harvard University) introduced in his book ‘Saga-America’ 1980 solid scientific evidence supporting the arrival, centuries before Columbus, of Muslims from North and West Africa.… Engraved on rocks in the arid western U.S., he found texts, diagrams and charts representing the last surviving fragments of what was once a system of schools … the language of instruction was North African Arabic written with old Kufic Arabic scripts … the descendants of the Muslim visitors of North America are members of the present Iroquois, Algonquin, Anasazi, Hohokam and Olmec native people.”

Mroueh clearly has not studied New World archaeology. Had he done so, he may have noticed that archaeologists believe that the Olmec ceased to exist as a people by 400 B.C., so they could not have met these Muslim explorers or intermarried with them. Indigenous peoples of Central America, such as the Aztecs and the Maya, had to wait more than a thousand years to confront the visiting, conquering Spaniards who came in the wake of Christopher Columbus and never left.

If Erdogan’s speech has no basis in fact or history, and Mroueh’s understanding of American archaeology makes new-age pseudo historians look empirical by comparison, we must ask ourselves why he gave it and to what end? Before doing so, we must also ask ourselves if there is a precedent for this kind of pseudo history in the once, largely secular Turkish educational system, within which Erdogan and his colleagues were raised, before he became the latest advocate of state-sponsored fundamentalist Islam.

When Turkey entered the First World War with the Germans against the allied powers, it was a barely modernizing agricultural empire ruled by a Sultan in Istanbul who, as Caliph of Islam, was also the religious leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims.

According to Islamic theology, the basis of the Ottoman Empire was its sharia-based legal code, in which Muslims came first, while Jews and Christians were treated as second-class citizens under the law. Non-Turkish Muslim ethnic groups, such as the Kurds, were equal, but only as Muslims, not as representatives of a distinct ethnic group or nation. The many Turkish-speaking Shia Alevi, were not accepted as “true Muslims” by the Ottoman bureaucracy.

When Turkey lost the war, the allies began to carve up Asia Minor. A group of soldiers and ideologues under the charismatic leadership of former Ottoman military officer Mustafa Kemal (who would later be known as Ataturk) fought a war against the allies and eventually reclaimed authority over Asia Minor. In the early 1920s, he and his supporters established the Republic of Turkey.

Ataturk is often described by historians as an authoritarian, secular modernizer who in essence became dictator of Turkey until his death in 1939. Soon after taking power, he orchestrated the end of the caliphate, the exile of the Sultan, changed the Turkish alphabet to a Latin script, expunged the Persian and Arabic vocabulary from the Turkish language, made the veil illegal, forced men to give up the turban and wear hats, and encouraged the study of engineering and science in the newly founded Turkish universities. One of the areas of study, which was disproportionately important to the new regime, was anthropology.

Nazan Maksudyan is a historian of ideas based at Sabanci University in Istanbul. She has carried out groundbreaking historical research on the rise of anthropology in Turkey during the 1920s and ’30s, its pseudo-scientific basis and how it not only supported, but was most probably directed by, the ruling political and bureaucratic elite of the early Turkish republic. At one point, one of these prominent anthropologists became an influential member of the national parliament.

From 1925 until the late ’30s, the Turkish Review of Anthropology became the academic journal of the Turkish Institute of Anthropology. In one of Maksudyan’s articles in the contemporary academic journal Cultural Dynamics, she analyses one of the first studies published in the journal, called the “Comparative Analysis of the Turkish Race and Other Races Living in Istanbul.”

She begins by pointing out that many of the academics linked to the institute and the journal came from the medical profession and that the institute itself was linked to the Faculty of Medicine at the University in Istanbul. She points out that in the ’20s, Turkey did not have any trained anthropologists. But later, a small number of Turks were sent by the state to study anthropology in Europe. These included women such as Seniha Tunakan, who in 1935 was sent to Germany to study under scholars such as Dr. Eugen Fischer at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics. In 1933, Adolph Hitler made sure that Fisher was appointed rector of the University of Berlin.

We now know that during the ’30s, German anthropology was dominated by social Darwinism, a pseudo scientific theory that proclaimed that the reason European nations dominated the world, was because of their supposed (but unproven) biological superiority. At the same time, German scientists and anthropologists believed that the Nordic races, with the Germans at the top, were the dominant culture in the world.

The reason that eugenics was attached to anthropology was because of the growing Nazi belief that other races were akin to biological germs that needed to be cleansed from the body politic. These included Jews, Gypsies and other inferior “Asiatics.” Thus, German anthropology and anthropologists were one of the major ideological building blocs of the Holocaust.

We can only imagine what it must have been like for an aspiring medical student and student of anthropology from the newly independent, newly “secularized” Turkish republic coming to Germany during the ’30s and being accosted by these outlandish racial theories, that suggested that the Turks might not be the racial equals of their German academic hosts.

For centuries, Turkish Muslims had lived under a theological worldview, which put Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims at the top of creation. Adding to this implied German insult of a visiting Turkish student would be the fact that just a few years earlier, the Germans were the allies and equals of the Turks and had encouraged them to turn the First World War into a Jihad against England and France.

Clearly, the challenge of these visiting students was to create a Turkish anthropology that would portray the Turks as a master race. And that is exactly what the Turkish Institute of Anthropology did. They created their own version of social Darwinism with the Turks on top of the ladder of human creation.

Maksudyan’s article shows that on a supposed survey of Turkish, Greek, Armenian and Jewish residents of Istanbul, the researchers sufficiently cooked the data to suggest that the Turks were the superior race. Oddly, the researchers suggested that the Jews were “mongrels,” a mixed race, and they questioned whether the Greeks of Istanbul were even related to the Greeks of what had become the independent state of modern Greece.

Maksudyan clearly shows that neither the sample, the categories or the correlations were clearly laid out. This foundational study had only one goal in mind: To demonstrate that Turks were the dominant race in Asia Minor, “the masters of the country,” and that all minorities should be subservient to them on the basis of this supposed biological superiority.

Not to be outdone by anthropologists, Turkish historians during the early republic were at work rewriting history to suggest that the Turks were at the origins of the rise of civilization in the ancient, pre-Islamic Middle East. So both Turkish anthropology and Turkish history during the rise of the republic were based on pseudo science and a translated form of German-inspired racial theory, applied to the Turkish situation.

Despite the rise of Turkish pseudo science and history, during the 20th century, a number of distinguished Turkey-based institutions (such as Roberts College) provided a small minority of Turks with a haven for rational thought, science and the study of Western and world civilizations. With the growth of secondary and university education in Turkey, there have emerged thinkers who have not been poisoned by either the pseudo science of the past or the renewed Islamism of the present Erdogan government.

So why does Erdogan now claim that Muslims discovered America? The answer lies in his return to the Sunni theology supported by the former Ottoman Sultans. According to interpreters of sharia, any land that was once settled by Muslims must be reclaimed and returned to Muslim sovereignty, soon and by force.

If Erdogan can persuade enough Muslims that they discovered and settled America, then any kind of Islam-inspired violence or terror carried out in North or South America is simply a form of grass roots activism designed to reclaim lost territory for Islam. We have already seen what this means here in Canada, as Islamic terror is no longer a stranger to our country. Erdogan is simply its most absurd and most highly placed advocate.

Perhaps the government of Canada needs to give Erdogan’s speech a bit more thought, as Turkey is still a member of NATO.

First published in the National Post.