I’ll bet you didn’t know that it was Mustafa Columbus who discovered America more than 300 years before that other Columbus made the trip. I’ll also bet you didn’t know that Columbus, either one, clearly saw a mosque on top of a hill in Cuba.
His claim that it was a Moslem sea-farer who really discovered America long before Columbus and that a mosque could clearly be seen in 15th century Cuba are just two of the latest bizarre claims by Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. For some reason he feels compelled to rely on highly dubious scholarship to prove that it was Moslems and not the perfidious West who discovered the New World. Perhaps this research came from the same library containing works by another Turkish ‘scholar’ claiming that Johann Wolfgang Goethe was really a Turk and not German at all.
The sad thing in this farce is not Erdoğan’s latest howler. He and his acolytes make them all the time. It’s that this desperate need to ‘prove’ the achievements of Moslems, especially Turkish Moslems, only distracts people from the very real achievements of Arab scholars, navigators, physicians, philosophers and mathematicians in the Middle Ages. Most serious Western scholars recognize the intellectual and artistic debt that is owed to the Arabs. They don’t need the Turkish president to remind them of those achievements.
But again, no one should be surprised by comments like this from a man who seems to live by conspiracy theories where everything bad that has happened to Turkey is caused by devious outsiders like the infamous ‘interest rate lobby’, the ‘Jewish diaspora’, or – as always – the Americans. Even the German airline Lufthansa has joined the list of all those seeking to derail Turkey’s march toward global dominance.
While Turkey is no stranger to weird conspiracy theories (see the Levantine Musings post of 28/07/13 Only In Turkey about the mysterious kestrel accused ofWe're spying for Israel), the crescendo of conspiracy claims seems to be building just as the country is sliding ever deeper into the self-dug hole of isolation. The ruling party acolytes like to claim it is their ‘principles’ – whatever they may be – that separates Turkey from others, and that the ensuing isolation is therefore a ‘precious’ isolation. Most rational people call it plain old isolation where you can use a telephone booth to hold a Friends of Turkey meeting.
Just a few years ago Turkey was the coming nation of the Middle East, the beacon of modern Islam and democracy in a very confused region. That promise, alas, was never fulfilled, and now Turkey has few if any friends in the region. The country’s isolation was hammered home in a recent vote in the United Nations for rotating members of the Security Council. Turkey had high hopes of winning one of those seats, but those hopes were shattered when it received only 60 votes, just about half the votes it received a few years previously.
Rather than using this humiliation as a reason to review its policies, the ruling party seems only to have increased the “We are right and everyone else is wrong” rhetoric. A few days ago a senior ruling party official claimed that Turkey’s one-time friends in the Gulf have joined unnamed outsiders to undermine Turkey and even were behind the protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013. And these are the very same countries that Turkey is hoping will invest vast sums in its rapidly slowing economy?
Most readers can be excused for never hearing of the Sykes-Picot agreement between Great Britain and France in 1916 when British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart George Francois Picot drew up a map assigning spheres of control in Arab territories following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. But for people like Erdoğan this ill-fated agreement remains fresh news and is yet another indication of Western attempts to control the Middle East. In a speech last month he not only dredged up the Sykes-Picot agreement again but warned of new forces posing as Lawrence of Arabia. “Lawrence was an English spy disguised as an Arab. There are new voluntary Lawrences, disguised as journalists, religious men, writers and terrorists.”
A courageous, or knowledgeable, adviser might have saved his president some embarrassment by reminding him of just a few inconvenient facts. The Ottoman Empire had willingly joined World War I on the German side in hopes of regaining some long-lost imperial grandeur. Its rulers failed to realize that Turkey had few, if any, friends in the Middle East in those days despite, or perhaps because of, centuries of colonial rule. Erdoğan forgets that even the ultimate religious trump card in World War I, the Ottoman Empire’s call for a jihad – or holy war, fell on deaf ears as thousands of their fellow Moslems joined the British struggle against the Turks. Many Arabs today have the same jaundiced view of Turkey as they do of all the other outsiders meddling in their business.
I doubt he realizes that these flights of fancy are having the opposite effect of what he is trying to prove. Turkey is a large and serious nation that could play a constructive role in regional and even global affairs. But as long as Erdoğan continues to rewrite history recklessly while ignoring inconvenient facts he is making it very hard for people to take him, or his country seriously.