Erdogan says Columbus has no clothes

Erdogan is standing up against the victors’ version of history and has the courage to initiate a debate.

Erdogan has always been the person who connects history to present-day politics, writes Oruc [AFP]

Galileo Galilei upheld the theory of Copernicus that the Earth moves around the sun. The Church opposed him but he ignored it. When he published “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” in 1632, the Inquisition tried him. He was forced to give up his belief in the Copernican theory, forbidden from writing and publishing, and sentenced to an indefinite prison term. Still, he was lucky to escape the tragic end of Giordano Bruno. 

In “On the Infinite Universe and Worlds”, Bruno argued that the universe was infinite and that it contained an infinite number of worlds in 1584. He was arrested by the Inquisition and tried. He was kept imprisoned and interrogated periodically. In the end, he was declared a heretic and burned at the stake since he refused to recant.

I know that Bruno was not a great scientist and full of contradictions. He asserted the universe’s infinity with hardly any reliable evidence. But there is one favourable thing about Bruno which makes me like him the most: He resisted the authority. He figured out that the stars are distant suns not scientifically but with intuition, but also he sacrificed his life for it. He was like a science knight as he resisted the common belief imposed by the Church which was not only the political authority then but also dominated ordinary people’s lives.

Precious refusal

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent words at a summit of Muslim leaders from Latin America generated an altercation full of derision. That has made me think how hard it must have been to stand up and put an argument against the authority and how precious Bruno’s refusal was.

The summit in question gathered Latin American Muslim leaders. The context of his argument was appropriate as the attendants were Muslims from the Americas.

To be frank, I didn’t understand why Erdogan’s words drew such a rebuff at the beginning. The summit in question gathered Latin American Muslim leaders. The context of his argument was appropriate as the attendants were Muslims from the Americas. Erdogan has always been the person who connects history to present-day politics. He talks about ties between Africa and Islam when he visits Africa or the common history of the Turks and Asia when he meets his Asian counterparts. 

When I took a closer look at the controversy spurred by Erdogan’s speech, I realised that his words were distorted by the headlines. He didn’t actually say that Muslims discovered America. He said: “Muslim sailors reached the American continent 314 years before Columbus, in 1178. In his memoirs, Christopher Columbus mentions the existence of a mosque atop a hill on the coast of Cuba.”

As such, Erdogan merely made a mention of Muslims’ arriving to the Americas before Columbus and he didn’t claim it as a discovery. He also referred to Columbus’ writings and didn’t make something up.

The discovery of the Americas has always been a controversial issue and Columbus’ claims in his memoirs have been questioned before. For hundreds of years, it was accepted that Columbus discovered the Americas but this theory is no longer reliable. For example, Islamic scholar Abu Raihan al-Biruni may have discovered the American continent long before Columbus, according to S Frederick Starr. Or Fuat Sezgin, a Turkish professor emeritus on Arabic-Islamic science, has stated for a long time that, it was discovered by Muslim seafarers. There are many other claims that Muslims were the first to cross the Atlantic but that’s not the issue any more as Erdogan’s words have been distorted, decontextualised and used to discredit him.

Greatest absurdity

As Winston Churchill once said, “History is written by the victors.” Nevertheless, the most nonsensical side of the discussion on Erdogan’s remarks is the critics accepting a controversial topic as fact and accusing him of attempting to rewrite history. Yet the greatest absurdity is to use mockery on social media as evidence of Erdogan’s being unscientific. 

“Western sources shouldn’t be believed as if they are sacred texts,” Erdogan recently said, without taking a step back. Going further, he promised to maintain his encouraging role in this regard. In Turkey, it is known that he is good at trending topics and is a talented politician in driving the common agenda. It looks like he is now showcasing this skill in the international arena.

The West’s policymakers and opinion shapers are puppeteers in today’s world; members of the new Inquisition. Of course, their methods don’t include burning witches or chopping off heretics’ heads but they prefer to discredit their challengers in public, denouncing them as radicals, or worse. At this point, Erdogan, who dares to stand up against the history written by the victors and has the courage to initiate a debate, is a political knight who debunks modern myths, common beliefs and invites people to start thinking.

Merve Sebnem Oruc is a managing editor in online journalism and a commentator in Turkey. She is a columnist with Turkish dailies Yeni Safak and Daily Sabah and the editor of Turkey Agenda. She focuses on Turkish politics and diplomacy, Arab-Israeli relations, and Islamic society and culture.