SHAFAQNA- It is becoming increasingly painful to write about Turkey these days. Every week, there is a controversial incident or statement from Turkey that is difficult to explain to the American public. For this week’s outlandish remark, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimedthat the Americas were actually discovered by Muslims back in the 12th century, three centuries before Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic.
“Latin America’s contact with Islam dates back to the 12th century. Muslims discovered America in 1178, not Christopher Columbus,” Erdogan said on Nov. 15 while addressing the first Latin American Muslim Leaders Religious Summit in Istanbul. “Muslim sailors arrived in America in 1178. Christopher Columbus mentions the existence of a mosque on a hill along the Cuban coast. I will talk to my brothers in Cuba and a mosque would suit the top of that hill today as well. We would build it if they [the Cuban government] would let us. Islam had spread in the American continent before Columbus arrived.”
Youssef Mroueh of the Sunnah Foundation discovered the purported existence of a pre-Columbian mosque in Cuba in 1996. He wrote that “Columbus admitted in his papers that on Monday, October 21, 1492 C.E., while his ship was sailing near Gibara on the northeast coast of Cuba, [that] he saw a mosque on top of a beautiful mountain.” While the entry is usually interpreted as a metaphorical reference to a protuberance on the summit of a mountain that resembles a minaret, President Erdogan took Mroueh’s claim to the next level. As usual, government-friendly journalists not only supported Erdogan, but took it even further: Islamic Yeni Akit columnist Abdurrahman Dilipakclaimed on Twitter that “there were Native American brides in Istanbul before Columbus arrived in America.”
Many articles from the international media mocked Erdogan’s statement, but the Turkish president refused to recant it. Instead, heinsisted that domestic critics who questioned his claim lack a sense of self worth. “These people have never believed that Muslims could achieve such a thing. They are also the people who do not believe that their ancestors [Ottomans] carried warships over land [during the conquest of Istanbul]. This is a matter of a lack of self-confidence,” Erdogan said at a ceremony in Ankara on Nov. 18.
According to a U.S. State Department source who spoke on condition of anonymity, under President Erdogan, Turkey behaves more like a Middle Eastern country — not a European one — with every passing day, and this makes it tough for her Western friends to support Ankara. The Turkish government’s strong ties with the Muslim factions and its divergence from Western politics (despite its NATO membership) has alienated Turkey from the Western world. The Western frustration with Erdogan is obvious. In private meetings, Westerners often use words like “hubris” and “narcissism” when they speak about Erdogan, while many question Turkey’s allegiance to its Western allies. But the West, especially the United States, is not sin-free when it comes to Erdogan.
September 11 initiated profound changes in the United States’ policies toward the Middle East. Under George W. Bush’s leadership, the United States pursued the use of “soft power” in the region. In late 2003, U.S. officials launched the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI), a plan aimed at fostering economic and political liberalization in the Muslim world to combat Islamist extremism. Washington increasingly started to identify Turkey as a state guided by “moderate Islam,” as the country’s new leaders unceremoniously shelved its highly esteemed secularism. U.S. analysts argued that supporting moderate Muslims across the Middle East was the key to defeating extremism, and used Turkey as a shining example of success. As then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz highlighted in a speech at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation: “To win the war against terrorism, and, in so doing, to shape a more peaceful world, we must reach out to the hundreds of millions of moderate and tolerant people in the Muslim world…. Turkey offers a compelling demonstration that these values are compatible with modern society — that religious beliefs need not be sacrificed to build modern democratic institutions.”
This view had many supporters in the West, and Turkey was seen as a Muslim country that could reconcile Islam with liberal democracy. After GMEI announcement, in 2005, the United Nations established its Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), a project co-sponsored by the governments of Spain and Turkey that aimed to assist in diminishing hostility and promoting harmony among nations and religions.
Erdogan, however, thinks the term “moderate Islam” offensive and considers it an insult — indicating that his views may not have been as compatible with the West’s goals as his allies believed. But he did not forego the many opportunities the term brought with it. In recent years, Erdogan has been often received by the White House under both the Bush and Obama administrations and has had many photo ops with high-level American officials. (The photo above shows Obama and Erdogan at a joint press conference in the White House’s Rose Garden in 2013.) They seemed to have high hopes and expectations of him — so it’s unlikely that Bush or Obama foresaw Erdogan’s growing self-esteem and unstoppable hubris. In their desperation to support Erdogan so wholeheartedly, the American leaders turned a blind eye to who Erdogan really is and gave far too much credit to Turkey’s Islamist government. In the end, “moderate Islam” satisfied neither the Muslims nor the Americans.