Who discovered America? Turks or Muslims?

Who discovered America? Turks or Muslims?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, as you might have probably heard, argued last week that Muslims discovered the Americas some three centuries before Christopher Columbus. Since then, this unexpected take on history has been attracting the attention of not just the Turkish but even the international media. I, too, discussed the accuracy of Erdoğan’s claim in my previous piece in these pages. (“Tayyip Erdoğan and Christopher Columbus,” HDN, Nov. 19) But there is more to this debate than the accuracy or the inaccuracy of the claim. Deep down, it tells us something about the unusually ideological approach to history in Turkey.

To explain what I mean, let me take you back to the 1930s, when a “New Turkey,” for its time, was being built under the auspices of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. His ideology, called Kemalism, aimed at not only establishing a new republic but also building a new national consciousness. At the core of this effort lay the veneration of the Turkish identity. Kemalists blamed the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire for overlooking and even suppressing ethnic Turks for centuries. Now, they claimed, was the time for a secular Turkish renaissance after a millennia-long Islamic “dark age.”

That is why Atatürk kept praising “the Turk,” and his capabilities, in almost every speech he gave and every policy he initiated. The promotion of a pseudo-scientific history thesis that defined Turks as the cradle of human civilization was one such policy. That is why history textbooks and popular media of the 1930s was full of “discoveries” about the hidden role of Turks in world history.

In this story, there was one interesting detail that I did not know until the other day, when I read the column of respected academic Hilmi Yavuz in daily Zaman. Prof. Yavuz pointed to an article in a 1934 issue of “Ülkü,” the magazine published by Ankara Halkevi (“People’s Home”), which then was one of the standard-bearers of the Kemalist ideology. In the article titled, “Turks’ service in the discovery of America,” writer Miralay Abdurrahman argued that a particular individual named “Rodrigo” was key in helping Columbus find the New World. This alleged Rodrigo, who joined the Columbus mission at the last moment, advised the captain on where to go and all his predictions turned out to be true. The New World was found thanks to his wisdom.

But what did this mysterious “Rodrigo” have anything to do with Turks? Well, according to Miralay Abdurrahman, when one of the sailors on the ship named Yuvan shouted out loud, “I see the land,” our Rodrigo asked him, “Yuan hani”? (In Turkish, “hani” roughly means, “where.”) So, this was the perfect evidence that Rodrigo was speaking nothing but Turkish. And no wonder those islands became known as Guvanhani, proving without any doubt that they were found thanks to a wise Turk.

This was the “history writing” of the 1930s, when anything that would be useful to give pride to the Turks would go. That was the mood in the “New Turkey” of Ataturk.

In the “New Turkey” of today, there is an increasingly visible mood that has a similarly ideological approach to history. But now, the focus of veneration is not “the Turk,” but all Muslims, which of course includes the Turks but is not limited to them. The official ideology of this second “New Turkey” is Muslim nationalism, whereas the ideology of the first one was Turkish nationalism. For that reason, while the first one imagined that Turks have must have discovered America, the second one insists that it was Muslims who must have done the same thing.