(Photo via Reuters)
“Muslim sailors reached the American continent 314 years before Columbus.” The recent remarks by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have left many surprised and baffled, but the Turkish president’s controversial comments are not new. Just a month ago, Erdogan caused another uproar when he told students at Istanbul’s Marmara University that new “Lawrence of Arabias” are tearing up the Middle East. These two incidents have offered some interesting insights not only on how the Turkish president views the world, but also on how intellectual shallowness is used by political Islam to cover the weakness of its core ideology.
There is a tendency among political Islamists to hype up past glories and evade critical reviews of historical failures. Islamists have used such shallow views of the past to cover up the weaker aspects of their ideology.
Although the Turkish president has certainly been the first politician to bluntly assert it, the claim that Muslims discovered America is not new; I actually heard it in Egypt years ago. Many Islamists have propagated this claim without checking its historical accuracy. The reasons behind the passionate insistence that Muslims sailed to America before others have nothing to do with history or accuracy. Glorifying the history of Islam has always been a tool Islamists have used to undermine the supremacy of Western renaissance and claim ownership of earlier science and discoveries.
President Erdogan embarrassingly, however, did not bother to elaborate on the Muslims’ achievements after they allegedly discovered America, if indeed it happened. This is probably because, deep inside, Erdogan understands that this claimed discovery was ineffective. Those alleged Muslim sailors clearly failed to connect the old world with the new world and also failed to build a prominent local civilization that could defend itself from outside enemies. On the contrary, Columbus’s success established a new era in history with tremendous, palpable impacts. The Turkish president, like many modern-day Islamists, indulges in nostalgia about alleged triumphs in the past, but is not willing to dig deeper into their ultimate effectiveness or failure.
For the Islamists, history is not a tool for knowledge, but a tool to cement their ideology in the minds of voters. “We were here first,” is a powerful claim when preaching, “Islam is the solution.” The link is clear in Islamists’ minds. They believe early Muslims were more successful because of their devout adherence to the Islamic faith; therefore, in their minds, returning to the faith is the key to success for modern-day Muslims. A powerful message in a region plagued with tyranny and oppression.
The inability of Islamists to articulate how faith can play a positive role in developing their contemporary states, without being abused in fulfilling narrow political interests is the ultimate reason behind their modern failures. Their shallow reading of history prevents them from learning from past experiences. If Moorish Spain is their preferred example of medieval success, Islamists conveniently ignore how the success of Moorish Muslims was due mainly to their sheer liberalism; not their piety. Indeed, their conquest of Spain was driven by religious reasons, but they soon abandoned dogma, and adopted tolerance and rationalism as their main slogans. Their faith, in the golden days, was mainly spiritual, and not literalistic ___ a pivotal reason behind their success.
Erdogan’s remarks on Lawrence of Arabia are also interesting. “Our empire was better than yours” is one of his favorite themes. The Turkish president compared the current outside meddling in the region with the activities of British officer T. E. Lawrence, who encouraged an Arab Revolt against the Ottomans during World War I. This is just another myopic view that focuses on one factor out of many in a complex web of events that led to past decline and defeat. Outside meddling has contributed significantly to the Middle East’s tragic state of affairs; nonetheless, it has never been the only or main reason behind the struggle. The Turkish president’s assertion that modern days Western meddlers are tearing up the Middle East is a clear refusal to accept the domestic reasons behind the ills of the region. Blaming Lawrence, not ISIS’s Baghdadi, is the same wrong approach that led the Ottomans to ignore the valid reasons behind the Arabs’ descent against the Ottoman Empire and focus instead on British colonialism. His approach also ignores the ideological roots of radicalism, another uncomfortable aspect that political Islam prefers to avoid.
From America to Lawrence of Arabia, Erdogan tries to use history and faith as a fleece to protect his fans from facing the contemporary challenges of the region. Unfortunately for him, his fleece is not sufficiently well lined to face the thunderous winter of the modern-day Middle East. Therefore, unless the Turkish president is willing to dig deep, and build a solid project not based on sensationalism, his appeal will always be limited to his core dogmatic followers.