Last November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a now-infamous assertion. “Contacts between Latin America and Islam date back to the 12th century. Muslims discovered America in 1178, not Christopher Columbus,” Erdogan said at a summit in Istanbul of Muslim leaders from Latin America.
Erdogan went on, citing as evidence the fact that “Columbus mentioned the existence of a mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast,” and said that he would be inclined to build a new one in the Caribbean. “I’d like to talk about it with my Cuban brothers,” Erdogan said in November.
Despite the deluge of bemused and derisive reactions on social media to Erdogan’s version of history, the Turkish leader made good on that vow. While on a visit last week to Havana, Erdogan reiterated his desire to construct a mosque in Havana.
The proposed structure will be modeled after Istanbul’s elegant 19th-century Ortaköy Mosque. Curiously, Cuban authorities are also entertaining a Saudi bid to build a separate mosque.
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“We want to build the mosque ourselves. We don’t want a partner,” Erdogan was quoted as telling Cuban authorities on his presidential website. “If you find it appropriate, we would like to build it in Havana. But if you have promised a Havana mosque to other people, then we can build our Ortaköy Mosque in another Cuban province.”
There are an estimated 1,500 Muslims in Cuba, the vast majority of whom are international students from countries in the developing world such as Indonesia and Pakistan, according to CNN. Larger and older communities of Muslims exist elsewhere in the region, from the bustling coastal metropolises of South America to Caribbean countries with legacies of indentured migration from South Asia, such as Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad. The largest mosque in Latin America is the King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center in Buenos Aires.
No matter his enthusiasm for the project, Erdogan’s initial reasoning for it is grounded in a clear misreading of history. I sketched the problem with his claim an earlier essay:
Erdogan is apparently citing the disputed work of Youssef Mroueh, an academic affiliated with the As-Sunnah Foundation of America.
In a 1996 paper, Mroueh referred to the presence of a mosque spotted by Columbus along the Cuban coast. “Columbus admitted in his papers that on Monday, October 21, 1492 CE while his ship was sailing near Gibara on the north-east coast of Cuba, he saw a mosque on top of a beautiful mountain,” writes Mroueh.
Mroueh does not appear to be an accredited historian at any institution of higher learning. The passage Mroueh thinks he’s citing, as blogger Jason Colavito notes, is actually a reference in the journal of famed Dominican friar Bartolomé de los Casas, who invokes what Columbus saw second-hand:
Remarking on the position of the river and port, to which he gave the name of San Salvador, he describes its mountains as lofty and beautiful, like the Pena de las Enamoradas, and one of them has another little hill on its summit, like a graceful mosque. The other river and port, in which he now was, has two round mountains to the S.W., and a fine low cape running out to the W.S.W.
The Cuban mosque in question — which drew Erdogan into a heated conversation about history and his country’s Islamic past — was clearly just part of a metaphorical allusion.
Still that doesn’t fully dispel other theories regarding Muslim exploration in the Western Hemisphere in the early modern period. It also doesn’t dim Erdogan’s demagogic style, which panders to the religious nationalism of ordinary Turks. His invocation of the faded glories of the past, no matter how distant or dubious, is part of his politics.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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