Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Muslims discovered America, speculation he read in a pamphlet which lacked supporting evidence, tells a lot about the Turkish president’s mind. After all, anyone who has traveled along the book stores of Beirut, or among the book sellers’ stalls in Cairo, will find dozens of similar pamphlets claiming that Islam was actually responsible for everything from the discovery of gravity to the moon landing. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare was really Sheikh Zubayr bin William, a Muslim Arab living in Britain.
Erdoğan, for his part, doubled down on his claim, demanding that his theory now be taught as reality in Turkey’s schools.
While Western officials might shrug and chuckle at Erdoğan’s declaration, it’s important to realize it’s no outlier for the Turkish president. A Turkish interlocutor (evidently paraphrasing this column by Yılmaz Özdil) noted how historians in Turkey have long chafed at Erdoğan’s theories:
In Antalya, Erdoğan explained how “the word Olympics takes its name from a mountain near Antalya, Mt. Olympus.” The mountain is in northern Greece, and nowhere near Antalya.
It’s not just geography that confuses Mr. Erdoğan. When discussing the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 CE, a battle in which the Muslim Seljuqs defeated the larger Byzantine army and captured the Byzantine emperor, Erdoğan declared, “Seljuq soldiers fought with their swords against the iron balls of the Byzantine artillery, raining on their heads.” Artillery and gunpowder didn’t come to the region for another three centuries. Oops.
Then, again, this wasn’t the only time he was publicly confused about the Seljuqs. In one speech, he described Ankara as “the capital of the Seljuqs.” In reality, though, Konya was the Seljuq capital. Ankara, at the time, was little more than a small town or large village.
Fast forward about 500 years, to the reign of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Back in 2011, Erdoğan went on a rant about a popular Turkish serial depicting his life and times, complaining that it concentrated too much on his lavish life in the harem. Erdoğan explained that Suleiman had in reality spent 30 of his 46 years on the throne on horseback, running from battle to battle. During Suleiman’s reign, however, the Ottomans were at war for just ten years, and so were at peace for 36.
He has repeatedly become exacerbated by the constraints of facts. When some historians began using old documents and records, and historical artifacts to research old Istanbul churches, Erdoğan grew annoyed that anyone would record or discuss Istanbul’s pre-Islamic past. He chided, “They don’t know Istanbul’s history. They go around with magnifying glass in their hand like [the Byzantine Emperor] Romanus Diogenes.” He apparently confused Romanus IV with Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who lived more than a millennium before, and who went around with a lantern, not a magnifying glass. Philosophers, however, have not been his thing. After all, he once said, “If the Germans have Goethe and if the Spaniards have Socrates….”
Now, it’s perfectly true that other world leaders can occasionally get history wrong. George H.W. Bush once mistakenly commemorated the anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day on September 7 rather than December 7. When mistakes happen, however, leaders acknowledge them. President Bush corrected himself; he didn’t order textbooks re-written to make his error the new norm.
Erdoğan may sound foolish, but the importance of his errors extends far beyond himself. Rather, they reflect the future of Turkey. Erdoğan is a product of an İmam Hatip education, the Turkish equivalent of a madrasa. Prior to Erdoğan’s rise, İmam Hatip graduates would primarily become mullahs or perhaps work in family businesses. Their lack of grounding in liberal arts and science disqualified them from most university programs and the government service which might follow. But Erdoğan has bolstered and promoted the İmam Hatips, so that their graduates now dominate Turkey’s bureaucracy. Erdoğan may be no historian, but he has become the rule rather than the exception for the Turkish government he leads. He has ensured that there are thousands if not tens of thousands of protégés marching in lockstep behind him, all of whom treat fact with disdain and embrace mindless revisionism. Welcome to the future of Turkey.