Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initiated a controversy on Nov. 15 by claiming that “Muslims discovered the Americas three centuries before Christopher Columbus.” Since then, dozens of articles, both in Turkey and abroad, have commented on Erdogan’s claim, often with a tone of sarcasm. However, the reason for Erdogan making this remark, and what it means regarding Turkey’s political past and future, deserves a sober analysis.
Erdogan made the comment during his speech at the “First Latin American Muslim Religious Leaders Summit,” which was organized and hosted by Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs. That Turkey invited 75 Muslim leaders from 40 countries was noteworthy in itself, pointing to the “soft power” Ankara is trying to expand in the broader Muslim world. And this should be encouraged, especially when the alternatives to “Turkey's Islam” can be much more rigid and intolerant interpretations of the faith, such as Salafism.