Though he is president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan keeps dominating the daily political agenda. In nearly all of his speeches he makes some suggestions that disturb the world of highbrows or remarks that quickly become the main topic of conversation on social media. For a long time, I have been insisting that this is a kind of "trap" and Erdoğan places himself in the center of debates. The opposition and secular highbrows are analyzing what he says, and generally, they use his remarks as tools for contempt. But life goes on and Erdoğan does not follow up on his former comments. Such iterations were delivered to society as part of a "baiting" strategy; so they are consumed and let aside in a short while. By that time Erdoğan has often already found more appealing subject matter.
This time, the agenda was busy with the president's suggestion that "Muslims discovered America before Columbus." The secular stratum consoled itself by making fun of this remark while some academic articles were written drawing analogies between Erdoğan's efforts and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk during the single party period. They argued that a made-up history was constructed by the state, thus leading the masses to believe in its reality. However, what really matters here is not Erdoğan's remarks, but what they mean to society. Certainly 5 or 10 percent of Muslim grassroots think that all the remarks of the president are categorically true.
But the great majority of this group, and particularly the younger generations, welcomed Erdoğan's statement in a delighted manner rather than accepting it as fact. Such remarks are regarded as identity-related self-confidence salvos from the East toward the West. The act of issuing such statements is itself more prominent than the reality of the contents of the statement. Also, those who use those statements as an object of entertainment also construct Erdoğan's grassroots as objects of entertainment. Consequently, when Erdoğan puts forward such remarks and receives "serious" criticism from secularists or the opposition, he does not lose public support. Moreover, these remarks could lead him to be regarded as a good politician.
But let's forget Erdoğan for a while and inspect reality. If the argument "Muslims discovered America," is ridiculous, then isn't "Columbus discovered America" ridiculous to the same degree? Because when Columbus encountered America, he came across a civilization and people who were living there for thousands of years. Scientific data shows that the journey of Homo sapiens began in Africa, then spread to Europe and Asia, and then to east Siberia via South Asia, and eventually spread to America through Alaska. So, those actually discovering America belong to quite an old period. The "discovery" of Columbus is only valid in a Eurocentric context of world history constructed by Western civilization. But this is basically a meta-history.
While representing Muslims as the real explorers, Erdoğan actually suggests an alternative viewpoint from his own society and maybe to the whole East. He thus hints that it is possible to develop an approach that equates the East with the West and even takes the East one step further. There is no need to worry about it. History course books will not add an extra section saying "Muslims discovered America," only because Erdoğan said so. But it will settle in the minds of many teachers that the facts given in course books are actually "cultural," which imply power relations.
Erdoğan is dealing with the Islamic world's introversion and passivity in the face of the West. He aims at making this world adopt its own individuality and refresh its self-confidence. He certainly does not have such an aim to discover history. He is a politician and his job is not about yesterday, but tomorrow.