This week Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan embarked on a Latin American tour. In Cuba his suited delegation gathered, rather incongruously, in front of a three-storey high image of Che Guevara. In aviator sunglasses, the president presented a wreath to the monument for another of Cuba’s national heroes, José Martí.
Then came the bilateral talks. Erdogan’s tête-à-tête with Raúl Castro was about strengthening ties between the two nations. But what the Turkish media really wanted to know was whether or not Turkey’s president had obtained permission to build a gleaming replica of Istanbul’s iconic Ortakoy mosque in Cuba.
An Ottoman-style mosque in downtown secular Havana? Here comes the context: last year, in front of the Latin American Muslim Leaders Summit in Istanbul, Erdogan contended that Christopher Columbus had spotted a mosque atop a hill on the shores of Cuba when on his way to discover the New World in 1492 – proving that Muslims had discovered the Americas. While some historians have called the notion “half-fantasy” (others “misinterpretation” and some simply “spurious”) it was this notion that prompted Erdogan’s endeavour.
It seems Raul is still undecided about whether to OK the project. Either way it’s clear that Turkey has set out to build mosques around the world. Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs has announced plans to build the largest mosque in the Balkans in the Albanian capital, Tirana. In Bosnia, Turkish funds have been used to restore countless Ottoman-built places of worship. At home, the government has announced its intention to build mosques in all of its 80 secular universities.
Mosque-building abroad has many functions. Practically speaking, it gains favour with Muslim congregations that often gather in all too inadequate buildings to pray (Tirana, for instance, has a large Muslim population and a dearth of mosques).
It is also a highly visual way of bringing attention to Turkey’s power and influence: both past and present. Using designs such as the white Ortakoy edifice showcases the distinctive symbols of Ottoman power. Unique and lavish it was a style Sultans used to impress – and control. The mosques are a solid statement of Turkey’s largesse and reflect the Islamic society its AK party is pushing.
Erdogan’s unlikely Cuban project may be inspired by historical fallacy but it shows that Turkey has big cultural and political ambitions way beyond its shores.
Sophie Grove is senior editor for Monocle and Istanbul bureau chief.