Posted on September 15, 2004

Christopher Columbus, Multicultural

Robert Spencer, National Review Online, Sep. 15

Not too many years ago, I witnessed a small band of angry protesters stalking down a Manhattan street chanting, “Columbus! Did Not! Discover! America!” I remember how quickly Columbus became a symbol of all that was wrong with the West: racism, imperialism, colonialism—and don’t forget smallpox and cholera.

But now the old sea dog can come in from the cold, though an unlikelier candidate for a multicultural poster child could hardly be found. In a press release issued late last month titled “Islamic Influence Runs Deep in American Culture,” Phyllis McIntosh of the State Department’s Washington File burbles that “Islamic influences may date back to the very beginning of American history. It is likely that Christopher Columbus, who discovered America in 1492, charted his way across the Atlantic Ocean with the help of an Arab navigator.”

Rewrite the history books, indoctrinate the children, and you can own the future. The bit about the Arab navigator is not just being put out by State, but will also be taught in Massachusetts public schools this year. Some lucky Massachusetts teachers were recently treated to a week-long workshop called “The Genesis and Genius of Islam.” It featured professors from Boston College, College of the Holy Cross, Harvard, and Bridgewater State College, including Ibrahim Kalin, assistant professor of religious studies at Holy Cross. According to a local Massachusetts paper, Kalin said that “Islamic sailors were the best seamen of the day,” and “noted that even Christopher Columbus had several Muslim sailors on his voyage that wound up in the New World.”

Unfortunately for State and the schoolchildren of Massachusetts, there is not a shred of historical evidence for this. While assertions of this kind can readily be found on Islamic websites, none of the preeminent historians of Columbus’s voyages—not Samuel Eliot Morison, Salvador de Madariaga, Paolo Emilio Taviani, or any other—has any record of this Muslim presence among the crew. And remember, Columbus was only sailing in the first place to find a way for European traders (who were Christians in those days) to avoid land routes to the Far East. Those land routes were controlled by Muslims, and passed through areas only recently conquered from Christians—most notably, the ancient holdings of the Byzantine empire, whose capital, Constantinople, had fallen to the Muslims in 1453. Columbus was commissioned by Ferdinand and Isabella, who had just defeated the last Muslims in Spain and driven them out of the country.

Did Columbus tag after the retreating Muslims and hire a navigator and a few sailors? According to the leading authority on Columbus’s voyages, the historian Samuel Eliot Morison, the name of Columbus’s navigator was Martín Pinzón, who served as captain of the Pinta. Of the known names of his crew members, there is an abundance of Juans and Pedros, but nary a Mahmoud or Ahmad. In those days, Christian names almost always meant the bearer was a Christian. As Muhammad Ali and Yusuf Islam can tell you, it is unlikely that a Muslim would have borne a Christian name.

It is even more unlikely that Muslim crewmen would have willingly served under Christians. Muslim Spain was not the multicultural paradise of modern myth; it was, rather, a sharia state in which non-Muslims were forbidden to hold authority over Muslims. This law was sometimes ignored, but that always aroused the resentment of the Muslim populace. Would Muslim sailors who had so recently been citizens of this state have willingly signed on to take orders from Christians—and men against whom they had just been at war?

Further, Muslim sailors would not have found Columbus’s ships a congenial atmosphere: Columbus firmly believed that the Christian God had called him to this mission. In the diaries he kept during the voyage, he praised Ferdinand and Isabella for being “Catholic Christians, and princes who love and promote the holy Christian faith,” as well as for being “enemies of the doctrine of Mahomet, and of all idolatry and heresy.”

Columbus’s crew prayed often on the ship—Christian prayers, not multicultural ones, and certainly not the maghrib and isha prayers or any other of the five daily prayers of Islam. “At sunset,” according to Morison, “the Blessed Virgin was saluted with her ancient canticle, Salve Regina.” Neither Morison nor any other historian of Columbus’s voyages records any protest by Muslim crewmen against this overt display of Christian religiosity. Columbus’s crew, historians record, even broke out in Te Deum, laudamus when they sighted land. Of the captain himself, Morison notes that “as a pious Christian, faithful in his religious duties, Columbus kept a book of hours in his cabin, and whenever possible said his prayers in private at the appointed hours.”

There was an Arabic speaker on hand—but he was of Jewish, not Muslim background. According to historian Thomas W. Jodziewicz of the University of Dallas, “There was a converted Jew on board Columbus’ ship who spoke Arabic: if Chinese or Japanese folks were contacted, he would supposedly be able to communicate with them!”

So why are the State Department and the Massachusetts public schools purveying all this hooey? Repeated calls to the State Department and Phyllis McIntosh went unreturned; the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs issues a blizzard of press releases on its website, but offers no clear or easy way to contact a live human in the office. Its contact procedures are labyrinthine, self-contradictory, and generally culminate in an answering machine on which messages go unreturned.

Why would an “information” bureau play so hard to get? Could it be to fend off embarrassing questions from Americans while spreading politically motivated, ahistorical fairy tales to an eager international audience? The agenda is clear: This is about contemporary p.c. politics, not history.

It’s all presented as an exercise in understanding. Speaking of his students, a Massachusetts history teacher who attended the workshop asked, “How can they understand Iraq if they don’t know the history of the people?” Indeed. But it really isn’t the history of Iraq, or of Columbus’s voyages, that State and the Massachusetts educrats are interested in. What they’re really on about is the history—and future—of the United States.

The multiculturalist fantasy is designed to make Americans more accepting of an influential Islamic presence in this country. But unfortunately, since few at the State Department seems concerned about how to screen terrorists out of this Islamic presence, they’re likely to find that the Muslims to whom they have surrendered their history—and whom they have invited into their future—are no more multicultural than their forefathers of 1492.

—Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch, author of Onward Muslim Soldiers and Islam Unveiled, and editor of the forthcoming essay collection The Myth of Islamic Tolerance.