Ankara (AFP) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday hit back at ridicule of his claim that Islamic explorers discovered the Americas three centuries before Columbus, accusing his Muslim critics of lacking "self-confidence".
In an aggressive rebuttal of the criticism heaped in some quarters on his comments, Erdogan also suggested that the purported "discovery" of the Americas by Muslims should be taught in schools.
"A big responsibility falls on the shoulders of the national education ministry and YOK (higher education board) on this issue," Erdogan said at a ceremony in Ankara.
"If the history of science is written objectively, it will be seen that Islamic geography's contribution to science is much more than what's known," Erdogan said in televised comments.
Erdogan, a pious Muslim who has been in power for more than a decade, stirred up controversy on Saturday when he claimed the Americas were discovered by Muslims in the 12th century, nearly three centuries before Christopher Columbus.
He cited as evidence for his claim that "Columbus mentioned the existence of a mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast."
On Tuesday, Erdogan insisted that "very respected scientists in Turkey and in the world" supported his claim.
"Some youth of our country have begun objecting to this without doing any research or paying attention to discussions. Not only youths but also some very senior figures have begun disputing it.
"Why? Because they still do not believe a Muslim can achieve this... They do not believe that their ancestors carried the ships over land to the Golden Horn," he said, referring to Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II's conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453.
"They did not believe in the leaders who closed the Dark Ages and opened up the New Age. This is a lack of self-confidence."
- 'Whatever next?' -
His claim had been mercilessly mocked by some prominent columnists in the Turkish media.
"Now it should be the turn to correct other assumptions misunderstood by the world," wrote Mehmet Yilmaz of the Hurriyet daily with heavy sarcasm, suggesting that Erdogan's next idea maybe that a Muslim, rather than Isaac Newton, discovered gravity.
Devlet Bahceli, leader of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), said Tuesday the controversy was a political manoeuvre devised by Erdogan to "cover up his faults", including corruption claims targeting his inner circle.
But pro-government media supported Erdogan's claim, saying world history for too long had been based on a distorted Western interpretation.
"If President Erdogan had not made the comments on the Americas' discovery, a big majority would have been unaware of the continent's discovery by the Muslims because Western sources wrote that it was Columbus who first set foot on America," Mehmet Seker wrote in the Yeni Safak daily.
"We had copied the translated (Western) information into our books."
History books say that Columbus set foot on the American continent in 1492 as he was seeking a new maritime route to India. Some researchers also believe Vikings reached America before the end of the first millennium.
A tiny minority of Muslim scholars have recently suggested a prior Muslim presence in the Americas, although no pre-Columbian ruin of an Islamic structure has ever been found.
In a controversial article published in 1996, historian Youssef Mroueh refers to a diary entry from Columbus that mentions a mosque in Cuba. But the passage is widely understood to be a metaphorical reference to the shape of the landscape.