Columbus the Islamophobe: An Untold Thanksgiving Story

A genocidal holiday cannot be fully understood without also being in silent or explicit relation to a savage Muslim counterpart.

Christopher Columbus at the gates of the monastery of Santa María de la Rábida with his son Diego.
Photo Credit: Benet Mercadé/WIkipedia

The taking down of racist monuments has manifested itself in a worldwide movement meant to scrutinize the supposed morality of past figures and symbols. In March of 2015, students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa launched the Rhodes Must Fall movement in which they demanded the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a man considered by many to be the “architect of apartheid.” Just a few months later, in June of 2015, Bree Newsome, an activist from South Carolina, took down the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State Capitol, leading to its permanent removal in July of 2015. In January of 2016, students at Oxford University in the United Kingdom voted in favor of removing a statue of Cecil Rhodes from their university.  

Echoing the sentiments of those around the world, New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio has appointed a commission intended at ensuring that there are no “symbols of hate” on public property in New York City. At a recent November 17th hearing, there was controversy regarding a statue of Christopher Columbus in Central Park.

The ire surrounding this statue of Columbus is not a new phenomenon. Along with this broader internationalist movement, the movement around Columbus’ statue represents a broader reexamination by Americans of the fact that our nation’s founding is based in settler-colonialism, genocide, and invasion. This can also be seen in the context of the #NoDAPL movement, in which thousands of Americans stood in solidarity with indigenous people in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which sought to take land from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

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Thanksgiving is a celebration that further brings attention to the fact that America is a settler-colonialist state founded upon the destruction of indigenous peoples. Though the holiday was made an official holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the Pilgrim-Indian myth did not exist until over 30 years after the holiday. Moreover, while many recognize the conquest of the Americas to be built on the genocide and destruction of an indigenous population, few understand how the conquest of the Americas could also be an intrinsically anti-Muslim encounter.

Islamophobia in the Conquest of North America  

The Protestant worldview of the early colonists was entrenched in both an anti-Native and anti-Muslim worldview. From the early 17th century onward, Protestants arriving in North America viewed the land as divinely promised to them by God, referring to it as a “New Israel.”

This New Israel was to be conquested in the same fashion that the Holy Land would in the near messianic future. The defeat of the Ottomans and Muslim power was part of their larger worldview and undergird Protestant desire to colonize and ethnically cleanse the Natives of the Americas.

In addition to anti-black and anti-Native logics, the United States was founded in the crucible of Islamophobic Protestant protest against their English masters. The American Revolution (1765 – 1783) took on the popular iconography of its reinterpreted New Israel identity. One of the most common themes of the Revolution was that of Moses leading Israelites to the Promised Land by way of conquering the Canaanites.

George Washington, a revolutionary war hero and first president of the United States, was viewed as a pioneer and conqueror like Moses and Columbus. Early American writers, such as Joel Barlow in his poem The Vision of Columbus (1787), viewed Columbus’ journey to the New World as analogous to that of the Israelites journey to the Promised Land.

Shortly after United States’ independence, its first war was actually with Muslim powers - known as the Barbary states - in northern Africa. George Washington and John Adams viewed these Muslim countries as a “nest of bandits” and dark backwardness in relation to the new, free and bright Republic. Adams disparaged his rival Thomas Jefferson by likening him to the Islamic Prophet Muhammed, after his followers recited the Islamic declaration of faith, adapted to American politics, “There is but one Goddess of Liberty, and Common Sense is her Prophet”.

Tea Parties and Turkeys

In the build-up to the Revolution, the incident of the Boston Tea Party in 1773  also reflected Islamophobic tendencies that set the stage for comparison between the Indian and Muslim as inferiors to the rising white Protestant mission in New Israel. In an act of anti-British rebellion, white Protestant Tea Party participants dressed as Indians with soot on their face and feathers in their hair in order to sneak onto a British East Indian Company ship and destroy its shipments of tea by throwing them into the Boston harbor.

They followed the Boston Tea Party with a victory speech where they stated “Though you were Indians, come from distant shores, like MEN you acted, not like savage Moors.” In the midst of celebrating their overthrow of the British, the colonists sought to dehumanize Indians and Moors as savages who were less than human.

Thus, a genocidal holiday like Thanksgiving - and its accompanying Pilgrim-Indian myth – cannot be fully understood without also being in silent or explicit relation to a savage Muslim counterpart. Even the famed and supposedly friendly dinner that was supposed to have happened between the Pilgrim and Indian took place over a bird nicknamed by way of Muslim association.

The New World bird commonly known as a “turkey” was named by Europeans who saw its similarity to a bird which was introduced to them in the Old World by way of the “Turkish” Ottoman controlled lands in Africa and Asia. This strong correlation between the Indian and Muslim in the mind of Western Man was the same reason why Indian corn was originally called “turkey wheat” or “turkey corn” in English.

Columbus – Before and After 1492

The Islamophobia of the Euro-Protestant roots of the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries point to a relationship nearly identical to Euro-Catholic desires to conquer both Moors and Indians two centuries earlier.

Understanding the Islamophobia of early American colonists cannot be understand without first understanding the system of oppression that Christopher Columbus himself came out of. Columbus came from a context of rampant Islamophobia and crusades against Muslims in the Old World just as he was finding new enemies in the New World. The link between the Muslim and the Indian is a crucial node in unveiling the anti-Native and Islamophobic foundations of Columbus’ New World encounter, and its ongoing celebration through the Thanksgiving myth.

The starting place for understanding the Islamophobic underpinnings of the conquest of the Americas is bridged by the figure of Christopher Columbus. The Columbus story commonly told within anti-colonial resistance movements often only starts at the tail end of the year in October of 1492 when Columbus arrived on Native land (Turtle Island, Abya Yala, etc.), which Spanish conquistadors renamed the New World. It is necessary to look back to January of 1492 to gain a more holistic understanding of Columbus’ ideology.

It was in January of 1492 that Columbus finally got the greenlight from the Imperial Spanish Crown of King Ferdinand and Isabella to go and find “India”. Columbus and the Spanish Crown were waiting for the final defeat of Granada and the remaining Islamic Sultanate in the Iberian Peninsula (i.e. Al-Andalus) as part of their broader strategy of reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula. It is only after the reconquista of indigenous Muslim land in Al-Andalus that the conquista of the New World becomes possible and takes place.

During the Middle Ages, the normative Other of Western Christendom became the Muslim enemy. It was through the Crusades that Western Christendom becomes a self-defined geopolitical territory. It was at the tail of this medieval Western Christian world that Columbus was born and released upon the world.

Prior to conquering the New World, Columbus was reared in a fervently anti-Muslim medieval world. Columbus was well educated and followed wider pan-Christendom trends that sought to reverse the tide against the “Moors, Turks and Saracens” who threatened the purity of Western Christendom’s whiteness and Christianness.

As the destruction, genocide and settler-colonization of Muslim and Jewish life and land took place through the reconquista (and later the Inquisition) in Al-Andalus, Columbus was but one lucky sailor-conqueror out of many who were trying to sail West in order to find India, unite with mythical Eastern Christian allies and recapture the Holy Land from, in Columbus own words, the “infidel Muhammaden sect.”

Why was India important to the Spanish Crown? And how did Columbus get lost and end up in the New World?

Christendom, Crusades and Columbising

There was a common trope in medieval Christendom about an Eastern Christian ruler by the name of Prester John who would supposedly help Western Christians in their attempt to defeat Muslim powers in Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans in order to “reconquest” the Holy Land. One of the main driving forces of the Crusades and Western Christian identity was the goal of recapturing Jerusalem from the infidel Muslim. It was on 1095 when Pope John II war cry of “Deus Volt!” – a common phrase which has been revived amongst many on the global fascist Far Right – was made in order to supposedly help Byzantine Christians in their defense against Muslim invasions in Byzantium.

In the Crusades march towards Tierra Santa (Holy Land), they massacred along the way the Jews of the Rhine in what is now Germany, their supposed Byzantine Christians “allies” and finally the Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem. This reconquista marching East in the 11th century was in many ways a reflection of what was to come four centuries later in 1492 when Western Christendom’s xenophobic and racist project began to globalize and colonize those outside of Western Christendom’s grasp.

Columbus’ going West in 1492 – like Portuguese sailor Vasco De Gama going East in 1498 CE – was based on a longstanding material and metaphysical desire to reconquest the Holy Land in order to defeat Islamic civilization and bring glory back to Western Christendom. In his journals, Columbus wrote about his desire to follow the crusading ideal of recapturing the Holy Land by connecting with the pro-Christian Mongol Gran Can (Grand Khan) who would help the Western Christians in their civilizing mission post-1492. Columbus wrote:

“In this present year 1492 after Your Highness had made an end to war with the Moors who ruled in Europe, and had concluded the war in the very great city of Granada, where in the present year, on the second day of the month of January, I saw the Royal Standards of Your Highness placed by the force of arms on the towers of Alhambra (which is the citadel of the said city.) And I saw the Moorish King come forth to the gates of the city and kiss the Royal hands of your Highness and of the Prince my Lord, and soon after in the same month, through the information that I had given to Your Highness given concerning the lands of India, and to a prince who is called Gran Can…And Your Highness, as Catholic Christians and Princes devoted to the Holy Christian faith and propagators thereof, and enemies of the sect of Mahomet (i.e. Muslims) and of all idolatries and heresies, resolved to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the said regions of India, to see the said princes and peoples and lands and the disposition of them and all, and the manner in which may be undertaken their conversion to our Holy Faith, and ordained that I should not go by land (the usual way) to the Orient, but by the route of the Occident, by which no one to this day knows that anyone has gone.”

Columbus mission was nothing new in the wider context of Western Christendom. The motivations of Columbus’ crusading ideal – connecting with Eastern Christians in order to unite in Crusades against the Muslim enemy in order to reconquest the Holy Land - was evident in the life works and actions of Marco Polo (d. 1324), Marino Sanudo (d. 1338), Pope Julius (d. 1464), and Johannes Campanus (d. 1477).

Throughout the crusading commonplace of the Middle Ages, Western Christendom was not able to expand its universalizing mission outside its geopolitical borders due to various Muslim polities surrounding and controlling the territories south and east of Western Christendom. Yet, this story changes with Columbus. It is only with Columbus that this Islamophobic crusade explodes to reach global dimensions.

New Moors in the New World

When Columbus and the early Spaniards arrived in the “Americas” by accident in their journey towards India, they used a pre-existing framework to view their new Others. The immediate reservoir from which they drew upon in order to categorize the Natives of the New World was that of Islamophobia (as well as Judeophobia).

Even the name Indian, or indio, which they gave to the Aztec, Maya, Incan and many others whom they conquered was based on a fundamentally anti-Muslim desire to “find India” to rid the earth of “Mohammedan” infidels in order to bring about the reconquest of the Holy Land and coming of the Messiah.

Columbus and his conquistadors largely viewed the Indians as New Moors. They literally called Indians “Moors”; they named Indian sites of worship mezquitas (mosques) and sinagogas (synagogues); they named a great Mayan capital of the New World “Great Cairo” in remembrance of their former foes in the Old World; and even forced the newly Christianized Indians to participate in religious rituals depicting a recapture of the Holy Land in which Indians played the role of Muslims being defeated by their Crusading Christian conquerors.

Contrary to Paulo Freire’s Theatre of the Oppressed, this was a Columbian Theatre of the Oppressor, which forced Indians to see themselves as the New Moors of Christendom’s crusade West and colonization of a new heretical and inferior peoples who must either convert to Christianity or die.

In analyzing both the removal of statues of racist figures such as Christopher Columbus, and the Thanksgiving myth, it is vital to understand that Islamophobia was a fundamental to the conquest of the Americas. It is also crucial to understand that this anti-Native myth is foundational to the United States’ government's ongoing settler-colonization and genocide of Native peoples and their land, such as in the context of the Dakota Access Pipeline. As Americans come to reexamine our nation’s past of settler-colonialism, we must also remember is that the Muslim has also always been secretly sacrificed at the altar of thanksgiving myth-making. The underside of the turkey – a type of liberal American peace offering that whitewashes genocide - can only be understood as the continuation of war against the Indian, Muslim and all Others who choose not to join the table for dinner during the fourth Thursday of each November month.

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Hamzah Raza is a senior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is currently writing his senior thesis on the role of Muslims in the South African anti-apartheid struggle.

Alexander Abbasi is a Muslim Arab-American scholar activist. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Religion at the University of Johannesburg. His work lies at the crossroads of Islamophobia Studies, Islamic Liberation Theology, and Decolonial Theory.