In “Was Columbus’ Voyage to the ‘New World’ Driven by Islamophobia?,” an article published on Columbus Day by Slate, Rebecca Onion asked author Alan Mikhail, “Is it possible to use the word ‘Islamophobia’ to describe the way Columbus, Isabella, Ferdinand, and other Christian Europeans felt at this time?”
Raymond Ibrahim In 1453, when Columbus was 2-years-old, the Turkish Muslims captured Constantinople, an event that rocked Christendom. Less than 40 years later, Ferdinand and Isabella captured the last bastion of Islam in Spain, Granada, an event that “produced an extraordinary effect throughout the Christian world and was viewed as a fitting revenge for the fall of Constantinople thirty-nine years earlier,” to quote an earlier historian.
Even so, and although “what Constantinople was to the Ottoman sultan, Granada was to Ferdinand and Isabella,” the war with Islam was hardly over from Spain’s perspective.
No sooner was Granada conquered when the two monarchs funded the ambitious voyage of Columbus in an effort to launch “a final and definite Crusade against Islam by way of the Indies” (which culminated in the incidental founding of the New World).
Many Europeans were convinced that if only they could reach the peoples east of Islam—who if not Christian were at least “not as yet infected by the Mohammedan plague,” to quote Pope Nicholas V—together they could crush Islam between them. (The plan was centuries old and connected to the legend of Prester John, a supposedly great Christian monarch reigning in the East who would one day march westward and avenge Christendom by destroying Islam.)
All this comes out clearly in Columbus’s own letters: in one he refers to Ferdinand and Isabella as “enemies of the wretched sect of Mohammed” who are “resolve[d] to send me to the regions of the Indies, to see” how the people thereof can help in the war effort; in another written to the monarchs after he reached the New World Columbus offers to raise an army “for the war and conquest of Jerusalem (from the Muslims).”
Does all this make Columbus and by extension Ferdinand and Isabella—not to mention the whole of Christendom—“Islamophobes,” as Slate seems intent on publishing?
The answer is yes—but not in the way that word is used today. While the Greek word phoboshas always meant “fear,” its usage today implies “irrational fear.”
However, considering that, for nearly a thousand years before Columbus, Islam had repeatedly attacked Christendom to the point of swallowing up three-quarters of its original territory, including for centuries Spain; that Islam’s latest iteration, in the guise of the Ottoman Turks, was during Columbus’s era devastating the Balkans and Mediterranean; and that, even centuries after Columbus, Islam was still terrorizing the West—marching onto Vienna with 200,000 jihadis in 1683 and provoking America into its first war as a nation—the very suggestion that historic Christian fears of Islam were “irrational” is itself the height of irrationalism.