My elementary school teachers brainwashed me. I am sure they would never admit to it, but it is true. I was taught that Christopher Columbus, the Catholic Italian explorer, discovered a “New World.” I – like millions of other naive American children – was told that he was a brave and curious hero who brought progress and civilization to a backward people. Years later, when I was a teenager, my perspective on these matters changed while I read the book “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James Loewen, who presented a more honest story of what happened when Columbus arrived on “America’s shores.” This book, for the record, should be required reading for all American school children today.
I am thirty years old now, but people still try to brainwash me, albeit for different reasons. Fox News, CNN, and other media outlets tell me that ISIS is special for its barbarism and its project of mixing religion, morality, and politics. While I certainly agree that ISIS is out of control and evil, I do not think this entity is unique by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Columbus and other early Americans were equally atrocious in carrying out genocide on indigenous peoples.
Sailing from Spain on behalf of the Spanish Catholic Monarchy, Columbus embarked upon a Crusade against the indigenous people of what is now referred to as the Caribbean islands. These islands were not “uninhabited,” as my elementary school teachers told me. A whole civilization was there. The land was abundant with natural resources, beautiful people, and a range of rich cultures. The indigenous tribes who lived there had their own customs, social values, religions, and systems of governance. Columbus’s goal upon arriving to this land was not to learn about these things or build bridges of understanding. All he wanted to do was steal, destroy and conquer. It was that simple.
Columbus’s objective was straightforward: take natural resources off of the land and convert indigenous people to Christianity. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella supported these objectives by giving Columbus a document to justify genocide. This decree was a clear declaration of war on a group of people who posed no threat to the Crusaders, to Spain, or to Christendom. The stipulations of the document were made clear to the indigenous people: recognize the Catholic Church and the Pope as the new ruler. If the indigenous tribes did not accept this condition, the Crusaders would make war everywhere and in every way that they could.
The Monarchy gave Christians permission to indulge in a particular heinous act: capturing indigenous people and turning them into slaves. Columbus himself supported these crimes against humanity. Writing in his “Journal,” he stated: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.” By using this type of language, Columbus – in alliance with the Spanish Monarchy – condoned war and territorial expansion in the name of Jesus Christ and God. They carried out a Holy War. My school teachers never told me that.
Columbus not only demanded that the indigenous people give him and his soldiers food, gold, cotton and other forms of capital, but indigenous women were forced into sex slavery with Crusaders. Sex slaves were of particular interest to Columbus, as he discussed in a letter to a friend: “A hundred of them are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm… there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to then are now in demand.”
Other horrific genocidal acts carried out by the Spanish Catholics included cutting off the ears, hands, and noses of indigenous people who committed even the smallest offense. Las Casas, the writer who translated Columbus’s “Journal,” stated succinctly that Columbus’s goal upon arrival to the “New World” was to “ravage, kill, mangle, and destroy.” In other words, the aim was to torture and to carry out genocide.
The Catholic arrival to the Caribbean islands also meant the destruction of ancient social structures and cultural practices of the indigenous people. Before Columbus showed up, important tribal conclaves often included women, because women played the crucial role of food producers and people of good judgment. The Crusaders, however, pushed women outside of decision-making processes and made governing a process which only men could partake in. Columbus and his fellow Catholics suppressed other social norms too. The indigenous people practiced polytheism, but their gods were considered blasphemous in the eyes of Catholic leaders in Spain and Italy. “Convert or die!” was the slogan of the Crusaders.
Like Columbus and his allies, ISIS is driven to acquire land, profit, and conversion. ISIS believes that their territorial expansion into Syria and Iraq is justified in the name of God.
While Columbus and his Crusaders carried out a holy war against so-called “native savages,” ISIS undertakes a perverted jihad in order to conquer, enslave, and kill so-called kafirs, or non-Muslim “infidels.” Members of ISIS want to wipe non-Muslims – and even some Muslim groups – off the map of the Middle East. To be clear, total supremacy is what ISIS seeks. In order to enforce its will, ISIS resorts to brutal acts of violence such as beheadings, burning people alive, raping, and selling women into slavery. Basically, the same stuff Columbus carried out on the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands. Although ISIS has emerged 500 years after the Catholic Crusade in the “New World,” it looks and sounds very similar to Columbus and his soldiers.
ISIS is carrying out genocide against several groups including Yazidis living in Syria and Iraq. ISIS tortures and kills Yazidi men and rapes Yazidi women, some of whom have been sold into slavery. In December 2014, 3,500 Yazidi women and girls were captured by ISIS, and many of these women and children were sold as sex slaves. These women and girls are also subject to physical beatings and threatened with being sold off as “temporary sex gifts” to ISIS men.
Across Syria and Iraq, ISIS carries out ongoing waves of atrocities against Christian communities including the Assyrians and Chaldeans. In March 2015, ISIS militants blew up parts of the ancient monastery of Mar Behnam near the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh, near Mosul. Similarly, in July 2014, ISIS burned down a 1,800-year-old church in Mosul. That qualifies for genocide.
Christians in Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, have also felt the wrath of ISIS. In September 2014, ISIS blew up a 7th century Christian site known as the “Green Church.” Ironically, Hussein restored the Green Church because of its dilapidated condition in 2000. The Christian population of Mosul, which was estimated at 35,000 at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, is now nearly nonexistent.
Critics who claim that Muslims are more prone to religious extremism and violence have either forgotten or consciously ignore “the West’s” own dark history of genocide. Honoring Christopher Columbus by giving him “Columbus Day” is akin to glorifying the genocidal acts of ISIS by celebrating “ISIS Day.”