Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long been vocal about his determination to build a Turkish-style mosque in Cuba, but he may have been surprised to discover this week that regional rival Saudi Arabia might have beat him to it. The Turkish leader publicized his proposal to build a mosque in Havana during a visit there Wednesday and clarified that he would want the Turkish project to proceed independently, even if the Cuban government had already promised a mosque construction deal to “other people,” Turkish news outlet Hurriyet Daily News reported.
“We want to build the mosque ourselves. We don’t want a partner. If you find it appropriate, we would like to build it in Havana,” Erdoğan told Cuban President Raul Castro, according to the Hurriyet report. “But if you have promised a Havana mosque to other people, then we can build our Ortaköy Mosque in another Cuban province.” Erdoğan is proposing a building in Havana modeled after Istanbul’s iconic Ortaköy mosque.
In November, Erdoğan raised eyebrows by telling a conference of Muslim leaders from Latin America that Muslims had been the ones to discover America, more than a century before Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. The assertion was based on a reference in the explorer’s diary to a minaret-like formation on top of a mountain in Cuba. The Turkish leader added that "a mosque today would suit the top of that mountain," Reuters reported.
Cuba’s government may have already received a proposal from Saudi Arabia, but Turkey’s mosque would be unique, Erdoğan asserted to reporters covering the visit, according to the CBC. "Our architecture is different from Saudi Arabia's. We want to do this ourselves, we don't want a partner," he said. Little is known about Saudi Arabia's reported Cuban mosque project outside of Erdoğan's comments about it.
Cuba’s government has rejected past construction deals to build mosques in the country, with a previous proposal by Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate turned down by Castro last year on the grounds that it was “not necessary,” Turkish news site Today’s Zaman reported. Cuba has an estimated 9,000 Muslims, or 0.1 percent of the population.
Regardless of the need for such a project, it is clear that Erdoğan is determined to push forward on it-- without Saudi help. The Turkish government, led by his Muslim party, has frequently competed with Riyadh over regional influence, particularly around the issue of political Islamist groups, of which Erdoğan is an enthusiastic supporter. The two countries have been quietly at odds in the aftermath of the 2013 ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, with Saudi Arabia financially backing the military regime that deposed him.