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12 Mar 2008

Turkey's survival of the fittest

The Islamic anti-Darwinism movement in Turkey is being helped by an unlikely source - US Christian conservatives, Dorian Jones writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Dorian L Jones

War makes strange bed fellows, especially in Turkey, where a dispute over creationism vs Darwinism has created an unusual alliance between the country's Islamists and conservative Christians in the US.

Darwin's Theory of Evolution, in layman's terms, proposes that life descended from organisms through "survival of the fittest." Creationism holds that life was created by an all-knowing being, that is, God.

Creationism advocates from the US traveled to Istanbul May 2007 to meet with their counterparts, seeking to galvanize their link in the fight to bring creationism to schools and universities in their respective countries. The meeting was endorsed by Istanbul mayor Kadir Topbas, a member of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

"There are outstanding figures within Islamic theology who have participated in this discussion. There is no reason to be surprised, there is a very rich tradition," David Berlinski, keynote speaker for the meeting and an analyst for the US-based Discovery Institute, an organization that opposes what it terms "neo-Darwinism," told ISN Security Watch.

"This is a hot issue. We are in the midst of a worldwide religious revival. Historians 500 years from now will talk about the religious revival of the late 20th century and early 21st century."

The meeting appeared to be well received by the audience of college and high school students, drawn from the city's elite education institutions.

"Darwinism is, of course, against Muslim belief system as well," Ayse Sayman, a 20-year-old student at Istanbul's Bosphorus University told ISN Security Watch. "That is why it makes sense that it is debated here as well. And counter-arguments should be developed to the theory. That is why I am interested in this."

Planting the seed in fertile minds

The May meeting is part of a growing battle for the hearts and minds of Turkey's youth. In fact, conference organizer Mustafa Akyol told ISN Security Watch, in Turkey the creationism-evolution debate is more extensive than it is anywhere in the world.

Akyol is also a member of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, established by Fethullah Gulen, leader of a wealthy Islamic sect that bears his name, the Gulen Movement. Gulen lives in self-imposed exile after fleeing charges of subverting the state, or more specifically, of attempting to "undermine secularism" in Turkey. After long trial, he was acquitted in 2006 but the case has since been reopened, despite the fact that he is said to actually be in the good graces of the current government.

Gulen has an influential network of TV and newspaper interests in Turkey along with close ties to the government. It is rumored he even has the ear of Turkish President Abdullah Gul.

The Gulen Movement, along with other creationist advocates, has been lobbying with increasing success for school textbooks to put creationism on equal footing with Darwinism.

Their efforts are causing increasing concern among Turkey's academic community. Last year, 600 academics presented a petition to the Education Ministry citing alarm over the growing presence of creationist ideas in biology text books.

"Here it explains how life evolved, this part is quite scientific, but then right after that, it starts with the creationist ideas. This should really not be in a scientific book, because this is a religious view," Molecular biology professor Asla Tolon told ISN Security Watch as she perused a state biology textbook.

Tolon, a professor at Bosphorus University, has been monitoring what she says is the encroachment of creationist ideas in school textbooks, which she says is leading her students to increasingly challenge the basic tenets of biology.

"Students sometimes get the idea that I am trying to teach them my own personal views, but this is not [true], because evolution is one of the basic theories," she said.

Teachers caught in between

Education Minister Huseyin Celik, an AKP member, said he has an open mind over the debate about evolution, but in 2005, the Ministry reportedly suspended five teachers for advocating evolution too strongly.

As the battle for ideas deepens they are finding themselves increasingly caught in the middle.

"In my school three out of five science teachers only teach creationism and I face pressure from them everyday. They also try to turn the children against us in their classes, saying we are atheists," a teacher told ISN Security Watch on the condition of anonymity.

"There are also religious groups who are always giving out creationist material both outside and inside school premises. These people also send petitions to the authorities complaining about teachers who support evolution. The pro-Islamic-controlled local authorities send faxes telling headmasters to send children to creationism meetings," she said.

The Turkish-based Knowledge Research Foundation, part of the Harun Yahya Islamic sect, is also at the forefront of the fight to promote creationism in schools.

"Evolution is a theory that has collapsed in scientific terms. Countless branches of science, such as genetics, microbiology and paleontology, have revealed that the claims of Darwinism are invalid," Adnan Oktan, the Foundation's leader, told ISN Security Watch.

"The reason why evolution is still espoused in the face of this scientific defeat is ideological. What science reveals is that the universe and life are the work of Allah."

Oktan's group distributed free copies of "The Atlas of Creation," a weighty and expensively produced 700-page textbook that claims to be scientifically based. The book says that Darwinism is "flawed" and that "God created the world." The Atlas was also sent to French, UK and Scandinavian schools and universities. A copy was also sent to ISN Security Watch.

Harun Yahya members regularly distribute creationist DVDs and literature at Turkish schools. In shopping malls across the country, they organize attractive and colorful exhibitions with displays of fossils and models of dinosaurs standing next to humans, with the message "God created the world." Young men dressed in sharp suits hand out leaflets warning that Darwinism is "corrupting children's minds."

"Our scientific activities revealing the false nature of the theory of evolution are having a profound impact all over the world. Twenty years ago, 80 percent of people in Turkey believed in evolution, but nowadays nearly 90 percent of the public believe in creation," Oktan told ISN Security Watch.

With a little help from their friends

Much of the material Oktan's members use draws heavily on the writings of US-based creationist organizations.

The involvement of US Christian groups in Turkey in the battle against Darwinism has a long history. In 1985, the Dallas-based Institute of Creation Research collaborated with the then-Turkish government to introduce creationism into the country's school curriculum.

According to Dr Ozgur Genc, a professor at Bosphorus University and a leading opponent of creationism, its introduction was part of a wider state policy called the "Turkish Islamic synthesis."

The country's military rulers at the time, who had seized power in a 1980 coup, wanted to encourage religion to undermine the then-strong support in the country for left-wing ideas.

"They purged universities and high schools of thousands of liberal-minded teachers, replacing them with more religiously minded people. This opened the way to include creation in the curriculum," Genc told ISN Security Watch.

But Genc's opponents see the controversy as an indication that Turkey is becoming a more tolerant and open society.

"The secular camp has a very old idea of westernization in which it says religion is fully incompatible with modern life. But the West left that idea behind decades ago. I think through this debate we will have a more healthy Turkey," Akyol told ISN Security Watch.

"Over time we are steadily progressing towards a stage in which we can have a pluralistic society, in which the faithful, the people with a headscarf, the people with a mini-skirt [...] can all live together in a society. And when we reach that I think it will be a good example to the Muslim world."

But critics, such as the teacher interviewed by ISN Security Watch, argue that the methods being employed by Islamic creationist advocates raise questions about how tolerant a future Turkish society would be if the country's Islamic movement has its way.

"Of course, all teachers like myself worry about what can happen to our careers and lives, but I am not afraid. I will keep on struggling to teach evolution and not religion in my science classes[...] I believe it is the right of children to have a science-based education."


Dorian L Jones is an Istanbul-based correspondent reporting for ISN Security Watch. He has covered events in northern Iraq, Turkey and Cyprus. He is also a radio documentary producer.

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