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Cloning Creationism in Turkey

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Cloning Creationism in Turkey
Author(s): 
Taner Edis
Volume: 
19
Issue: 
6
Year: 
1999
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
30–35
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
To observers in the industrialized Western world, "scientific creationism" often seems an American phenomenon. In other English-speaking countries, creationism has a much smaller constituency, and though orthodox Israeli Jews or French Muslims occasionally make a stand against Darwin (Numbers 1992; Kepel 1997), creationism has not become the persistent nuisance for public education that it is in the United States. Even within the United States, creationism typical of that promoted by the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) is clearly a sectarian position, drawing support from the evangelical Protestant community but largely unable to reach beyond its boundaries. Tracing the history of US creationism, we find that it is rooted in a populist Protestant culture that demands that both nature and Scripture be accessible to common-sense interpretation (Gilbert 1997). Although followers of many Abrahamic religious traditions express discomfort with Darwinian evolution, a full-blown attempt at creation "science" appears to be largely an American evangelical Protestant peculiarity.

Since "scientific creationism" has such a narrow, if numerous, constituency, defenders of evolution in science education can often succeed by appealing to pluralist principles — allowing creationism into the classroom would favor a blatantly sectarian viewpoint. Although ICR separates "biblical" from "scientific" creationism and emphasizes the latter, evolutionists usually consider this an artificial distinction; after all, the supposedly scientific aspect of creationism is endorsed by few people who are not biblical literalists.

While this is a reasonably accurate picture of "creation science" in the Western world, the emergence of an Islamic creationism, which is practically a clone of ICR's "scientific" vision, means we have to reassess our picture of creationism. Though Turkish creationists hail from a very different religious culture and history, their wholesale adoption of ICR-style arguments means that we cannot explain creationism by narrowly sectarian factors alone. Creationism mobilizes traditional Abrahamic convictions about the moral significance of the natural world against the threat of social modernity. Hence successful variants of creationism have a potential to spread beyond the environments in which they originally evolved.

A New Wave of Turkish Creationism

Turkey has been the most Western-oriented among Muslim countries, a legacy of modernization efforts going back more than 150 years. Most significantly, the early years of the new Turkish Republic, spanning the 1920s and 1930s, saw aggressive state-sponsored efforts to bring the European Enlightenment to a country with a traditional Islamic culture. While this revolution created some enduring modern institutions and an urban secular elite, a religiously-tinged conservative populism came to dominate politics in the 1950s. However, until the 1980s, explicitly Islamist political movements remained mostly submerged. Evolution was not a flashpoint, flashpoint, partly because it was a religiously unpalatable element in secular public education, and so did not receive major curricular emphasis.

The aftermath of a military coup in 1980 presented new opportunities for Islamist politics and for creationism. Concerned that secular government allowed too much space for left-wing dissent, risking national fragmentation and social unrest, the military junta and subsequent governments promoted a more religious ideology. This naturally affected education policy. While compulsory religion courses and the teaching of a conservative view of history were its most visible results, natural science did not escape untouched. The 1980s saw the state-sponsored translation and distribution of ICR material, explicitly creationist high-school textbooks, and a general anti-evolutionary climate in secondary education (Edis 1994). In 1992, ICR's Duane Gish and John D Morris appeared at a creationist conference held in Istanbul.

Recent years have brought important political changes that affect the creation-evolution conflict in Turkey. Islamists have grown stronger, even tasting power on their own instead of through factions within more moderate conservative parties. Although the Islamist Party lost some support to a more nationalist ultra-right party in the elections of April 1999, there is still a powerful constituency that objects to "polluting young minds" with Darwinian biology. However, the Turkish military has emerged as a counterbalancing force. Freed from the need to promote religious conservatism for anticommunist purposes, in the past few years the military has once again acted in defense of the secularist ideals of the early republic. This has extended to applying pressure to remove an Islamist-led government from power in 1997 and insisting upon educational reforms aimed at undercutting the base of Islamist politics.

In this highly charged environment, 1998 brought a new wave of creationism to Turkey. Unlike previous efforts directly aimed at public education, this wave is much more an exercise in popular propaganda through the media. By producing a series of scientific-appearing meetings and books, creationists organized in the Bilim Arastirma Vakfi (BAV; the Science Research Foundation) caught the public eye — not only through the extensive Islamist media which cheered them on and secularist newspapers which expressed concern, but also through the wider commercial media with a nose for controversy. As John Morris observes, BAV has considerable media clout: "As a group, they have access to more than adequate financial resources, as well as to the media, and are able to blanket the country with creation information. They choose to invite international creationists for their publicity value, but especially welcome Christian creationists in the ICR mold rather than those who hold merely an anti-Darwinian stance" (Morris 1998).

In April and July 1998, BAV held 3 "international conferences" in the major cities of Turkey, with a theme of "The Collapse of the Theory of Evolution: The Fact of Creation" [see sidebar, p xxx]. Joining Duane Gish and John Morris to support Turkish creationist academics were creationist luminaries Michael P Girouard, Edward Boudreaux, Carl Fliermans, and David Menton. These meetings were well-attended and well-publicized, producing successful, organized media events for creationism.

This media-savvy attention to production details is apparent in the creationist books distributed by BAV as well. Most representative is Harun Yahya's text The Evolution Deceit. The book comes in 2 versions — a large, attractive 370-page volume notable for its many full-color illustrations and slick appearance (Yahya 1997) and an abridged 128-page booklet with fewer illustrations, which was widely distributed free of charge to the public (Yahya 1998). Especially in light of the sorry state of popular science publishing in an underdeveloped country like Turkey, these lavish productions are very impressive and demonstrate the considerable finances BAV commands.

The arguments presented both in the conferences and the books are very similar to ICR's; indeed, ICR remains the most important source of material for Turkish creationists. Popular Muslim apologists often present examples of intricacies or harmony in nature and suggest that it is obvious to anyone paying attention that these indicate supernatural design. This is a traditional approach that partly derives from Muslim scriptures: although the Qur'an does not often attempt to support its claims through natural theology, it speaks of God’s manifesting "signs" in nature that we may be convinced. Observing the awesome and orderly aspects of nature — the heavens and the stability of the earth, lightning and rain, useful plants and fruits, and so on — prompts common sense to conclude that all this must be designed for a purpose (13 Ar-Rad 2, 3; 30 Ar-Rum 20-27). However, in a changing society in which people are exposed to the mass media and impressed with the products of modern science, a simple appeal to teleological intuitions is no longer sufficient. For Muslim creationists, ICR's ostensibly nonbiblical arguments supply a scientific veneer while retaining the commonsense thrust vital for an effective media message.

Hence the Yahya book, while drawing on Muslim apologetic styles, ends up reading like a compendium of classic ICR arguments. All the usual suspects appear, including claims concerning the lack of transitional fossils, the impossibility of functioning intermediate forms, the fraud of human evolution, the unreliability of dating methods, and the statistical impossibility of evolution at the molecular level. The book also explains why Western scientists and Turkish fellow-travelers are so enamored of evolution when it is so clearly false. Sounding much like one of its major sources, Henry Morris, the book tells how, beguiled by the secular philosophies of the European Enlightenment, scientists got caught up in a long war against God (Yahya 1997; Morris 1989). The content of Turkish creationism, then, is strikingly unoriginal; with generally trivial modifications, much of ICR's "scientific" material fits BAV's needs very well.

Creationism in the mass media naturally produced a reaction from mainstream Turkish academics. Previously there had been scattered, ineffective resistance to the inroads creationism was making at the high-school level; the latest high-profile wave of creationism appears to have prompted defenders of evolution to attempt a stronger response. Shortly after the BAV conferences, the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TUBA) condemned creationist efforts in a statement to the press, warning that "certain interests are continuing a war against the secular system and free and modern education". Declaring that evolution is a vital, well-confirmed part of modern science, TUBA pointed out that creationism was spread by Christian groups but had "been completely rejected in scientifically advanced countries" (TUBA 1999). A commission, including some TUBA members, was formed to combat creationism publicly. Its work continues (see Sayin and Kence 1999).

Just as Turkish creationists rely on their US counterparts, defenders of evolution plan to make use of the experience of Western evolutionists; for example, by translating proven anti-creationist material. Furthermore, in Turkey as well as in the US, scientists can try to get media attention by presenting themselves as experts: the proper authorities on biology. Unfortunately, this can be expected to have only limited success. The difficulties in explaining a counterintuitive scientific concept that faces populist religious resistance are intensified in Turkey not only because of widespread scientific illiteracy but also because the scientific community is much less powerful.

The creation-evolution conflict in Turkey is also dissimilar to the controversy in the US in other important ways, and emphasizing the broad picture of scientists and educators battling resurgent fundamentalism might obscure this. The Turkish creation-evolution dispute has a much more intense political aspect. When BAV creationists describe evolutionary scientists in conspiratorial, red-baiting terms, they may seem merely to echo the more rhetorically extravagant of the US creationists, but in the context of the present political situation in Turkey, and with militant Islam's history of violent action against critics, such descriptions take on a darker meaning. Protestants emphasize individual choice, which becomes more sharply defined against a background of doubt and backsliding. Orthodox Islam, however, is more similar to premodern Christianity: criticizing the faith not only puts the individual's soul at risk but is also treachery against the community. When a prominent Islamist newspaper (Akit, December 2, 1998) published the names of the signatories of the TUBA statement on its front page, suggesting they trespassed against Islam, this had overtones of an invitation to violence.

Such a climate does not allow for even a pretense of intellectual debate. Just as creationists rely on their Islamist base, evolutionists also see their dispute in current political terms; the TUBA statement charged creationists with aiming to undermine the secular state and produce a generation incapable of critical thought "who accept the dogmatic and incorrect information given to them without question." Political accusations fly back and forth with regularity, particularly on the part of the creationists (Sayin and Kence 1999).

Set in a culture that is caught between modernity and premodern religious and social ideals, creationism and evolution in Turkey are much more explicitly connected to the struggle between secularism and the Turkish version of the religious right. And though defenders of evolution might mobilize Westernized, secular segments of society, it is hard to see how they can appeal to others in a country that is not religiously pluralist in its common culture. Turkish evolutionists will have to invent new ways to combat creationism in very difficult circumstances.

Why Would Muslims Copy ICR?

In Turkey we find a significant creationist presence outside the United States; indeed, one altogether outside the culture of evangelical Protestantism. Although its flourishing is recent, this Islamic creationism is in some ways more powerful than its Christian counterpart — it probably enjoys better prospects for success. It is no surprise that a traditional Abrahamic religion would inspire opposition to Darwinian evolution. On the other hand, it is somewhat strange that some Muslims borrow so extensively from ICR. After all, we tend to think that creationism is a product of a particular religious history and social needs that is manifested in biblical literalism: it is not nature that constrains ICR but a narrowly sectarian religious point of view. But the history of orthodox Islam has little similarity to that of Protestant Christianity; socially it is quite different, and it does not share the same scripture. Protestantism is religiously individualist while orthodox Islam is a communal, premodern faith in which religious doctrines have a different social function. And although Islam also tends to scriptural literalism, and the Qur'an affirms special creation in a general sense (for example, 55 Ar-Rahman 13), it does not contain detailed creation stories as does the Bible. If the driving force behind creationism is a literal interpretation of the Genesis story, it is hard to see why Muslims would copy ICR — except perhaps because they will accept any aid in opposing evolution.

Some similarity among varieties of creationism is only to be expected; after all, there are only so many ways to argue that transitional fossils do not exist or that the complexity of biological molecules precludes a naturalistic account of their origin. Indeed, Islamists occasionally published anti-evolution books before the 1980 coup; these presented a few typical creationist arguments, such as the improbability of protein formation, independently of ICR (for example, Akbulut 1980). But such examples also illustrate that there are many ways of standing against evolution besides copying ICR. Since Islam is but a distant relative of Protestant Christianity, we might have expected a broader version of anti-evolutionary "science" than ICR's would have appealed to Muslim apologists. In fact, it would seem just the thing has recently been developed: "Intelligent Design" (ID) theorists present not only a more sophisticated position, but a view that lays claim to very general theistic intuitions about creation without getting bogged down in too many sectarian details (for example, Moreland 1993; for critiques, see Davis 1998; Pennock 1999). Islamists could presumably adapt this strategy, attaching specifically Islamic details as needed. But although the BAV material quotes ID proponents such as Phillip Johnson with approval, it treats ID as the ICR does — citing it to bash evolution and quickly moving on to arguments that would embarrass Johnson.

BAV does not, of course, crib indiscriminately from ICR. Their most striking divergence is BAV's omission of flood geology, ICR's signature doctrine. This is largely because Islam supports a different theological view of history than Christianity’s. Traditional Christian theology includes a strong sense of salvation history. Not only does the Bible contain something like a story line, which is easily read as a historical narrative, but even long-established Christian sects harbor millenarian strains looking forward to an imminent culmination of history. Orthodox Islam, though retaining the overall framework of time unfolding between Creation and Judgment, does not convey this sense of a cosmic salvation history. Occasionally, God sends messengers to the different nations, punishes a disobedient tribe, or performs miracles through a prophet. But such stories in the Qur'an are told as "a collection of interesting anecdotes about persons who had lived at some period in the past — a collection not in any way chronologically ordered" (Watt 1968). In Muslim culture, history is not important as a straightforward sacred narrative but because Muhammad, the final prophet, spoke the words of God, and from then on everything was radically different. Even non-Arab Muslim peoples tend to see their history before Islam as a time of darkness, as if history only began for them once they received Muhammad's message.

This means that geological time scales do not much upset Muslim conceptions of history. So Muslim creationists generally advocate an old earth or downplay the question because establishing a specific time scale is simply not that important for them. Although ICR gnashes its teeth at modern cosmology, BAV cites old-earther Hugh Ross in its magazine and triumphantly proclaims that the Big Bang proves the existence of God (BAV 1999).

However, BAV creationists are not committed to an old earth. A young earth, after all, would make evolution very implausible, so Harun Yahya once again copies ICR and cheerfully attacks all modern dating methods (Yahya 1997, ch 4). This brings up the interesting question of whether Muslim creationism could evolve in a young-earth direction. After all, a world only a few thousands of years old makes better sense if humans are central to the purpose of creation, and so the Abrahamic traditions all leaned this way before modern science. Critics of creationists like to cite Augustine's admonitions against naive literalism, but often overlook how he also wrote about history's moving through 6 ages corresponding to the days of creation, and how these ages were most naturally understood as lasting thousands of years (Patrides 1972, ch 2, 3). Muslim thinkers of the classical period also adopted the view that the earth was 6–7 thousand years old. So it is possible that some Muslims will toy with young-earth ideas. But it is very unlikely that this will ever become an important issue among conservative Muslims.

Another interesting difference from ICR emerges when BAV explains how a godless conspiracy established evolution. Much of what appears under the pseudonym Harun Yahya comes straight from Henry Morris, but it identifies the main forces behind evolution as Masons and Jews. This fits in with the all-too-common antisemitism among Islamists; indeed, Harun Yahya is also listed as the author of a book entitled The Holocaust Hoax, which borrows much from well-known American holocaust-deniers (Yahya nd). Bashing Masons may seem peculiar, but this is actually a common motif in Islamist tirades, where Freemasonry, as for many Christian conspiratologists in the past, serves as a symbol personifying the Enlightenment culture that helped to erode traditional religiosity. Usually the ancient enemies — the Jews, who refused to accept Muhammad as the final prophet — turn out to be behind Masonry, secularism, communism, and just about every godless evil.

BAV and ICR differ in some other particulars, but these are trivial. And even the differences involving flood geology and antisemitism do not obscure the fact that BAV's creationism is nearly a clone of ICR's. If anything, such differences highlight the need to explain this similarity. Clearly BAV does not blindly copy ICR; rather, it introduces minor adaptations for a Muslim environment. Why are the adaptations so minor?

We can begin to sketch an answer by observing that like the Christian version, Muslim fundamentalism is not a traditionalist movement. Islamists draw support from newly urbanized populations rather than from peasants; they are likely to be led by engineers instead of religious scholars in the traditional mold (Roy 1994). In this, they are similar to American creationists, who also find their constituency among a modernizing population, including many who have become part of the professional classes, who are trying to reproduce their culture in a changing social environment (Eve and Harrold 1991). Muslim as well as Christian creationists widely accept science as a cognitive authority, in part because Muslims perceive that their once superior civilization has been humiliated by the West’s technological advantage. This is fertile ground for pseudosciences claiming that modern knowledge validates the old stories.

In these circumstances, evolution is an obstacle, though not just because it does not fit particular scriptures. ICR's "creation science" appeals to BAV not because it upholds the authority of the Bible, but because it upholds a divine moral order — an order manifested in the evident design of nature. As with most traditional religions, old-time Abrahamic faiths sanctify a social order by inscribing it into the very structure of the universe. Origin myths function as communal constitutions; the divine purpose in creation underwrites moral convictions. Theological conservatives want to retain this morality-infused view of nature as the social disruptions of modern life encroach upon their communities.

This difference between traditional Abrahamic and modern views of morality is starkest in matters like sex roles, where fundamentalists of all stripes uphold very rigid roles discovered in nature as well as scripture (Kintz 1997). Popular Muslim apologetics, in fact, lean even more heavily on nature. Consider how theologian Suleyman Ates justifies 2 Al-Baqarah 228 in the Qur'an, which asserts that men are superior to women:
It is true that as a whole, the male sex has been created superior to the female. Even the sperm which carries the male sign is different from the female. The male-bearing sperm is more active, ... the female less. The egg stays stationary, the sperm seeks her out, and endures a long and dangerous struggle in the process. Generally in nature, all male animals are more complete, more superior compared to their females…. Man, being more enduring at work, and superior in prudence and willpower, has been given the duty of protecting woman (Ates 1991: 37; translation by author).
Such Aristotelian views of biology are quite common, even among theologians like Ates who think that some form of development in time may be acceptable to Islam.

Darwinian evolution severely undermines all such views of nature; for evolutionists, biological facts no longer carry a clear moral significance deriving from specially designed roles for each living thing. Fundamentalists quite correctly perceive that evolution radically threatens their conception of morality, though they often mistakenly go on to claim that evolution sanctions moral attitudes they consider degenerate. More modern-minded religious thinkers, of course, see opportunity here. If biological nature is no longer strongly coupled to morality, it also becomes easier to suspect that our moral convictions derive from a source transcending nature. However, exploring such an apologetic strategy is not an option for conservatives committed to a premodern social ideal. Taking a liberal point of view would in effect endorse a fluid, human-created moral environment, however sugar-coated by mystical intuitions.

Religious conservatives, then, have very good reasons to attack evolution, and this goes for Muslims as well as Christians. When, in another echo of Christian creationists, Harun Yahya digresses to denounce evolution because it describes homosexuality as natural, therefore "seeking to legitimize perversion" (Yahya 1997: 307), this might seem bizarrely out of place in an argument that is ostensibly about biology. From a fundamentalist perspective, however, it makes perfect sense — worries about morality and social decay are intimately connected to the fundamentalist view of biology.

This, then, is the key to why BAV copies ICR. They hail from doctrinally and socially different religions, but they represent constituencies confronting modernity in similar ways. They both answer a need to claim science for the side of old-time social morality, and both correctly see that evolution is a major intellectual obstacle. So BAV can borrow from ICR because ICR has already done the work of constructing a populist pseudoscience that is, in fact, relatively free of narrowly Protestant literalist doctrinal idiosyncrasies. ICR has a product which will work for almost any Abrahamic fundamentalism. Conservative Christians and Muslims may strongly disagree about religious matters — Yahya rails against the Trinity, and Henry Morris hopes the Muslims influenced by the ICR will come to know Jesus (Morris 1998) — but they can agree on their overall conception of social morality and upon "creation science".

Back Home

Watching a familiar "creation science" take root in a different culture can give us a new perspective on creationism back home. To begin with, we can more easily see the real difference between "scientific" and "biblical" creationism. They are not as separate as creationists claim — reading Henry Morris worrying about matters like the water table in the Garden of Eden (Morris 1976), it is easy to see the literalist motivations behind much of "creation science". Nevertheless, much of ICR's work has a broader potential appeal than its narrowly literalist base suggests. Defenders of evolution too often oversimplify creationism (Edis 1998); reducing US creationism to an obsession with Genesis also misses much. Becoming more aware of the wider motivations behind anti-evolutionary views, particularly the moral concerns driving them, might improve critiques of creationism.

More importantly, however, observing Turkish creationism shows the comparative weakness of the US variety. While Western cultures have secularized over the past few centuries (Bruce 1996), the Muslim world has not. There are, of course, scholars who propose more liberal approaches to Islam, hoping that it will become a matter of personal conscience rather than a communal ideology. But many also realize that liberal Islam does not exist as a significant social force and that popular sentiment leans towards political Islamists (for example, Tibi 1998). To most Muslims, especially those fundamentalist leaders who are very aware of the decline of Christianity in the industrialized West, liberal religion presents only a pale remnant of a once glorious God. And so, although unsuccessful in solving real-world political and economic problems, political Islamists remain stronger than modernists, who appear culturally alien. In such an environment, Turkish creationism enjoys some success both at the grassroots and at the governmental level.

US evolutionists can be more optimistic. The rise of ICR's creationism was part of a wider evangelical resurgence, when the "Southern style" of religion spread to the rest of the country. However, it now appears that this has come at the cost of a "Californification" of Southern religion, in which doctrinal rigidity becomes diluted through increasing individualism and shallowness in commitment (Shibley 1996). In fact, even evangelical theologians have begun to express concern over how evangelicals have come to emulate the wider culture, where religion serves as a source of therapy rather than of truth (for example, Wells 1993). This suggests that the wild popularity of evangelical religion does not effectively threaten American religious pluralism. Working against a pluralist culture and a strong legal tradition of church-state separation, US creationists face a severe struggle.

With some vigilance, our homegrown creationism should not become more than the major nuisance it already is. In Turkey, there is a real possibility that we will find out what happens to science when creationists actually succeed.

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About the Author(s): 
Dr Taner Edis
Department of Physics
Truman State University
Kirksville MO 63501
E-mail: edis@grant.phys.subr.edu