Evolution under Pressure

In Turkey, scientists and academics are voicing concerns that the country's Islamic-rooted government is increasingly siding with the country's powerful creationist lobby. Dorian Jones reports

Turkish students (photo: dpa)
In Turkey 700 academics have now filed a case against the government to end what it says is the increasing influence of creationism in science classes

​​A Turkish Professor warns that the battle to teach evolution in schools is being lost. He was speaking at a conference attended by leading academics to discuss what they see is the worrying trend towards the teaching of creationism in schools. The conference organizer was Ozgur Genc.

Showing me the latest biology books used in Turkish schools, Genc explains that over the last few years, evolution theories have been increasingly questioned and undermined. At the same time, he says, creationism is now being put on an equal footing to Darwinism and his theory of the evolution of the species.

Campaigning all across Europe

In one of Istanbul's numerous shopping malls can be found an exhibition advocating creationism. It is organized by the Knowledge Research Foundation. The organization is well-funded and it is distributing thick glossy expensive books for free along with DVDs to anyone interested. The group campaign all across Europe. Tarkan Yavas is one of its directors. He says the organization has a mission to save the country's youth from the outdated ideas of Darwinism.

"What we say is that 21st century technology shows the problems of the evolution theory," Yavas asserts. "We see that scientifically, the evolution theory has collapsed, and it doesn't mean anything. What we want to do is to draw attention to this. At the root of this theory is an ideological stance, with the purpose of denouncing God. We should prevent this incorrect information, these lies that cheat our children."

Transatlantic theological ties

One of the numerous DVDs advocating creationist ideas produced by the Knowledge Research Foundation draws heavily on writings of US-based Christian organizations. Representatives from such groups have addressed creationist conferences in Turkey.

As far back as 1985 the Institute of Creation Research collaborated with the then Turkish government to introduce creationism into the Turkish curriculum. One of most vocal Turkish critics of Darwinism is writer and columnist Mustafa Akyol. He works closely with US groups and was even an expert witness in a Kansas court case challenging the teaching of Darwinism. He sees such cooperation as helping to break down religious barriers.

"There is this interesting alliance being formed between the more theistic people in the west and east, against some ideas, which are inherently hostile to religion. In this clash with the Islamic world and the west, one major element is the ideas which are coming from the west into the Islamic world and which is seen as inherently atheistic. Now there is a controversy in the west about this materialistic philosophy itself, there are some westerners who say we know that materialism is a philosophy but science doesn't really support that philosophy; science can also support theism, the fact that there is a God. So when Muslims recognize this they can stop looking at the world in terms of west versus the east; so we can have a dialogue with the west."

But while Muslims and Christian groups are finding common ground in challenging Darwinism, caught in the middle of this bitter dispute are Turkey's teachers.

Teachers under pressure

They are forbidden to speak to the media without the permission of the education ministry, but one agreed to on condition of anonymity

Miss X, as she wants to be referred to, teaches biology at an Istanbul high school. She says as teachers are given great scope in how lessons are taught, it means they have become key to the dispute.

"Teachers who want to teach evolution face a lot of pressure. We face pressure from our colleagues who believe in creationism. 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."

"There are also religious groups who are always giving out creationist material both outside and inside school premises," Miss X goes on to say. "These people also send petitions to the authorities complaining about teachers who support evolution. The local authorities send faxes telling headmasters to send children to creationism meetings. And last year, five teachers were suspended because they taught evolution. Every year it becomes more difficult for teachers like me."

The Minister of Education, Huseyin Celik, despite repeated attempts refused to comment or even issue a statement. But according to various sources among the press, Minister Celik expressed support for the teaching of creationism and Darwinism. He has also reportedly refused to re-instate the five suspended teachers.

Parents divided

The deepening dispute is also dividing parents. Here at Istanbul's Cihangir high school, most parents profess a strong belief in God.

"Creationism should be taught in science classes," says one father of a student. "God created everything and children should learn this. I believe in God and I bring my children to believe this, and education should reflect our beliefs. I don't want my children to be confused."

"It's not a good idea to mix religious ideas with science," says another man. "I think children will get confused, science should be taught in science classes, and religious ideas in religious classes. We need children to educate to think rationally. It is like oil and water – they don't mix."

Like in some issues Turkey seems increasingly polarized over religion and to what extent it should influence the direction the country should go in. With the education of the country's children the centre of this latest dispute, both sides seem to be squaring up for a long and bitter struggle.

Dorian Jones



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