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Islam’s Darwin problem

In the Muslim world, creationism is on the rise

(Getty Images )
By Drake Bennett
October 25, 2009

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Three weeks ago, with much fanfare, a team of scientists unveiled the fossil skeleton of Ardi, a 4-foot-tall female primate who lived and died 4.4 million years ago in what is now Ethiopia. According to her discoverers, Ardi - short for Ardipithecus ramidus, her species - is our oldest known ancestor. She predated Lucy, the fossilized Australopithecus afarensis that previously had claimed the title, by 1.2 million years.

The papers announcing the find described a transitional specimen, with the long arms and short legs of an ape and strong, grasping big toes suited to life in the trees, but also a pelvis whose shape allowed her to walk upright on the ground below.

That, at least, is what one discovered by following the coverage in the Western press, or by reading the scientific papers themselves, published in the journal Science. If you learned about Ardi on the Arabic-language version of Al Jazeera’s website, however, you discovered something else: The find disproved the theory of evolution.

“Ardi Refutes Darwin’s Theory,” Al Jazeera announced, in an Oct. 3 article not available on the English version of the website. “American scientists have presented evidence that Darwin’s theory of evolution was wrong,” the article opened. “The team announced yesterday that Ardi’s discovery proves that humans did not evolve from ancestors that resemble chimpanzees, which refutes the longstanding assumption that humans evolved from monkeys.”

Americans familiar with the long and bitter battle over the teaching of evolution in our schools likely have a set of images of what creationism looks like: from the Scopes trial, and its dramatization in “Inherit the Wind,” to more recent battles over textbooks on school boards in Kansas and Georgia and in federal court in Pennsylvania. The doctrine of creationism, and its less explicitly religious cousin intelligent design, are extensively developed counter-narratives of the origin of life on Earth, fed by Christian concerns and shaped by Christian beliefs. In its more extreme forms, creationist thought is guided by a faith in the inerrancy of the language of the Book of Genesis, so that some creationists see in the fossil record evidence that Noah must have herded dinosaurs onto his ark along with the rest of creation.

But there is another creationist movement whose influence is growing, and which is fueling challenges to science in countries where Christianity has little sway: Islamic creationism. Campaigners in countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Indonesia have fought the teaching of evolution in schools there, sometimes with great success. Creationist conferences have been held in Pakistan, and moderate Islamic clerics are on record publicly condemning Darwin’s ideas. A recent study of Muslim university students in the Netherlands showed that most rejected evolution. And driven in part by a mysterious Turkish publishing organization, Islamic creationism books are hot sellers at bookstores throughout the Muslim world.

The phenomenon has raised concerns among scientists and educators - especially those in Muslim countries and in countries with growing Muslim minorities - who see in it a threat to scientific literacy, a drag on the potential for Muslim countries to build up their languishing scientific research sectors, and as another flashpoint in the Muslim world’s long-running struggle between religion and secularism. Unlike in the West, creationist beliefs are not associated in the Muslim world with religious fundamentalism, but instead are often espoused by members of the mainstream intellectual elite - liberals, by their own lights, who see the expansive, scientific-sounding claims of creationism as tracing a middle way between the guidance of religion and the promise of modern science. Critics of the movement fear that this makes it more likely that creationism will find its way into policies there, especially when the theory of evolution is portrayed among Muslim thinkers, as it often is, as an instrument of Western intellectual hegemony.

“[T]he next major battle over evolution is likely to take place in the Muslim world,” Salman Hameed, a Pakistani-born astronomer at Hampshire College who has dedicated himself to researching Islamic creationism, wrote in an article in Science last December.

It’s hard to say exactly how much support the theory of evolution enjoys in the world’s Muslim countries, but it’s definitely not very much. In one 2006 study by American political scientists, people in 34 industrial nations were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the idea that human beings evolved from earlier life forms. Turkey, the only Muslim country in the survey, showed the lowest levels of support - barely a quarter of Turks said they agreed. By comparison, at least 80 percent of those surveyed in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and France agreed. (The United States ranked second lowest, after Turkey, at 40 percent.) Turkey is widely seen as the most culturally liberal Muslim nation, and on attitudes about evolution, other polling has borne this out: A recent study of religious attitudes found that only 16 percent of Indonesians, 14 percent of Pakistanis, and 8 percent of Egyptians believed in evolution.

And as the Internet facilitates the spread of both evolutionary and anti-evolutionary ideas, the debate over evolution seems to be sharpening. Islamic creationism does have its own distinctive character: While Islamic creationists borrow from the literature of their Christian counterparts, their concerns are not always the same. Without a Book of Genesis to account for, for example, Muslim creationists have little interest in proving that the age of the Earth is measured in the thousands rather than the billions of years, nor do they show much interest in the problem of the dinosaurs. And the idea that animals might evolve into other animals also tends to be less controversial, in part because there are passages of the Koran that seem to support it.

But the issue of whether human beings are the product of evolution is just as fraught among Muslims, and, as in the United States, the argument has played out around the question of what will be taught in schools. Turkey, with its longer and deeper engagement with the West, has had the most vehement debates.

The first victory for Turkish creationists came in 1985, when the conservative political party then in control of the country’s education ministry inserted creationist explanations alongside the passages on evolution in the standard high school biology textbook (in Turkey, unlike in the United States, the public school curriculum is set by the national government).

Scientists and pro-evolution educators in Turkey have pointed the finger partly at Americans, arguing that the changes were the fruit of collaboration between government officials and American creationists, some of whom spent time in Turkey in the 1970s and 1980s on expeditions to Mount Ararat to find the remains of Noah’s Ark. However, Lawrence Ford, a spokesman for the Institute for Creation Research, a leading creationist organization and a sponsor of Ararat research trips, denied in an e-mail that his organization had worked with the Turkish government or Islamic creationists.

“[M]any people all around the world read our material and learn from it, including those who would disagree with us, which would include Muslims, who do not accept the Christian Bible as inerrant or Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as we do,” he wrote.

More recently, the debate in Turkey has been stirred up by the writings and public pronouncements of Adnan Oktar, a man who lacks scientific or religious training (he studied interior design in college and did not graduate) yet has become one of Muslim creationism’s loudest voices. Oktar, who writes under the pen-name Harun Yahya, is the leader of an insular Islamic religious organization that is also a multimedia publishing company, waging, though its website as well as videos and lavishly produced books, a vehement campaign against the menace of Darwinian thought. Yahya’s 800-page, 13-pound opus, The Atlas of Creation, can be found in bookstores all over the Muslim world, and in recent years copies have been sent unsolicited to schools and biologists throughout Europe and the United States.

Illustrated in the Atlas with hundreds of full-page photographs of fossils and modern-day animals, Yahya’s argument is that, though Earth may indeed be billions of years old, the plants and animals that live on it have not changed at all over that time, existing today in the same form in which they were originally - and divinely - created. “When one looks at a 100 million year-old spider fossil on one side and to a living spider on the other, he can not see the slightest difference. He witnesses it himself and there is no need to be a scientist to grasp it. Even a primary school student can understand it. That is why Darwinists are at a loss,” Oktar wrote in response to e-mailed questions.

Oktar’s work is easy to lampoon. Asked why biologists around the world espouse the theory of evolution, Oktar blames “a scientific dictatorship under the sway of Freemasonry.” The English biologist Richard Dawkins has pointed out that the original edition of the Atlas, among other basic errors, includes a photo of a fishing lure that it mistakenly identifies as an actual fly. And Oktar’s reputation has suffered in Turkey itself, where he is currently appealing a conviction for running a criminal organization.

But Oktar’s main concern - that evolution is the tool of atheists bent on destroying Islam - does resonate there and in other Muslim countries. Many of Oktar’s followers come from the young, urban, wealthy Turkish elite. Mustafa Akyol is a liberal Muslim Turkish columnist and TV host who in the 1990s was briefly affiliated with Oktar’s organization. Though based in Istanbul, Akyol testified in the 2005 Kansas State Board of Education hearings over whether to teach intelligent design in science classes, speaking on behalf of the Discovery Institute, an intelligent design proponent, to counter the argument that its agenda was a purely Christian one.

Akyol has since modified his views. He is now more dubious about intelligent design and the existence of the sort of the divine micromanager that the theory posits. “I still find it plausible,” he says, but he finds it more plausible that Allah set the initial conditions for evolution, then sat back and allowed it to unfold according to plan - a position Akyol likens to that of the prominent English paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, an outspoken Christian.

Turkey is still the epicenter of the Islamic world’s argument over evolution, but the dispute is also playing out elsewhere. In Lebanon, the government excised the teaching of evolution from the public school curriculum in the mid-1990s. Surveys carried out by researchers affiliated with McGill University’s Evolution Education Research Centre found that in Egypt and Pakistan, while the official high school curriculum does include evolution, many of the teachers there don’t believe in it themselves, and will often tell their students so. The McGill researchers also found that in Indonesia, teachers used Yahya’s Atlas of Creation as a teaching aid.

Prominent Muslim religious scholars, among them decided moderates, have argued that evolution cannot explain human development. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of religious studies at George Washington University, has written that evolution “survived to this day not as a theory but as a dogma{hellip}a convenient philosophical and rationalistic scheme to enable man to create the illusion of a purely closed universe around himself.”

For thinkers like Nasr, as with many Western creationists, the threat that evolutionary thought presents is its insistence on replacing a divine creator with the nakedly mechanistic forces of randomness and brutal competition for resources and mates.

“I personally and many other religious people were influenced by this black and white dichotomy, that Darwinism equals atheism,” says Akyol.

For many Muslims, the fact that the theory of evolution was worked out in the West makes it even more suspect: Islamic creationists will often describe evolution as something foreign and invasive, even as a legacy of colonialism.

“For evolution in the Islamic world, it’s very unfortunate that Darwin was a white Brit, because otherwise it would have gained wider acceptance,” says Ehab Abouheif, an evolutionary biologist at McGill who has spoken publicly about reconciling his Muslim faith and evolution.

There are attempts within the Muslim world to try to ease the tension between the two by enlisting the authority of the Koran. Salman Hameed points out that the biology textbook used in Pakistani high schools, while it does not mention human evolution, does have a chapter on the broader theory of evolution. That chapter opens with a quote from the Koran - “And He is Who had produced you from a single being.” - that could be read as giving support to the idea that many species descended from one single predecessor.

A similar theological rapprochement explains why creationism has gained little purchase in Iran. Unlike in Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, Iran’s majority religion, has an established clerical hierarchy to interpret the Koran, making Shia’ism structurally similar to Catholicism. Iran’s clerics, like the Vatican, have decided that evolution needn’t conflict with Holy Scripture.

“What happened in Iran is that the ayatollahs decided that evolution is OK, and that there was going to be none of this nonsense about creationism, and therefore there isn’t a lot of it in Iran,” says Taner Edis, a physicist at Truman State University and author of “An Illusion of Harmony,” a book on the relationship between science and Islam.

Edis is quick to point out that the Iranian clerical establishment’s vision of evolution, in which a divine hand guides the process, is closer to intelligent design than to the mainstream Western version of evolution. Still, according to Hameed, it is this relative friendliness to modern biology - and one of its central ideas - that has allowed Iran to pursue an aggressive, state-sponsored stem cell research program unmatched anywhere else in the Muslim world.

And in those places where the theory of evolution is seen more warily, the fact that there is a creationist debate at all can be seen as a sort of progress - a symptom at the very least of a newfound interest in science. In the most conservative parts of the Muslim world, creationism isn’t a political or philosophical force because it doesn’t need to be - there aren’t enough people who believe in evolution, or have even been exposed to it, to require a counter-doctrine.

The rise of Islamic creationism, then, may be a sign that more of the Muslim world is at least wrestling with the idea of evolution, and more broadly with the power of scientific explanations. Much though it may alarm Western scientists, creationist thought may offer people an acceptable point of entry into a science-driven world.

“It’s modernizing Muslims, Muslims who want to say they have mastered the modern world and do well in the globalized technological economy and at the same time retain traditional values and so forth,” says Edis. “It’s this sort of audience that creationism appeals to.”

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail drbennett@globe.com.