At Science, Framing Evolution in the Muslim World

In a Policy Forum article this week at Science, Hampshire College professor Salman Hameed discusses the reasons for widespread rejection of evolution across Islamic countries.

Surveys show, for example, that public acceptance of evolution stands at lower than 20% in many Muslim nations. The reason, Hameed details, is that few citizens have had exposure to evolution in school and so to form an opinion about evolution, instead rely on what they might pick up via interpersonal sources or in the media.

The result is that many Muslims misperceive evolution as equaling atheism and as a direct threat to their religious way of life (an outcome not unlike the U.S.) To close his essay, Hameed cites our past article at Science on framing, advocating that any communication initiative on evolution needs to be tailored to the political and cultural realities of the specific country and that a frame of religious compatibility needs to be emphasized.

The message about evolution in the Islamic world needs to be framed in a way that emphasizes practical applications and show that it is the bedrock of modern biology--thereby capitalizing on the existing proscience attitude (13). The national academies of Muslim countries will need to tailor the specifics of the message according to the political and cultural realities of their respective countries. Religion in the Muslim world plays a much larger role in the social and cultural landscape, and thus, our discussions with the general public need to take that into account. As scientists, we should present, without compromise, the best available science. Evolutionary ideas about human origins may face serious obstacles, but a peaceful religious accommodation is also possible. However, efforts that link evolution with atheism will cut short the dialogue, and a vast majority of Muslims will reject evolution.

A general respect for science affords scientists a high prestige in the Islamic world. Research scientists, especially biologists, should take advantage of this and write for Muslim audiences in the form of newspaper and magazine articles. At the present time, Harun Yahya is the loudest voice in the debate over evolution in the Islamic world. At this critical juncture, we cannot afford to leave the initiative with Muslim Creationists.

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Science should not have to be made acceptable to accomidate people's belief in go, fairies, unicorns or other magically thought-created beliefs.

"As scientists, we should present, without compromise, the best available science. Evolutionary ideas about human origins may face serious obstacles, but a peaceful religious accommodation is also possible."

Sweet sweet irony.

I have had many arguments on email groups (with Muslims who are not biologists but are otherwise highly educated) and my anecdotal experience is that many people are actually willing to consider evolution positively UNTIL the first Harun Yahya reader comes along. And then, almost everyone become anti-evolutionist. Why? Because no amount of framing (and believe me, I have tried) will satisfactorily address the question of whether Adam and Eve were two real live human beings created denovo from clay. That is the quranic text and in the presence of blasphemy laws and the weight of orthodox islamic tradition, that cannot be "interpreted away" for most people. Muslim biologists will accept evolution and they WILL interpret the quran as needed (though most of them will add that they believe that Allah guided the process) but apart from them, its very very hard to see how this can be done by just framing it nicely.
The bottom line is, we just let biologists learn and teach evolution quietly and wait for the overall literalist and fanatical atmosphere to change before the general public will accept evolution. As far as the general public is concerned, framing it nicely aint gonna cut it....

At times I've used the framing paradigm to good effect. BUT this is going too goddamend far. Hameed's suggestion is ludicrous. Science is a universal tool for seeking real explanations of observable phenomena and does NOT work when it's filtered through anyone's mythology!

Thanks Matthew for posting about the Science article. Couple of clarifications regarding issues raised in the comments: I'm not suggesting to compromise science in any way what so ever. Yes, human evolution may pose a problem for some/most/all Muslims. If this topic becomes a fault-line in Islam BECAUSE Muslims cannot find a way to accommodate it - then so be it - and Muslims will likely pay a price in evolution related fields. However, we do not know if most/all Muslims are indeed going to reject human evolution - because a serious debate on this topic has not yet taken place. At the same time, there are some very conservative scholars, like Dr. Israr Ahmad in Pakistan, who do not find a clash of human evolution with the Quran (whatever way he finds that compromise). Sure, it may be exceedingly tough to convince vast majority of Muslims regarding evolution - it may even be a hopeless task - but by merely pointing out the possibility of accommodation we may decrease (however so slightly) the chances of widespread rejection of human evolution. However, by insisting on an evolution-atheism link - and presenting it as a choice between an acceptance of evolution and religion - we will ensure a mass-rejection by Muslims. We should present the best science available and let individuals grapple with its metaphysical consequences. I will be happy if we convert even a few Muslim creationists into Ken Miller equivalents.