Turkey, Creationism & Secularism

A new story highlighting the waxing of Creationism within modern Turkey. A depressing tidbit:

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.


"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.

The AKP is a moderate Islamist party attempting to resell itself as a block of Muslim Christian democrats. The analogy with European political traditions makes sense, since the time of Ataturk Turkey has been trying re-brand itself as the southeastern frontier of Europe as opposed to to the northwestern frontier of the Islamic world. From what I have read Ataturk was not personally a believer in religion, but he could only go so far. As it is, in comparison to what came before he went far indeed, enforcing radical ruptures with the past such as switching from Arabic script to the Roman alphabet! Abolishing the fez, which was originally picked up from Balkan Christians, is one thing, but by this act Ataturk made much of the documentary material of the Ottoman period temporarily inaccessible (one assumes that essential material would be translated by now).

But the Turkish culture elite's battle with the past was never complete. The AKP is an expression of the fact that traditionalist Islam has had a large demographic reservoir upon which to draw for decades, and with democratization and economic advancement they are now making their cultural impact felt. I was explaining to some friends that the breakout of evangelicals from their cultural ghetto with the rise of the New Right is probably a good analogy; with economic advancement a generation of middle class religious conservatives demanded to be heard. Due to economic uplift enabled by the post-World War II boom vast swaths of America achieved in material comfort and social integration. Most of these groups which had previously been the margins; but it did not necessarily imply total acculturation to the bourgeois mainstream which dominated the scene prior to the new middle class pluralism. Middle class evangelicals did not flock to mainline churches, nor did ethnic white Roman Catholics convert to Protestantism, rather, these groups changed their own cultural institutions to suit their needs while maintaining their distinctiveness. (obviously these are not total generalizations, but overall observations that economic advancement did not result in the dissolution of evangelicalism or Catholicism)

Though I think this sort of analogy works qualitatively, I don't think it quite communicates the quantitative flavor of the contemporary Turkish scene. Ataturk and his successors yearned to drag their nation across a civilizational boundary, not such a subcultural one, so the gap between alcohol drinking secularists and head-scarf wearing traditionalists was always greater than that between establishment and evangelical Protestants in the United States. So long as the majority of Turks were poor the project of an elite run nation-state dictated from the barracks was feasible, but now with economic empowerment concurrent with the renewed commitment to democratic values (thanks to the European Union) the cultural contradictions are now manifesting starkly. The current conflict over head scarves, which the religious are winning, illustrates the tensions. With urbanization and a transition to a post-agricultural economy insulated elites must always deal with the aspirations and demands of the newly empowered who refuse to quietly assimilate to the old order. (religious fundamentalism and violence in places like Egypt can also be traced to these upwardly mobile groups who lack connections or cultural capital which the older elites have)

What does this have to do with Creationism & Turkey? More Turks than Americans reject evolution. Turkey is arguably a more religious society than the United States. With the loosening of elite power this will manifest in Turkish society in many different ways. This does not always mean that the arrow of change will be in a direction which Westerners find objectionable or alarming; the current government is sponsoring a radical revision of the Hadith. That is likely a Nixon-going-to-China dynamic, secular governments would have likely had no interest in reconstructing Islam in a thorough manner since their adherence personally was always going to be nominal in any case. These will be interesting times, and make it clear to everyone that branding Turkey as a vanilla "moderate Islamic" nation deceives more than it illuminates.

More like this

This all poses a dilemna as far as the question of Turkey's accession to the European Union is concerned. Basically, do liberal/progressive/scientific/western/secularists (or however we characterize ourselves) take the view
a) that we don't want the EU acquiring a large population of backward-looking fundamentalists who will try to drag Europe down to their level, or
b) that Turkey is actually the most enlightened, westernized and secular country in the islamic world and that bringing them into the EU will strengthen the secular and democratic elements in that country.

Personally, I find that the anti-EU attitude of the Turkish islamists tends naturally to push my own view towards b).

the secular and democratic elements in that country.

secular and democratic are not necessary correlaries in turkey....

I'm very glad to see this article of yours. I am a Turkish graduate student studying in the US. Naturally, I have a couple of things to say on the subjects you touched in your blog entry.

Firstly, I think AKP is not the real threat to our country, although most "elites" feel the opposite. Concerning the evolution part of the story, the real brainwasher has been two extremely religious and powerful guys called Adnan Oktar (nickname: Harun Yahya) and also Fetullah Gülen. The former guy has websites in Turkish that are filled with religious propaganda against the theory of evolution (stuff like Darwin was a communist, communists are bad atheists, and evolutionary theory is a sin). Also, when I was at high school, there were people giving free books of Harun Yahya outside the school gate. These books were named "Evrim Aldatmacası" (The Evolution Deceit). They brainwashed Turkish kids since 1990s in front of teachers eyes! And even worse, no professor in Turkey tried to do anything to stop this, and here we are...

So, as a group of "young scientists" we formed a group called Hard-workers of Evıolution (Evrim ÃalıÅkanları). As our first project we are translating University of Berkeley's Understanding Evolution website into Turkish. (More detail here in this Letter to Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v445/n7124/full/445147c.html)

I feel like, the Turkish scientists should either join our group, or do whatever they can, but should START doing something.

Finally the most ironic of all, I dont think Ä°slam contradicts with evolution as much as Christianity does. I think the followers of Intelligent Design in Turkey are just copy cats of their USA counterparts. Very unfortunate, because I am almost sure, if this issue was taken from another perspective by religious people, there is room for evolutionary theory in -at least- Ä°slam.

Religion and science CAN be together. People just enjoy fighting for no reason maybe.

By B. Duygu Ozpolat (not verified) on 15 Mar 2008 #permalink

I have just read your other posts on Harun Yahya, so nevermind, you know everything about him :)